Wed · Mar 2

Oklo's Jacob DeWitte on Building a Nuclear Reactor People Want

The co-founder and CEO of nuclear technology startup Oklo on chasing what's next, breaking off from the establishment, and building a nuclear reactor that people want.

Jacob DeWitte

The Macro : Oklo is developing a new kind of nuclear reactor that's small, portable, and waste- and carbon-negative. It's an extremely exciting prospect for a startup -- and it's certainly not the type of pitch you hear every day.

When did you start getting interested in this space?

Jacob DeWitte : It goes back to as long as I can remember. I grew up in Albuquerque, and on the weekends I'd go with my dad, pick up donuts, and go to the National Nuclear Science Museum. My favorite exhibit was a simulated nuclear fuel pellet. You pick up this thing the size of a pencil eraser, and it tells you how the energy equivalency in it is the same as a ton of coal or 149 gallons of oil. As a kid, that was so intriguing to me.

Middle school is when I started digging more into understanding what nuclear power was and how it worked. I got a big book about nuclear power and I just pored over it. Albuquerque actually gets its power from a nuclear plant in Arizona, so when we went as a family on a trip to the Grand Canyon, I convinced my parents to stop by.

Unfortunately, this was on a Sunday, so it was closed. So I just spent an hour in the parking lot, staring up at the building, poking around. My dad's an engineer and he could explain some things about what the different parts of the building were. Still, I'm sure my parents were like, "Ok... we've been here for way longer than anyone could ever enjoy." I was just excited to be so close.

Going into high school, every school book report I'd write would be about the topic. I got into nuclear fission, particularly. I'd write letters to the editor about nuclear articles in the newspaper. One time I wrote the creators of Sim City, telling them the ways that they depicted nuclear power plants was incorrect.

So by the time you got to college, I guess it was pretty clear what you were going to study?

Jacob : Well, I thought I'd have to major in physics and mechanical engineering. But I ended up going to a school that did have a nuclear engineering undergrad program, so I did that.

While I was there, I started realizing that the state of everything in this space is advancing so fast along with new technology, equipment, computers, et cetera. Growing up I always knew I wanted to work in nuclear. In college I realized I wanted to work on what's next in nuclear.

What kind of job does that mean? Where did you think you'd do that?

Jacob : Well, I started by getting an internship at a United States Department of Energy National Laboratory while I was still in undergrad. So much of nuclear development has been driven by government: Weapons programs, big systems from infrastructure-related items, and so on.

But being there, I eventually realized that the R&D efforts at the lab just weren't going to be working on the next-generation nuclear projects I was so excited about. They're not aggressively driven by the market, they're driven by the government. They move more slowly and conservatively.

I thought that maybe a company would be different. GE is one of the leaders in the field, so after undergrad I worked there for a bit. But it was clear that the big companies weren't being very aggressive either. They cared, and they were putting some resources into it, but not nearly as aggressively as I would have done it. It was not nearly as high of a priority as their existing products.

Did that create some disillusionment for you? You dream your whole life of working in nuclear. Then here you are at a National Lab and at GE, which seems like the holy grail. Was it hard to admit to yourself that it wasn't working?

Jacob : Oh, a lot. Very much so. I never felt like I belonged at those places. They did a lot of neat stuff, and I found some cool projects that I enjoyed, but I also knew that I never fit in.

Was there a moment that really hit home, and you realized you had to change course?

Jacob : I'd say the a-ha moment happened in 2007. I had this project where I designed a reactor, a molten salt reactor to consume nuclear waste. I won a research award for it. It was really exciting technology. It seemed like something that the government or a big corporation would be ripe to execute on -- they had the resources, and this would be so beneficial in every way.

It was so obvious to me. A no-brainer. But talking to folks in those fields, it became clear that they just wouldn't pursue developing this technology. People in government would tell me that it was more of an industry thing, people in industry told me that it would be up to the government. I was kind of in denial about it for a few months, just going back and forth.

Finally I was just talking to a roommate about it, and how I was so frustrated. And he just said, "Jake, you know, if you want to do this, it's going to have to be a company that you start."

Oklo cofounders Jacob DeWitte and Caroline Cochran

What was your reaction to that?

Jacob : I hadn't really thought of it that way before. But I knew he was right.

Now, the idea of a startup wasn't completely foreign to me. I was always intrigued by the early story of Apple, and also the story of Microsoft. They showed me that just because there are big companies in a space already doesn't mean that something new can't be done. In nuclear, the concept of being cheaper, safer, looking completely different, the ability to destroy waste, to power civilizations for thousands of years, that was audacious -- but it wasn't impossible. But to get there, we're going to get there the way we're doing it now.

So when I headed into MIT [in 2008, to obtain a PhD in Nuclear Engineering] I knew I was going to be approaching things in an entrepreneurial way.

Did you consider skipping grad school altogether and just starting a business?

Jacob : I did think about that, actually, quite a bit. But I realized this field has been driven by a legacy of academics in R&D. It made a lot more sense to have, frankly, the credibility that comes with having an advanced degree in the field.

It was also a chance to learn more. The time cycles in this space are still slow enough that it's important to keep learning, ask different questions, and understand it all fully before you make a big product decision. If I had dropped out and went to pursue this company full bore, I wouldn't have accelerated the timing on it in the right way, as opposed to what we're doing now. In terms of time saved, I wouldn't have gained much.

