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The Power of Optimism and Fusion

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In 1998, my friend and co-investor in Net-Tv told me about an incredible, also read implausible, investment he and his father were involved in. Tad Buchannan described the technology as a dumpster sized fusion reactor that could power San Francisco. Hearing something like this from anyone should send all smart money to the exits but this was Tad and Mike Buchannan and these were two very honest and trustworthy people. At the very least they believed in what they were investing in so I thought it was worth a look.


What Tad was talking about, in layman’s terms, was an electrical power plant fueled by a continuous fusion reaction. The best way I know to describe this is to say that the company was planning to bottle the sun.

A video from Tri Alpha


When you think about a star, if you ever do, you may wonder how it works, where does all that light and heat come from and how does it work for billions of years? To understand you need to break down Einstein’s theory of relativity. E=MC2 . Simply put E, Energy is equal to the value of Mass multiplied by C The speed of Light squared. In other words, the atomic weight of the two colliding atoms multiplied by the speed of light and squared. The resulting large number is the amount of energy that comes out of the fusion reaction. A star is a luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity. The idea behind confined fusion is to replicate what takes place in star in a controlled fusion reactor and then capture that heat and energy and convert it to electrons.


A star has plenty of gravity to pull escaping atoms back into its plasma core to foster continuous reactons. In the case of Tri Alpha the gravity is created by a series of electro magnets surrounding a vacuum. The magnets keep the super heated hydrogen, plasma, in place while it is merged with boron. The game is keeping the plasma ball suspended and hot as new fuel is introduced into the system. The fusion reaction caused by the colliding atoms releases enormous amounts of heat and energy which can converted into electricity.


A competing company but agreat explanation of fusion.


Here is the bottom line. If it works you have a system that produces clean electricity from a nearly inexhaustible fule source, water and boron, and the only by-product is inert helium gas and no dangerous nuclear radiation. In other words, exactly what the world needs and more than likely too good to be true.


If this scheme had been surfaced by anyone other than Tad and Michael, who are really trustworthy individuals, I would have never taken a first look. After meet Norman Rosstoker, Michel Bindbauer, Harry Hamlin, Buzz Alderin and George Sealy it was clear to me that these men were serious and convinced the system could be built. As a childhood fan of nuclear subs, nuclear power and Jules Verne, I thought it was worth investigating and eventually investing.


At the time I was a General Partner at Pequot Capital and my job was to make investments in promising technology. The problem with Tri Alpha in my mind, and my partners, was the time required to reach a working prototype. Our investors expected returns in less than 7 years and this project could, and would, take much longer than that. So no one was too surprised when Tri Alpha failed the deal pitch and we all turned down the idea of investing as a fund. Subsequently I told my partners that I was going to invest personally and I was surprised to be joined by: Art Samberg, Larry Lenihan, Erik Jansen and Marco Arese. Art also called John Mack, then at Morgan Stanley and John joined in as well.


In the years and additional rounds of funding to follow Marco and Art played major roles in helping us to expand our investor base. Marco brought in a group of Italian investors which included Enel the Italian power authority. Art got serious and started bringing other serious investors.  Years later we would add NEA, and Venrock. As of this writing we have gone from our humble 2.5-million-dollar series A to raise more than 500 million dollars to develop the world’s first clean fusion reactor.


In 2006 I handed by board seat to Art and accepted a seat on the board of Interfusio the offshore holding company for Tri-Alpha. In time Interfusio will be responsible for licensing TAE technology around the world. In the meantime, I listen in on the regular TAE board meetings and I am comforted by the quality of professionals who are now running the board and the company including Dale Prouty who took over as CEO after founder and pioneer George Sealy passed away.


With the company now out of stealth mode and working on our first commercial prototype I am delighted and relieved to report that what was once the riskiest investment of my career may actually turn out to be the most successful and more importantly the most impactful invention of the 21st century. Imagine a world with unlimited amounts of cheap clean electricity. No more need to burn coal or go to war over oil fields. Every country can secure adequate amounts of hydrogen and boron and we can all enjoy cheap and plentiful carbon free power day and night.


This will happen. It will likely happen in the next decade and it could not come at a better time. If we are to reverse the negative impale increased carbon has had on climate change, we will need to convert every power plant on the planet to use Tri Alpha technology. Our cars can be electric and eventually our larger ships can have mini TAE reactors. Planes will need to continue burning dinosaur juice but that is a tiny part of the overall carbon problem.


I am extremely hopeful that the invention of Fusion Electricity has come in time to halt the ceaseless pollution and damage cause by developing and burning fossil fuels and can also lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth and basic human necessities. Of course this last part should not surprise you, after all it should be clear by now that I am an eternal optimist.





