Thinkruptor blog | Startup Stories that Inform and Inspire

A new wearable is aiming to disrupt the way computers communicate by harnessing an underutilized sense – touch.

The Moment screenless watch transmits information through haptic feedback. Somatic Labs CEO and cofounder Shantanu Bala talks about the importance of being about to iterate quickly and how they’ve found simplicity to be the key when introducing new technology.

What is Moment, and what does it do?

We’re working on a technology that animates your sense of touch. Moment is a wearable that stimulates the surface of your skin and allows us to draw different shapes and patterns around your wrist. Currently, we use it to communicate information like caller ID notifications and navigation to someone who is blind or visually impaired, or also to people who just want to be more productive and not have to look at a screen.

What was the inspiration for the product name?

We had noticed a need for communicating time – and the passage of time – more effectively.

One of the things that really resonated with us was listening to the story of a man who was blind. He told us about how in order to check the time, he had to have his watch or phone read it out loud to him – something that’s difficult in a meeting or while in class, as its intrusive and interruptive to the people around him.

So he ends up going through his day without the same level awareness of how much time he spent doing different tasks and without the accessibility to the same information as sighted people, who can just look at a clock.

So we were thinking about that experience and why a lot of the interfaces we interact with require us to either be listening or looking at something, when there is an entire surface of our body that is relatively untapped.

Computers almost never give us information through touch. We’re setting out to change that, because we think that eventually with any wearable device – whether that’s a Fitbit, an Apple watch or something else – if we’re placing them on our bodies, they should be doing what our bodies do best, which is feel.

Why did you choose a wearable watch?

The reason we chose a wearable watch is because the form is something that is easy to understand. It’s not something that will scare people away from the technology. What we’re doing is a little bit new and different. And often, how easy it is to understand how you’re supposed to use a device can be a barrier to entry. So we’re trying to lower that and make this as simple as possible for someone to get started with it.

We brainstormed and were thinking that we could make a more complicated piece of clothing, like a vest or shirt, or maybe something that fits on your back, or bicep, or ankle – there are so many places that you could put a wearable device. But we wanted to stick to the location that people are already comfortable and familiar with – the wrist. It gives us the opportunity to slowly ease people into the idea of putting a device on their body that interacts with and communicates through their skin. Maybe later on we’ll come up with some more ambitious and some out-of-the-box form factors for the device.

How are you planning on disrupting the wearables industry?

The main thing we are trying to disrupt is the design pattern. If you look around the market, all wearables have LCD displays that are extremely tiny and the text that you read on them is also very, very small. We’re not just talking about the 285 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired being affected by this; there is a very large portion of the population that doesn’t have perfect vision and simply can’t read text that is small.

We think that there are much more intuitive ways of communicating the same information.

To give you an example, for caller ID, rather than forcing you to look down and try to squint at the screen and read a person’s name, we assign a unique rhythm and pattern that gets associated with people in your contacts list. Over time, you can learn to recognize them by how they feel. It’s something that happens very naturally and doesn’t require too much effort on your part to understand. It’s in tune with how you effectively learn new symbols and learn the meaning of different cues.

How did you guys just come together to start Somatic Labs?

I started off working on assistive and rehabilitative technologies at the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing at Arizona State University. I was there even before I began my undergraduate degree and I continued through my undergraduate studies, for about six years. A lot of the devices and prototypes I was building, as well as the type of research I was doing, was focused around communicating information to someone who is blind.

So you take someone’s facial expressions, the shape of their smile, the movement of their eyebrows in the middle of a conversation and turn that into something that you can feel on your back as you’re sitting down on a chair. We accomplished that using some pretty interesting technology where we translated the features into image and then to movements across the surface of your skin.

It was a really fun project but also something that really got me thinking about all of the ways that the computers we interact with don’t provide us with meaningful information through touch. I realized there weren’t many companies pushing the boundaries of computer interfaces. It seemed to make sense to start one. I met my cofounders Jake Rockland and Ajay Karpur at college. We got together after realizing that there’s a lot more that we can add to the typical experience.

