TerraPower, Gates and Myhrvold’s Nuclear Play, Nabs $35M from Charles River, Khosla Ventures

What were we just saying about cross-pollinating ideas between Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco? As if to hammer home the point, Bellevue, WA-based nuclear reactor startup TerraPower announced today it has raised $35 million in Series B funding led by Charles River Ventures, based in Waltham, MA. Silicon Valley-based Khosla Ventures also participated in the round.

TerraPower was spun out of Intellectual Ventures, the invention firm led by Microsoft Research founder Nathan Myhrvold. The three-year-old company is developing a new kind of nuclear reactor, called a traveling wave reactor, that uses depleted uranium (spent fuel) or natural, unenriched uranium to produce the nuclear-fission reactions necessary to generate power for 60 years or so without refueling. The design is early and highly experimental. But if it works, it could produce cheaper power with much more plentiful fuel, and also lead to more efficient nuclear waste disposal and less risk of nuclear proliferation.

The company has gotten a lot of attention, in part because Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates is an investor, advisor, and key evangelist on the project. Until now, though, TerraPower has been tight-lipped about how much funding it has received, and from whom.

Raising a large venture capital round seems to be a promising step forward for the young nuclear-power firm. As part of the financing deal, Izhar Armony, a general partner at Charles River Ventures, has joined TerraPower’s board. The company says it now has almost 40 full-time employees and some 75 technical consultants.

“We are thrilled to attract VC investment in research and development. It shows markets are putting value to what’s required to bring about real advancement,” Myhrvold said in a TerraPower statement.

I spoke with TerraPower CEO John Gilleland back in March about the company’s long-term prospects. He talked about the experiments that still need to be done—including some international partnerships for testing—in order to meet the company’s goal of having an operational reactor by 2020. Gilleland, a prominent physicist, stressed that the technical aspects of the problem are well understood. Now it’s mostly about some serious discipline and execution to show that the process can work in a prototype reactor, he said.

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