Written by Jim McNiel

May 1, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Incentive to Deceive

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As an advocate of venture philantrophy and a founding director of the NNRI ,, I have pften argued that we need to provide economic incentives to researchers working to cure disease. I believe that the individuals who dedicate their professional lives to curing disease should benefit as much from the successful marketing of their solution as you or I may benefit from the successful delivery of a new software application. The below article indicates that I may be wrong. it states that many university researchers are tempted to falsify test results to support continued funding including NIH finding.

President Obama has argued that we are compensating doctors not for treating patients but for running procedures. Once again a sign that we are not focusing on the end goal, healthy patients, we are focusing on maximizing the revenue for the hospital or medical practice.

in business, as in life, the successful person is the one who holds a clear understanding of the end goal and focuses on achieveing that goal. the time we waste serving false objectives detracts from our progress on what truly matters. If researchers, doctors and professionals could focus on and accomplish the true mission the economic impact would far outstip the trifles awarded through cheating.

Science Ethics Rules Leave Room for Scandals, Critics Fear


McDaniels General Store, near Rough River Lake and about a half-hour drive off the freeway that cuts through central Kentucky, offers kerosene, live bait, and made-to-order deli sandwiches.

For Melinda M. Zaragoza, it also offers peace of mind.

Too many times during her nine-year path to a doctorate in microbiology at the University of California at Davis, Ms. Zaragoza says, she saw what she thought were instances of colleagues’ falsifying test data to win research grants or impress superiors. One of the worst episodes was in 2004, she claims, when her department chairwoman ordered her to ignore test data that might have contradicted the chairwoman’s industry-supported study of HIV drugs. “If it didn’t say what we wanted it to say, we either got a different test or ignored it,” Ms. Zaragoza says.

She filed some complaints with her university, but university-led reviews repeatedly cleared the chairwoman. So last year, Ms. Zaragoza quit her scientific career and literally headed for the hills. “People here,” she says, while serving customers at her counter, “tend to be a little more honest.”

Although no wrongdoing was found on the Davis campus, Ms. Zaragoza’s whistle-blowing now is being joined by a powerful chorus. Officials of the National Institutes of Health are considering new ethics regulations. Many individual states are also toughening rules. And several dozen universities, pressed by Congress and embarrassed by high-profile ethical lapses among their faculty members — including professors at Harvard and Emory Universities — have recently outlined new conflict-of-interest policies, mostly focused on increased disclosure of financial ties.

There is a lot at stake. Federal research grants provide universities with about $30-billion annually. And in medical research, falsified results can lead to bad treatments for deadly diseases.

But simple disclosure may not go far enough. Few institutions have hard and fast rules defining what is and is not a conflict, according to a new Chronicle survey. (See detailed results on Page A8.) Some experts who have been studying fraud reporting for years say the problems will continue as long as the NIH, Congress, and others in the federal government let universities police themselves, particularly when their own substantial financial stakes in the system are a great incentive to turn a blind eye.

How blind? University scientists witness 2,300 instances of misconduct each year, but universities report only about 24 of them to the government’s Office of Research Integrity, wrote Sandra L. Titus, the office’s director of intramural research, and her colleagues in a report published last year in the journal Nature. The estimate of misconduct cases was extrapolated from survey responses from more than 2,200 researchers nationwide.

“There’s this mind-set that disclosure is the magic bullet,” said Patricia M. Tereskerz, an associate professor of ethics and policy in health care at the University of Virginia who has studied conflict-of-interest practices. “But it’s not. Disclosure will not correct the moral wrong.”

Universities as Judge and Jury

Ms. Zaragoza described to university officials a series of incidents in which she believed her professor, Satya Dandekar, an AIDS researcher who heads the department of medical microbiology and immunology at UC-Davis, improperly overruled challenges to her findings.

One incident involved a professor who attributed test data to animal blood samples that, Ms. Zaragoza said, could not be found in the records of their federally financed facility, the California National Primate Research Center. Ms. Dandekar refused to exclude the use of the data, Ms. Zaragoza said.

And during studies of tenofovir, an anti-HIV drug made by Gilead Sciences, Ms. Zaragoza said, Ms. Dandekar ordered her to throw out test data from one group of primates that contradicted results from a previous set of animals suggesting a need for the drug. The second group of animals had a medical condition that would have made their data ineligible for the study, but Ms. Zaragoza said Ms. Dandekar was unaware of that problem at the time she ordered the data excluded.