Shantanu Bala   Jake Rockland    Ajay Karpur

Shantanu Bala CEO & Co-founder, Jake Rockland CPO & Co-founder and Ajay Karpur CTO & Co-founder


You’re currently in the Techstars accelerator program; what has your experience been so far, and what advice do you have for people who are looking to do the same?

Techstars has been amazing. One of the things that we’re doing right now is going through the process of meeting a lot of different mentors. They schedule meetings for us with people with a wide range of tech industry experience – investors and VCs, scientists and technologists. People who have different opinions and sets of expertise.

It’s a great opportunity for us to present our technology to a wide range of people and get a whole lot of good feedback about how we can improve our business model and our operations and make our company more effective. I think that is really where the bulk of the value of the program lies: in that network of people who are excited and willing to help you every step of the way.

As far as getting into the program, there are a lot of fundamentals that it took a while for us to work on, from making the initial product and shipping it to some of our first customers to getting their feedback and iterating. But that’s just the type of work it takes to get a product off the ground. I think that doing as much about as possible of that before the program has allowed us to make the most of the opportunity during it.

How have you been funding your work so far?

We haven’t raised any seed money yet – it’s been bootstrapped up till now. We’ve received a few awards along the way from Avnet, one of the largest electronics distributors in the world. They gave us some grant funding that allowed us to develop out the product and the supply chain for our manufacturing. Then we also received a little bit of funding from Techstars. That has been enough to get us to a point where we are ready to raise the seed round, which we will be doing soon.

What have you learned through the process of designing and manufacturing the product?

There is an aspect of it that the design is never complete. It’s almost a living and breathing entity, in that we’re constantly making improvements and adjustments. As far as manufacturing and getting the details right, I think the hardest part is balancing the practicalities of what’s possible with equipment that you can find in an assembly or contract manufacturer.

When we were initially designing different form factors, the biggest principle for us was to keep things as simple and as straightforward as possible  – which is why the device doesn’t have a screen. It doesn’t have a lot of the complexities that you see in other products. It’s a very conscious effort to make a device that offers an extremely simple user experience.

Before we actually did have some more parts to the user interface. There was an LED light that would pulse with different colors and on the side we had a couple of buttons. Over time we realized that we wanted to remove as many of those design elements as possible and make it as much of a seamless experience as we could.

We took as much user feedback along the way as we could. We’re still collecting it. We shipped our first 250 units out to customers and they’re all giving us excellent input on how we can make improvements, as well as what we can do in the next version.

What type of market validation did you do?

Market validation is – like the design – a constant process. We’re working on it consistently and trying to improve. As a startup, we don’t have a large amount of resources at our disposal – but we also don’t have a large amount of customers, and there’s an advantage to that. We can ask all of our customers in a lot of detail about what it is that we’re doing that provides them with value. We have an opportunity to know each of our customers on a very personal and individual basis. Our market validation ends up becoming much more personal than just the numbers.

We did do some back-of-the-envelope calculations but the biggest challenge for a startup is that you can almost set an arbitrary market size. You can say that you are targeting a really, really big market. The hard part is understanding who in that market is actually going to want what you’re making. Are you building something that people are really enjoying? Are you building something that people are enjoying so much that they’re willing to tell their friends?

You can go after a trillion-dollar market but if you end up building something that people have a lukewarm or negative reaction to, you end up having a lot of hardship and potentially, failure, along the way.

So I would say that we’re still finding product market fit. As a startup you’re always trying to figure out how you can grow your audience and your reach; we think about this a daily basis.

We’re targeting a very small market initially and this is focusing our efforts on understanding the needs of people who want information through touch, whether that’s someone who is blind or someone who works in an environment where they need to have their eyes either on a task (like driving on a road).

The main lesson we’ve learned is that if you pick up the phone and call people, a lot of the time they’ll be happy to answer your questions. So we would call our customers as soon as they made a purchase and ask them questions about why they were interested in our product, what is it that they thought they would get in return, why they wanted it, the features that they were most excited about, etcetera. These are questions that are very basic and simple but I feel if we didn’t take the time to ask them, we wouldn’t be close to where we are right now. We’ve learned that taking that five to ten minutes is an effective strategy.

