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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

Get Me to a Google Dealer – Or – Self Drive Saves Lives

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I am sure it has been said, but I have not said it here. We need autonomous, self-driving vehicles, now! Here are the reasons why:

Safety – Last I checked, In April 2014, Google announced 700,000 driverless miles with only 2 incidents.

1. Someone, A human no less, rear-ended a Google Car as a Stop Sign.
2. A driver of a Google car placed the car in manual mode so he could successfully crash it. Just kidding I doubt he meant to.
In either case no fault on the part of the car, just the humans.

In 2009 we lost 76,309 people to fatal auto accidents. In 1990 we lost 107,000. The emotional and economic impact of these losses is incalculable but we do know that auto accidents are the 5th largest killer in the US.

1. Money – While most people are staggered by the numbers being bandied about regarding the cost of self driving cars, $150,000-$500,000, these are prototype limited production numbers and they will come down rapidly when we near production. The more important economic factors are what we stand to save save:
2. Insurance, Progressive Insurance will already cut your rates if you agree to install an electronic data recorder (EDR) and drive like your DMV examiner. How low will insurance rates go when we have no more traffic accidents? In the UK insurance companies are using Telematics systems to allow drivers to pay by the mile, further reducing rates for low mileage drivers.
3. Fuel – While we should all look to cut our fuel costs by 80% by going electric, we could also save money by having the computer take over the pedal. Let’s face it, no more racing off the light to catch up with the attractive person in the cabriolet.
4. Time – What is your time worth? How much time do you waste commuting when you could be computing? The average commute in 2011 was 25 minutes. This equates to 100+ hours a year or years worth of work in 20 years of commuting. What would you give for an extra year?
a. The other thing to consider is what happens when all the cars on the highway are autonomous. If computers were doing the driving we could travel at higher speeds and closer together, thus doubling road capacity and virtually eliminating traffic jams.
5. Convenience – Isn’t having a chauffeur driven car the ultimate in luxury? Having one without an attitude surpasses even riding in the finest Maybach. Just think, you call your car and say, “Meet me out front in 5 minutes,” When you reach your destination you tell the car to go pick up the dry cleaning then go park and plug in until called.
a. How about picking up the kids from school?
b. Returning the baby-sitter home at midnight?
c. Picking up fresh bagels on Sunday morning.
d. Taking Grandma to her hair appointment.
e. I could go on forever.

Now before you think I have completely abandoned the thrill of driving let me say I am an avid car nut and I have owned over 30 cars ranging from T-Birds and Mustangs to Porsche’s and Jags. I love cars. I just think that in the future we should draw the line between driving for fun and going to work.

Is this so hard?

My call to action is for everyone to embrace what Google, MobileEye and the major car companies are doing, not just to make a buck, but also to fundamentally impact our planets environment, the lives or our loved ones and our long-term quality of life and peace of mind.

I intend to purchase the first commercially available self-driving car. I will face-time you from the passenger seat and tell you how it is.


Reuters: Google Car:

Killer Commute



Written by Jim McNiel

May 28, 2014 at 6:53 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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Genetic Decisions, Are we Ready?

How do you feel when the auto mechaninc says, “Your CV joints are shot and while your at it we might as well put in a new axle.” Whether you know the difference between a contant velocity joint and a vente latte it is often impossible to know if the advice you are receiving is true and correct. in the end you simply need to trust your mechanic. Now fast forward to a meeting with your genetic counselor at BioGenetica (I made that up), the company that just completed a mapping of your genome and is telling you what to expect. should you have an elective Mastectomy to avoid breast cancer? Should your husband have his prostate removed? Now that you are told that there is a 20% chance your unborn child could be autistic do you adopt? You better make sure you understand the economic model for this genetic counselor.

We are moving into unknown territory. First of all not all genetic mapping is 100% accurate. Secondly we can not be sure our medical estimates on predicted diseases are not just educated guestimates. This would be a wonderful time to be a medical ethicist. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely sanguine about the prospects for genetics, gene replacement therapy and genetic counseling. I just have concerns that people do not fully appreciate that this is new science and a personal life decision has much greater impact than purchasing new CV joints.

See “The worlds Most Annotated Man”

Written by Jim McNiel

June 23, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Posted in life, Science