A university spokesman, Andy H. Fell, said the reviews that exonerated Ms. Dandekar were conducted fairly and in accordance with federal requirements. He also said he would not make Ms. Dandekar available to answer questions about the incidents.

If a review had found misconduct, the university could have been forced to pay back an NIH grant and the professor might have been ineligible for future federal money. But the exculpation was unequivocal, Mr. Fell said.

“That is the system,” Mr. Fell said. “That’s the system here, it’s the system at Harvard, it’s the system at Iowa State, it’s the system anywhere in the country.” Changing that system is “not really a question for us,” he said. “Congress can write new laws and set up new guidelines if they choose to do so.”

Blame on Congress

Congress, however, doesn’t appear to be considering a radical new approach. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, is the leading activist on Capitol Hill on reforming conflicts in medical research. But Mr. Grassley is largely emphasizing financial disclosure of industry ties. His chief policy prescription is the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a bill he drafted with Sen. Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, that would require physicians who receive $100 or more from pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers to publicly disclose all such payments and gifts.

Colleges are largely happy to accept that level of federal regulation. The Association of American Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges have both endorsed the Grassley-Kohl bill, as did 57 percent of the university research administrators responding to the Chronicle survey.

Yet that survey also showed that few institutions actually limit income that a scientist can receive from a company. This attitude, Ms. Tereskerz said, has been encouraged by Congress itself. With the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, Congress pushed universities to commercialize discoveries stemming from federally financed research, she said. More than a third of lead authors are now estimated to hold personal financial stakes in their research, and more than two-thirds of universities hold equity in outside businesses that sponsor their research, Ms. Tereskerz said.

She has suggested changes that include creating a government-supported clearinghouse to match researchers with a drug or technology to be evaluated, thereby keeping the scientists away from the company and avoiding a direct financial relationship between the two.

‘Chummy’ NIH Approach

Others believe the problem would be more directly attacked by detecting and punishing fraud rather than trying to publicize or constrain payments to researchers.

Researchers conducting federally financed research are entrusted with taxpayer money and human lives, and those found guilty of fraud “should be held personally liable, and they should be charged with criminal conduct,” Brian P. Hanley, a graduate student in microbiology at UC-Davis who assisted Ms. Zaragoza in her complaints against Ms. Dandekar, told the NIH in a written comment as part of its evaluation of new rules.

That’s not what typically happens. More common are cases such as that involving Judith M. Thomas and Juan R. Contreras, two University of Alabama at Birmingham scientists who were temporarily barred from receiving federal grant money earlier this month after they were found by the Office of Research Integrity to have falsified animal-study results. The two researchers had been using rhesus monkeys to study the effectiveness of drugs to prevent transplanted organ rejection. Among other things, the scientists removed only one of two kidneys from each animal, thereby exaggerating the apparent benefit of the drugs, the office said.

Even as he promotes financial disclosure, Senator Grassley says the NIH could toughen its approach, including revoking the grants of any university scientist who fails to report a financial conflict of interest. “If NIH was doing its job,” he said, “we wouldn’t have these problems.”

The problem is the “kind of a chummy relationship between NIH bureaucrats and these universities around the country,” he said. But Senator Grassley said he did not want to go immediately beyond a disclosure requirement, “because so many times I’ve seen transparency accomplish the goal.”

Universities have argued emphatically against any federal interference in their right to police research, even in cases involving federal money. Most faculty members care strongly enough about their institutional reputation to root out any cheaters in their midst, said Robert P. Lowman, associate vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Using outside agencies or scientists to oversee a university’s research would be costly, “and I don’t know that it will be better, enough better, to be worth the extra time and expense that’s involved,” Mr. Lowman said.

Just a Few Bad Actors

No system can fully eliminate all “bad actors,” said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities.

“There are a lot of checks and balances that prevent the fudging and shading of results,” said Mr. Berdahl, who served as chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley from 1997 to 2004. “I don’t think there’s evidence of a broad systemic problem.”

A faculty-led group, the Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators, is gathering for the first time this week in Boston to promote the idea that university collaborations with industry provide an overall benefit to medical research. Its organizer, Thomas P. Stossel, a professor of medicine at Harvard, said he agrees with those who want the emphasis more on fighting actual fraud than on monitoring financial ties.

It is not clear, however, that either universities or individual professors know the size of the problem. Some of the most prominent examples cited by Senator Grassley of researchers’ collecting payments from companies whose products they study or promote — such as Joseph Biederman of Harvard University, Charles B. Nemeroff of Emory University, and Thomas A. Zdeblick of the University of Wisconsin at Madison — were revealed primarily by newspaper investigations rather than by universities or government.