So how has the response been so far?

There’s been a good combination. As far as the negative goes, we shipped the product early – we wanted to get it in people’s hands as soon as possible. That meant that there were some bugs that we needed to fix and that was a process that we learned a lot from as well. We’re constantly engaging our users to make sure that if they run into any problems we can fix them; that’s been a good experience because it’s allowed us to build a better product along the way.

In terms of the positive, there’s been an overwhelming number of developers who are creating their own apps that see an opportunity to use our device to add a new layer of interaction or experience. One of our customers is hacking our device and turning it into a drone controller, so you can get a sensation that corresponds to different sensors on the drone, which is a really cool project. We’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm that people have for, not just using our product, but also building on top of it and making entirely new experiences.

What are your future plans for your company – are you looking to expand globally, for example?

We definitely allow anyone who’s interested to purchase the device. Even though we don’t have a focus outside of the US –our website is entirely in English and most of our promotional materials are focused on the US – but we encourage people to contact us to try out Moment if they’re abroad too. We definitely want to be global but one of the other lessons we’ve learned is that we should focus on getting the user experience as good as possible and then the process of expansion will happen organically.

What have been your biggest pain points up until now? 

Right now we’re intentionally staying a little bit small: we only make Moment in batches of a few hundred units at a time. We’re not trying to make tens of thousands of devices because what we want to do is slowly ramp up our production and make sure that we get things right. And we make meaningful improvement to that user experience with every iteration.

That said, this also allows us to iterate really, really quickly. And this is why I say being small can have its advantages: we’re able quickly to respond to user feedback and make changes. When you’re a big company, you have more power when negotiating deals and so can make things inexpensively. But as a startup, what we can do is pick up our phone and talk to our users, and if they tell us they want something slightly different, we can immediately make that change. So we can make changes in a matter of hours or days, instead of over several months like you would see in a big company.

How are you approaching your future needs for capital? 

The seed round is definitely our focus coming up. Beyond that, we try not to think too far ahead. The advice that we’ve been given is to think about our funding needs for the next one to two years. So when do our pitches to investors for the seed round, that’s going to be the amount we need for one to two years of growth and product iteration – so we can get to a point where it does start to flourish and grow.

Have you struggled to get good advice?

Mentors come in a lot of different forms. I would encourage anyone starting a company to think very deeply about all the places that they can get advice – because it’s not always investors and business people who will give you good advice. It’s important to seek out thoose people who can help you scale your startup but sometimes the needs you have can be interpersonal.  Some of my close friends are really great to talk to because they understand me and the ways that I communicate with other people; they can give me advice on a more personal level. And I’ve found people from my academic background, Arizona State, have been really helpful for understanding things from a more scientific and a technical perspective.

For me, the biggest benefit has been trying to get as many different perspectives as possible. Just like seeking investment, if you’re trying to find mentors, one of the best ways to get started is to talk to as many different types of people as possible, even people with unrelated careers, and see what their perspective on your company. Often they end up giving you really interesting advice because they are a little bit removed and have a little distance.

What has been the best piece of business advice that you have received so far?

My favorite business advice, although it wasn’t given directly to me, was from one of my mentors who was quoting Gmail creator Paul Buchheit.

He says it’s better to make a small number of people really happy than to make a large number of people feel just a little bit good. That to me is a really important point, and it’s something that we try to keep in mind.

Our growth comes from focusing really hard on being exceptional at a small scale. Because you can’t start with a very large volume of mediocrity and expect that continuing to scale will result in an improvement in quality. Usually when you scale, you have to make sacrifices and a lot of companies end up cutting corners and sacrificing the user experience. And that’s something we definitely don’t want to do.

For more information visit Moment.

Interview by Vishnu Rajamanickam.

Grit Grocery is on a mission to disrupt the grocery supply chain

Dustin Windham of Grit Grocery knows that eating healthy is hard, so he wants to help – by bringing fresh produce right to customers’ doorsteps. To streamline the process and eliminate waste from the supply chain, he and his team are implementing an old-school model with a tech twist.

So what is Grit Grocery?

