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TAE Technologies CEO Brings Star Power to Earth

Michl Binderbauer has spent over three decades working to commercialize a new source of clean energy that could fuel the Earth for the next 100,000 years.
 
It’s a staggering amount of energy that has been theoretically, though not practically, possible for the last 70 years on Earth.

 
Now, the chief executive of TAE Technologies Inc. believes the company will introduce its technology—nuclear fusion—to the global energy grid in the next decade.

 
His goals may elicit skepticism from some, but it certainly hasn’t scared off investors backing the company’s moonshot plans.


The Foothill Ranch-based company, with over 200 employees, has raised $880 million since its inception in 1998. More than a quarter of those funds have come in the last 18 months, with a pair of deals that each are among the biggest fundraises for a privately ­held Orange County firm over the past year.


So, what’s all the fuss about nuclear fusion?

 
“If you had [one of TAE’s power plants], you could make copious amounts of power at economic rates with no detriment to the environment,” said Binderbauer, who was named one of five winners of the Business Journal’s 20th Excellence in Entrepreneurship Awards, held virtually on May 6.


“That is, in a nutshell, why it’s so important and why people are willing to invest gobs of money. It’s the holy grail of energy.”

Flush in Funds   

Last month, TAE Technologies announced $280 million of newly committed capital in two separate rounds of financing, including $130 million in 2021 alone, all based on milestone achievements. The company counts among its shareholders Google, New Enterprise Associates, Venrock, Vulcan, Wellcome Trust and the Kuwait Investment Authority, as well as the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg and Charles Schwab.


The recent deal values the company at nearly $5 billion.

 
Binderbauer, who was chief technology officer for 17 years, and president for a year before stepping into the chief executive role in 2018, said that despite the obvious risks of pursuing such a challenging feat, the company has experienced strong support from the investment community throughout the years because of its transformative potential.  


Furthermore, his upbringing within the company provided “wonderful learnings on the go about financing, financial strategy and business development.”


That included lessons on how to “reduce risk through achieving appropriately designed milestones to in turn receive that next check, and you march on, and of course, your valuation climbs.”

UCI Roots

Binderbauer, who grew up in Austria, was introduced to physics at a young age going through the European education system.

 
He was initially attracted to the field because of its “different way of looking at the world through a lens that makes use of observation and experiments and theoretical understanding, and connects you to why things are the way they are,” he said.

 
He moved to the U.S. with his family ahead of college, and went on to attend the University of California, Irvine, where he met his late mentor and the co-founder of TAE Technologies, Norman Rostoker.

 
It was Rostoker, along with other mentors such as Arno Penzias, a Nobel Prize winner and adviser at New Enterprise Associates, as well as Binderbauer’s own father, that instilled in him the determination and persistence to succeed, he said.

 
Today, TAE Technologies is the largest employer of UCI graduates from the School of Physical Sciences, where Binderbauer serves as a member of its leadership council, among other involvements.

Nuclear Fusion

To back up for a moment, fusion is the process of smaller elements colliding at high energy to make larger elements.

 
It’s the process that powers the sun and the stars, and thus, “you could argue that nuclear fusion is nature’s preferred way of making energy,” Binderbauer said.

 
While it holds the promise of near-limitless energy that is both carbon-free and, in the case of TAE’s technology, does not produce radioactive materials, it has yet to make its way to Earth.  


“The hard part is how to tame it,” Binderbauer explained.

 
“If you take a bunch of star matter and put in in a metallic can, the material starts to diffuse and cool off. So, how do you keep the star matter in the can?”

 
TAE Technologies, which operates out of several large industrial buildings in its hometown, intends to create a reactor that can make fusion safely, steadily and efficiently enough to generate electricity.

Copernicus

The milestone that unlocked TAE Technologies’ recent financing was demonstrating it can produce stable plasma at more than 50 million degrees Celsius in a compact reactor design that can be scaled.

 
“This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker,” Binderbauer said in a statement last month.

 
“Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorizing that a certain plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase. We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behavior with overwhelming evidence. It is a powerful validation of our work over the last three decades, and a very critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side.”


The company is now developing its sixth-generation machine, called Copernicus, as a “final scientific demonstration that we can get out more [energy] than what we put in,” he said.

 
Copernicus is expected to demonstrate that nuclear fusion using TAE’s concept is both economically viable and technically de-risked by producing stable plasma at more than 100 million degrees Celsius by 2024.

 
That will be the “crack the nut moment,” that everyone in the field has been chasing, Binderbauer said.

Fusion, Not Fission 

TAE Technologies aims to commercialize its technology by licensing it to companies that already have the global capabilities and infrastructure to deploy power, such as Siemens, GE and Toshiba.  


With commercialization in sight, Binderbauer said there will be additional hurdles to conquer, and one that he is most concerned with is public adoption and acceptance.

 
“The first thing people will hear is nuclear,” Binderbauer pointed out, nodding to catastrophes such as the nuclear fission disaster in Fukushima in 2011.

 
“It’s an understandable concern. Nuclear is well-known in terms of accidents, that the common nomenclature could be a big impact. So to me, education is enormously important.”


Binderbauer stressed the company is working on a fusion reactor, not a fission reactor. While fusion is the process of combining elements, fission is the process of splitting atoms, both to release a massive amount of energy.

 
TAE is pursuing fusion through the cleanest, most sustainable fuel source, hydrogen-boron, which contains no harmful byproducts, no radioactive materials and poses no risk of meltdown.


In addition, because of the nature of the fusion reaction itself—it’s difficult to get started and even more difficult to keep going—there is an inherent safety valve. If a fusion power plant suffered an adverse event such as an earthquake, the machine would cool instantaneously—faster than computers can process information—and shut down, he said.

Life Sciences, Mobility 

TAE Technologies may have a longer road to fusion power-based revenue generation, but its revolutionary discoveries have already led to shorter term revenue generating spinoff opportunities. Their first is an independent company called TAE Life Sciences, which is working on technology to treat cancers in delicate regions such as the brain, head and neck.

 
TAE Technologies is also actively pursuing commercialization of its power management solution, which could be deployed in both mobility and stationary markets to extend range, efficiency, and faster charging of electric vehicles as well as for deployment in residential, commercial, industrial, and utility-scale electrical grid applications.


The power management unit will likely remain in-house, as it is conducive to the company’s energy commercialization plans, though it will have its own team and CEO announced later this year, Binderbauer said.

 
“Over the next few years, this is going to be a big driver for TAE in terms of revenue,” he said.

 
“It will offset a lot of the investment we’d normally have to get. This is something that is going to market, has vast terrain and a huge market potential. It changes the kind of investment we can be to investors.” 

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