Another concern, says Norman C. Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California at Riverside, is that “bad actors” may drive out good scientists. He ran the lab where Ms. Zaragoza worked for two years after leaving Davis, finishing her doctorate there before leaving for Kentucky.

Mr. Ellstrand said Ms. Zaragoza showed “consistently superior performance in essentially everything she did,” and he is troubled that alleged bad behavior by colleagues has cost the research world a promising scientist. “There’s no question there are sharks out there,” Mr. Ellstrand said, “and people suffer by them.”

Written by Jim McNiel

July 22, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Posted in Business, life, Science

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A Clean Nuclear Future, Build or Buy

As a long time investor and member of the board of Tri Alpha Energy it is clear that i am a believer in fission and fusion energy. Given that the work that Tri Alpha is doing is largely confidential i would like to share with you a brilliant article featured in the Wall Street Journal and written by our own tech hero Bob Metcalfe. Bob does a brilliant job of assessing the pros/cons and obstacles for companies like Tri Alpha. Suffice it to say, this is not just an effort to provide clean renewable power. This is a mission to change the balance of economic power for the next 1000 years. If we as a nation do not have a significant stake in the first commercial non-neutronic fission reactor then we are doomed to be dependent on foreign energy for the foreseeable future. This effort is our generations Apollo mission and we are doing it with out any assistance from the US Government.

JUNE 24, 2009

The New Nuclear Revolution

Safe fission power is our future — if regulators allow it.


After the Internet, the next big thing will be cheap and clean energy. Coal, oil and gas pollute and are increasingly expensive: We need alternatives. Because nuclear energy (stored among particles inside atoms) is millions of times more dense than chemical energy (stored among atoms in molecules), nuclear reactors belong high on our long list of energy alternatives.

Nuclear energy is released during fission and fusion. During fission, large elements like uranium are split into smaller elements. During fusion, small elements like hydrogen are combined into larger elements. These two processes have occurred naturally since the beginning of time — 13.7 billion years. The Earth is warmed naturally by its own nuclear fission reactors within and also by the sun, that big nuclear fusion reactor.

Today, 20% of our electricity is provided by 104 nuclear energy plants in the United States. These are already cheaper and cleaner than burning coal, oil and gas with all their pollutants, especially CO2. But these plants are all run on big old nuclear reactors, which nobody but the utility companies likes very much.

The good news is that the big names in nuclear energy — like Areva, Hitachi, General Electric and Toshiba — have recently been joined by a bevy of high-tech start-ups seeking to develop advanced nuclear-reactor designs for both fission and fusion energy production. So far, there are five fission and two fusion start-ups, among them Hyperion, NuScale and Tri Alpha.

The fission-reactor designs of the start-ups are very different from the existing plants and even from the advanced designs put out by the established players. Rather than proposing a few more big nuclear reactors, the start-ups are advocating many small nuclear reactors, variously called small, right-sized or modular. Though big power plants might still be built, they’ll run on numerous small reactors.

These new small reactors meet important criteria for nuclear power plants. With no control rods to jam, they are far safer than the old models — you might well call them nuclear batteries. By not using weapons-grade enriched fuels, they are nonproliferating. They minimize nuclear waste. And they’re economical.

All of the new start-up reactors are tiny compared to the 104 old ones, each of which was custom designed for and constructed at the site of its utility power plant. Small enough to fit on a large kitchen table, the new reactors can be manufactured at very low cost and shipped by truck to power-plant sites. As an Internet guy, these small fission reactors seem to me like the microprocessors that took over from the huge, air-conditioned, glasshouse mainframe computers.

As venture capitalists, we at Polaris might have invested in one or two of these fission-energy start-ups. Alas, we had to pass. The problem with their business plans weren’t their designs, but the high costs and astronomical risks of designing nuclear reactors for certification in Washington.

The start-ups estimate that it will cost each of them roughly $100 million and five years to get their small reactor designs certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. About $50 million of each $100 million would go to the commission itself. That’s a lot of risk capital for any venture-backed start-up, especially considering that not one new commercial nuclear reactor design has been approved and built in the United States for 30 years.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy were both formed in the 1970s to develop nuclear energy and thereby reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But neither has reduced our dependence on foreign oil, especially not with nuclear energy. To find out why start by watching the movie “The China Syndrome,” which came out in the 1970s immediately before the Three Mile Island nuclear incident. Since then, the Greens have been anti-nuke obstructionists.