Think of a farmers market on a food truck parked right in your neighborhood. Currently we have one truck operating in Houston, but if we reach our Wefunder target, we’ll launch ten trucks in 20 neighborhoods around Houston.

What was the inspiration for the company?

I was raised on Rotel – most meals began in a box. It wasn’t until I lived abroad with the US Peace Corps that I realized processed is not progress. Without an alternative, I ate unprocessed and cooked from scratch, which completely changed the way my body functioned and felt. Grocery shopping outside the US looks very different—neighborhood bakers and butchers across the street from fruit stands and flower shops; small store formats where you are greeted by name and get to know your neighbors. Processed goods are rare, because most countries lack the centralization and focus on shelf-stability that has defined the US food industry. I was inspired by what I experienced during my time abroad and want to provide Americans with the same opportunity.

What’s your ‘why’?

It’s a worthy cause… and I’m mad. Mad at big food for sacrificing our health to increase their wealth. Mad at big food for replacing real food with formulas. Mad that most meals begin with peeling away plastic instead of dusting off dirt. Grit’s about getting mad – mad enough to inspire action. This is our action.

How do you source what you sell and where do you source it from?

We’re focused on local and unprocessed offerings. Local to us means products from within a hundred-mile radius of the city. It depends on the products – some of it is from Texas, and it’s local by that definition. But we’re dealing with local, regional, small producers which is different than most big box groceries where their supply chain starts with huge operations in Mexico and California.

What are your most profitable products? 

We’ve got several hundred products, and it depends on the neighborhood. But our meal bundles are really popular. When you walk up to your neighborhood Grit Truck, you can buy groceries à la carte – everything from wild-caught, Gulf red snapper and shrimp, to artisanal bread, cheese, honey, pasta, dry goods, condiments, coffee, fresh fruit and veggies – or you can buy a meal bundle. It’s like a Blue Apron offering, but you get to do it on the fly. These are our favorite pairings from the truck – we throw in the raw ingredients and a simple recipe for a quick, simple, delicious meal.

The fresh-baked bread and the cheeses sell themselves. We also sell a lot of seafood here in Houston because of the access to the Gulf – it’s an incredible resource in our local supply chain.

What’s your USP?

The disruption is in the supply-chain. It’s not about selling fruits and vegetables out of a truck. It’s about onboarding, working with small, regional producers and buying locally. That means I buy in the morning, and I sell in the afternoon. We’re developing a local, flexible supply chain that doesn’t currently exist. So that’s the real innovation and one that we can duplicate easily when we move to other cities.

It’s really the backend that’s going to be the innovation. But it’s bringing all the pieces together and making it work on a day-to-day basis that’s going to be the real game changer in Houston and other cities around the country.

Grit Grocery

How have you implemented tech into Grit Grocery?

We’re much more than a grocery store on wheels…in addition to a mobile app, the tech part of our solution involves predictive analytics for inventory and a bot vendor management system. I’ll let Jamal elaborate a little more on this…

Jamal Ansari, Grit Grocery head of finance and technology:

Our firsthand experience of working with local producers is a blessing and a curse. It’s an intimate relationship that provides confidence about quality and helps us to be aware of the needs of our vendors and suppliers. But it’s also a challenge when turning up the volume and scaling to a regional or national level.

So we wanted to use AI bots to integrate everything from our communication with the producers and our inventory management systems, all the way to the targeted promotions we run to attract customers. It will allow us to predict and navigate any variability in supply while asynchronously ratcheting up or down demand via social media promotions.

What this means is that we can integrate the output of our local farmers and tie in our inventory management and marketing efforts, thereby reducing waste in our supply chain.  This is critical when working with a perishable commodity such as local grocery. We can systematically influence sales if our farmers need to send us more of a certain product, or reallocate inventory in our system rapidly to account for mismatches in short-term supply and demand.

We haven’t really advertised this as the thought of ‘bots-meet-broccoli’ may scare people. Our innovative approach to tighten the supply chain will enable us to manage key cost drivers while benefiting our local suppliers and customers. We’re confident this will create a win/win for both Grit and our suppliers.  Our model is all about being nimble, and we believe our tech strategy is conducive to achieving that goal.