I also learned a lot about how to communicate about tech to the relevant stakeholders we have to deal with -- whether that's academic people, utility people, regulators.

So how did Oklo, formerly known as UPower, start?

Jacob : At MIT, I'd met my co-founder Caroline Cochran, who was also in nuclear engineering and had a background as a mechanical engineer. We started really digging into how would we do something advanced in nuclear with a startup. But we didn't want to be technology pushers. We wanted to follow what people wanted, what people needed.

We had a series of conversations with friends and contacts who were working in power development for remote communities -- for projects like mining and gas. They'd talk about how much a pain in the rear it was to get power to these remote places they were working on. The common thing to use is diesel, but it's a big problem: There are often no roads to deliver the fuel, it's quite unwieldy, the weather can be so severe that it will freeze, and so on.

These people would say, "Well, diesel is the most energy-dense fuel we know." But nuclear is 2 million times as energy dense. We'd ask them, what if there was a small enough reactor that you could bring out on a job site? They all said, "Whoa, who makes that? We would buy that in a second. As many as you could make."

That sounds like an immediate reaction.

Jacob : Yes, and it was a totally different reaction than we'd get at MIT when we talked about this idea. As grad students, we got to TA a three week crash course MIT gave on nuclear power for utility executives. When we'd suggest this idea to them, they'd say, "Eh, interesting. Maybe we'd buy one, to try it out."

That reaction contrasted so starkly with these other people who were falling over themselves to say, "Where can we get one?" We quickly realized it was not going to be a large utility company that buys these first units. They don't want to take on risk, and they already have their existing products that have given them steady revenue. But we did have a whole other group of people who were very excited about it.

So in 2012, we started really working on that: How do we build a reactor these people want? We didn't want to get caught in an academic exercise, of what would the perfect reactor be. That's going to be very expensive and time-intensive to develop. That's not how you build a startup, that's how you run a university project.

How did you end up in California? Was this always the plan, to come to Silicon Valley?

Jacob : We didn't have a firm, defined notion of where we would be. We had pursued this from the sense that no matter what we do, we're going to have a fairly broad presence from a geographic standpoint. We knew we were probably going to build our first reactor in a place that's far from population centers for safety reasons; the regulators we have to talk to and deal with are in the D.C. area; the investors were probably in major cities.

So we just thought, wherever the right opportunities need to take us, we'll go. If anything, we were biased against the West Coast, because we weren't familiar with it.

What really brought us out to California was Y Combinator.

How did that come about?

Jacob : There was a dinner at MIT in the spring 2013, after a screening of a new documentary about nuclear energy. And I happened to be sitting across from Sam Altman.

This was the first time I'd ever met Sam, and I had never even heard of Y Combinator. We started talking, and I was impressed with his understanding of nuclear technology. There had been a rising tide of interest in nuclear for a few years at that point, and I'd talked to a lot of people who hadn't taken the time to understand the nuances: people who've read a lot of Wikipedia, and are sort of these armchair experts. Sam's understanding was much deeper than that.

I told him about our company, and Sam said, "Have you ever thought about coming out to the Bay Area? I think you would find a lot of people who understand your message and are very supportive." The idea was definitely planted then.

After that, we did some research about YC and decided that it could be a great experience if we could apply and get accepted. We were still finishing our degrees, so we couldn't apply for the next batch. We ended up applying about a year later, and fortunately we were accepted into the Summer 2014 class.

Some of the Oklo team near its office in California

Was it a big change?

Jacob : Well to start, we were curious about what YC would be like, because they hadn't done any energy projects yet. But it ended up being phenomenal. We didn't really get to benefit from getting specific advice on technical stuff, like some of our peers did -- we're building a nuclear reactor, after all. But it was so helpful on the vision side, and on how to build a great business.

Also, the receptiveness to what we were doing was so different out in Silicon Valley than it was on the East Coast. On the East Coast, we'd often be met with skepticism, people asking, "Is that safe? How is that possible?" Out here, it was like, "How can I help?" The investor discussions were tremendously different. People were so interested in the potential, and the upside, and not getting stuck on the potential difficulties and the time scales. People interested in startups understand that there are always drawbacks, but they don't have to be deal breakers.

Cambridge is a great city, and we love it. But if you try to build a company there, it can too often become overshadowed by academic institutions. The culture of your company can quickly become so much more academic and intellectual. We knew we wanted to build a serious company, not a science project. I think California has been a great place to do that.

Do you have any advice for people looking to build a hard science company, or founders looking to tackle intimidating spaces?

Jacob : It's too easy to get caught up with chasing a technology, and not building a great business and a strategy. You don't go straight to Mars right away. You have to start with something you can do now: Build stuff, and talk to users.

But you do always have to remember your larger vision. When you're pitching a company, there are two levels you have to address: Specifically what product you're working on now, and your larger vision.

When you're in a more complicated space, like nuclear reactors, sometimes your conversations can get stuck on explaining the first part: "We're building a brand new kind of nuclear reactor that can be used in places where power is unreliable, expensive, and dirty. It's something that we know people want, and we can build it now, and here's why." But it's just the first step along the way of changing the way we fundamentally make energy with nuclear technology. Our larger vision is to shorten the development cycle on nuclear technology overall.