As we learned by building the Internet, fiercely competitive teams of research professors, graduate students, engineers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are the best drivers of technological innovation — not big corporations, and certainly not government bureaucracies. So, if it’s cheap and clean energy we want, we should clear the way for fission energy start-ups. We should lower the barriers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the approval of new nuclear reactors, especially the new small ones. In particular, we should drop the requirement that the commission be reimbursed for reconsidering new fission reactor designs.

Mr. Metcalfe is a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Mass. He is a trustee of MIT and a 2005 recipient of the National Medal of Technology for leadership in the invention, standardization and commercialization of Ethernet.

Written by Jim McNiel

June 24, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Returning the Meeting to Productive Use

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Stop Wasting My Time

Everyday you and i participate in 1,2 or maybe 3 of the 25 million meetings that take place every single day in the US. At the end of the day can you say you spent your time in a productive and efficient manner? If your answer is no then you are not alone. More than 50% of meeting attendees believe that more than half of the meetings they attend are a complete waste of time. This is obviously a serious problem considering the simple fact that as a nation we spend nearly 10 billion hours every year in meetings.

Fortunately for all of us there is a solution. It is not complex, expensive or difficult to master. there is a best practice for planning , holding and tracking meetings and i am going to share it with you here. Let me know what you think.

Best Practice # 1 Don’t Meet

If you can avoid a meeting in the first place, do it.  We don’t mean that you should strive for eliminating meetings entirely, but if you can achieve the same results through a brief phone call or email exchange, that’s what you should do.

A good litmus test for determining whether a meeting is necessary is to ask yourself “am I simply distributing information (a one-way exchange) or am I sharing information (a two-way exchange)?  If you’re sharing information that requires input from others, a meeting is still your best option.

Best Practice # 2 Set Objectives for the Meeting

Objectives state the aim or purpose of the meeting.  The more concrete your meeting objectives are, the more focused your agenda will be (see Best Practice # 3).

Objectives also provide a gauge against which you can evaluate the meeting’s effectiveness.  Did you achieve your meeting objectives?  Why or why not?  Will you need to have a follow-up meeting?  The answers to these questions will give you a clear understanding of how things went.

Best Practice # 3. Circulate an Agenda Before the Meeting

The agenda is the meeting’s “to do” list.  It sets the course for the meeting, and then helps keep on that course.

Make sure all meeting participants get a copy of the agenda in advance of the meeting.  Minimally, the agenda should describe the meeting’s objectives and provide a list of the topics you plan to cover, including who’s addressing each topic and how long they have to do it.

Along with the agenda, make sure you clearly state the time, date and location of the meeting, and provide any background information participants will need in order to hold an informed discussion on the meeting topic.

Most importantly, stick to the agenda!

Best Practice # 4. Ask Participants to Come Prepared

Request that everyone familiarize themselves with the material you distributed with the agenda.  If the meeting has to do with solving a problem, ask each group member to think of one possible solution to the problem in advance.  That way, when they arrive at the meeting, they’re more likely to arrive “warmed-up” and ready to focus on the meeting objectives. Make your participants an integral part of the meeting, and not just passive attendees.

Best Practice # 5. Assign Action Items

Write down any action items that arise during a discussion before continuing to the next topic on the agenda.  Listen for statements that begin with “I think we should really…”, or “we’re getting off topic here…”, or “what if we do this?…” for clues of an action item (they may not always seem readily apparent).  The action might be asking someone to do some more research on a topic, or setting up a meeting to further examine an “off topic” idea.

Be vigilant about addressing action items as they arise.  You’ll keep the meeting on track, and you’ll show participants that you value their input as well as their time.

Best Practice # 6. Summarize What You Just Covered in the Meeting

Before adjourning, review your list of action items with the participants.  Make sure everyone understands what they’re responsible for, and when they’re responsible for delivering it.

You may also want to take a few moments to gather input about where things went well with the meeting, and where things could use some improvement.  You may hear comments such as “We need more time for discussing each topic on the agenda” or “you’ve allocated way too much time to most of the agenda items.  Use this feedback to fine tune the next meeting.

Finally, send each participant a summary of the meeting, and include with it the action items.


There will be times when a meeting doesn’t conform to the best practices as outlined here.  For example, a chance encounter in the hallway with a couple of coworkers could turn into an impromptu meeting.  In this case, the preliminary best practices (create an agenda, ask participants to come prepared) do not apply.  However, you can still assign action items before the meeting ends, and distribute a summary of what you discussed after the meeting ends.

The important point is that you adopt a set of meeting “best practices” like these for your organization, and then, depending on the situation, adapt them to your needs.

Let me know if you have any comments or ideas on this subject

Written by Jim McNiel

June 22, 2009 at 1:07 pm