Back to you Dustin, can you tell us about how you’ve handled funding so far?

I started the business in 2015 and just invested a small amount myself to test the concept, basically to find the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Then I got a small business loan for $65,000, and that was our pre-seed. That gave us the runway to conduct concept tests for a longer period of time, to generate some revenue and confirm that the business had legs. We completed that in December. We ran for about eight months, earned $50,000 in revenue and  proved that there was traction and a loyal customer base. Now we’re raising half a million via the equity crowdfunding site, Wefunder. That will allow us to expand our number of trucks and locations and make a bigger splash in the market.

How did you get validation from the market? 

The great thing about retail is that you know immediately, right? It either works or it doesn’t. We were able to play with the product offering. We changed what we put on the truck and learned what worked and what didn’t. We played around with the meal bundle offerings as well as the locations where we were selling.

What we were measuring was obviously the number of people who came to the truck and their average transaction price. That trajectory was up throughout the trial. We generated about 50K in revenue from about 1400 transactions. What we were most proud of was that we had a customer return rate of about 70%. That was one of the indicators that this is real.

What have you learned through the process of procuring and selling the products? I obviously understand that you must have gone through a lot of struggles through the nascent stages but could you just tell me a story of how you persisted?

Everyone understands that as an entrepreneur you do things that don’t scale in order to scale. That’s what we did. We drove around and picked up small volumes from local farmers and producers and made 30 stops every couple of days for six months. That was hard. These farmers don’t have a purchasing or sales department. It’s one or two people that are doing everything; they’re small entrepreneurs themselves. But over time, we learned a lot about how we’re going to build this supply chain. Now we’re focused on using bots on the backend to onboard, manage and communicate with these small, fragmented producers. And again, that’s what’s unique about what we’re doing versus conventional big box groceries.

What have been the biggest challenge and lessons in understanding the market? 

We’ve learned a lot about what locations work. Because we’re in the truck, we can go almost anywhere and test different sales locations. We’re selling an unprocessed, healthy food offering. We wanted to test out a gym – with some of these, you’re talking several hundred people attending in an evening. So we tried a CrossFit/Yoga studio, which we thought would be a good fit. But what we found is that people were there with a very specific goal in mind – their workout. They were far less likely to engage with the truck, because it didn’t fit into their pre-planned goals for their evening.

It was just a better fit with residential areas. People would come out while they walked their dogs; they would walk over with a beer to check out the truck. We didn’t anticipate that going into it. They were already more invested in the concept and willing to engage with the model simply because we were in their neighborhood, on their street, at their homes. The model is truly community-driven, so it just makes more sense at a residential building or in a neighborhood.

What’s been the biggest takeaway from all the reviews and feedback you’ve gotten from customers?

As far as negative feedback, real pushback usually revolves around what we have on the truck. Our approach is different to conventional grocery, where the mentality is, let’s put everything in a big box and let the consumer choose. What we’re doing is curating. So if someone walks up, and we don’t have what they want, that’s where we usually get feedback around, ‘Hey, you should put this on the truck’, or ‘I want this type of mushroom’. We’re going to have to figure out how to capture that feedback and interpret it as we grow in scale, so we can customize the offerings for these trucks in every neighborhood. That’s really our challenge but also something that will differentiate us from competitors.

What are your plans for expansion?

Right now we want to make Houston happen and prove the model first. But if it works here, it will work in other fast-growing cities.

We just need enough trucks and enough traction to flesh out the complete business model. And then we’ll start moving over the next few years to cities like Austin and Dallas and San Antonio, and then across the country to similarly fast-growing Sun Belt cities.

Grit Grocery

What have been your biggest pain points so far? How do you hope to overcome them?

Scale is critical in food, so that’s the challenge. We need a certain volume in order to get our costs where they need to be. That’s what we learned in our MVP concept tests. We need enough trucks to allow us to buy the volumes we need to get the costs down. Like I mentioned earlier, we have to do things that don’t scale in order to scale. It means going around picking up small volumes at thirty or forty different vendors around town in an effort to flesh out the supply chain – so that later, when we get volumes, they start delivering to us. You’ve just got to start small.

In your startup journey, have you had mentors?

Certainly. This idea was born in the Rice Business School. There were several faculty members there who have been guides and mentors for me along the way. Also, I’m part of a group called The Station Houston. It’s a launch pad for entrepreneurs and lets you network with other founders and get access to mentorship opportunities.

The value of a mentor is honest, objective feedback – somebody that cares about what you’re doing but is outside of the day-to-day and can provide a perspective that is sometimes hard to see when you have your head down in the midst of it.

What’s the best piece of business advice that you have received so far?

The concept in entrepreneurship of creating the ‘Minimum Viable Product’. Don’t talk about what you’re going to do, just go do it with a stripped down, distilled product offering; test it, make changes and then test it again. That whole fail fast, stay lean, stretch your resources, MVP mentality… it was pounded into our heads at Rice, and it’s become Grit’s mantra.

Expect failure – in fact, plan for it – and try to learn from it.

So to wrap up, why the name Grit Grocery?

Grit means a lot of things. It takes a little grit to take back control of the way we eat and of our health. But the image that comes to mind around Grit for me is the farmer handing you a bundle of carrots that he just picked from the fields – he’s got dirt under his fingernails… It’s about reconnecting with an authentic food experience.

For more information visit Grit Grocery or their funding campaign.

Interview by Vishnu Rajamanickam.

This New Jersey startup wants to disrupt the energy industry

LPP Fusion is on a mission to produce cheap, clean and safe energy for the masses. We talk to founder Eric Lerner about the trials and tribulations of finding funding, inventing technology, and tackling the energy giants. Get ready for a science lesson.

So, what’s LPP Fusion in a nutshell?

Basically, we’re trying to develop an energy source that will succeed fossil fuels. It solves the need for a new source of cheap, clean, safe and inexhaustible energy. It’s a form of nuclear fusion; the energy source for the sun and all the stars in the universe.

We’re combining a device that’s called the plasma focus with a fuel consisting of hydrogen and boron. Right now, we’re trying to prove in the laboratory that we can get more energy out of the device than we put in, which nobody has done so far with cold fusion.

After we do that we would attempt to turn the device into a generator that can be mass produced. This is not something that’s huge, our generator fits into a small room. If we perfect this, we’re looking at something that will provide five megawatts of power and would be small enough to essentially roll off an assembly line, like a car.

What’s your USP?

If we succeed we’re going to be producing energy at an order of magnitude cheaper than any existing energy source, because we’re using what’s called aneutronic fuels. These release energy without also releasing neutrons in the form of moving charge particles. So we can convert energy into electricity directly, without going through the expensive process of heating water to produce steam to drive a turbine in a generator. It will be reducing electricity costs to a few tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour. That would be far lower than wind, solar or even coal.

Fusion isn’t a topic that is easy for the average person to understand, unlike solar and wind energy. Could you touch upon the safety and feasibility aspects of what you’re doing?

The most important thing to understand is about the reaction itself. A fusion reaction consists of two charged nuclei interacting – they’re the inputs. It’s different than fission, which is what most people call nuclear energy. That’s when nuclei and a neutron interact.

So with fusion you have neutrons going in and neutrons coming out. When you use hydrogen and boron, they interact, they release energy and you get three helium nuclei and no neutrons.

That means it doesn’t produce any radioactive waste, which is a big safety factor.

Second, it’s a pulse device. Each pulse of energy, which heats up a tiny particle of fuel to a very high temperature, uses only a very small amount of energy. What we like to say is that the amount of energy in each pulse is equivalent to what would be released in your body if you ate five pistachio nuts. Now if you do this 200 times a second, you get out five megawatts. But since there’s so little energy being produced each pulse, it’s really safe. You don’t have a lot of energy in the machine that can suddenly be released. So not only will this be cheaper, it will be safer than any other energy source.

LPP Fusion

How has your funding journey been?

Funding is certainly a weak point. We have raised a little more than $5m from small, private investors and one institution since this phase started in 2008. So we’re working on a budget that’s too small – about $600,000 a year. We’re looking to increase that to $1m a year to be able to hire more people to complete the scientific phase of the project. For the engineering phase, we’re going to need $50-100m. We hope that if we demonstrate that net energy production in the lab, we’ll get substantial government funding – so we don’t have to raise strictly privately. In the immediate future, we are looking into ways of expanding our equity funding, including crowdfunding in the US.

Once funded, how long would it take for you to launch the product into the market?

In any research project, there are a lot of uncertainties. We’ve made predictions on timing in the past that have been off because we just haven’t had the funds to reach our goals. But if everything goes right we expect that we would have a prototype generator ready to be manufactured within the next five years. 

What have been the biggest struggles you’ve had to overcome so far?

The plasma focus device has actually existed since the 1960s. I started working in the field in the 1980s when I developed a theoretical understanding of how it could be used to produce energy with hydrogen-boron fuel. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that we started to get funding from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for a series of small experiments. We did some in cooperation with the University of Illinois in 1994 and then another series with Texas A&M University in 2001.

Unfortunately, at that point, NASA was directed to get out of the fusion business so we were cut off and had to look for private funding. It took us about seven years to raise the money to help build our own device here in Middlesex, New Jersey. Then, we had another hold up. We found that the switches, which we had bought commercially, were not what we had expected. So we had to spend quite a bit of time devising our own (the switches deliver the current and have to operate very accurately).

After that, the main challenge was how to prevent impurities from entering our plasma (the electrically conducting gas where the fusion reactions take place). For the device to work, it has to be very pure. So we’ve been working for quite some time to solve the problem of impurities and when we do, it will get us to the point where we get the net energy out that we need.

LPP Fusion

What sort of market testing did you do? 

What excited me back in the 1980s was the prospect of a very compact device that produces no radioactive waste, just cheap and abundant energy. It was clear to me, and to several other scientists, that would essentially blow any other energy source out of the water. It really would be a solution to the entire energy problem.

So the benefit was pretty clear from the beginning. The key problem was how to get there. People have been working on this device for some time but they have been limited by a lack of funding. They had also run into a significant problem where, as they tried to put more and more energy into the device, the output initially went up very rapidly but then it plateaued. My theoretical work was aimed at understanding what was causing this ceiling. Part of it was the size of the machine – we actually scaled the machine down in size even further. And when we actually started the experiments it became clear that these impurities in the plasma were the key problem that had to be overcome.

But I think the biggest misunderstanding that we had was not about the market but about raising money. I tried for quite some time to raise $2m to get this project started and I just couldn’t do it. I later read that $2m is a terrible amount of money to try to raise because it’s too small to interest big players and it’s too big for small players.

Eventually, I decided we could at least get the machine built for $1m so that’s what we actually received from our one institutional investor, a Baltimore foundation in Baltimore called Abell Foundation, and a couple of private investors. But it meant that we had to continuously raise money because we couldn’t do the project for anything close to $1m. That was a big lesson.

The second one I learned is that it’s very difficult to raise money for really cutting-edge science from very wealthy people, because they tend to invest in what other very wealthy people are investing in – or they want to control the project themselves.

We didn’t want to give up control. We wanted the scientists to maintain the control and that’s why in this company, I’m the only one who has voting shares.

LPP Fusion

Who are the customers for this product?

Since manufacturing these devices will take a lot of capital, we’re intending to try and replace the entire market rather than manage it. We’re going to sell manufacturing licenses to the likes of the Chinese State Electricity Authority. We would start doing it ourselves on a small scale but mainly to gain the experience necessary to advice our licensees.

Now, in terms of the optimal clients to buy the devices, these can be very small consumers – a five-megawatt generator is suitable for a small town. So for example, you could have individual towns in this state in New Jersey – they could buy their own generator and that would vastly reduce their dependence on the grid.

When we had three big storms here in New Jersey a few years ago, power in my town was out for a total of one month out of thirteen months. If these generators exist, individual towns and individual neighborhoods could have power even in the event of a disaster that knocks out the grid. And of course, big utilities might buy them as well.

Are there any factors that you are worried might stall your success?

Obviously the biggest worry we have now is clearly the success of the scientific research. We don’t know of any reason why we should not succeed. But in any research project, it’s the unknown problems that you worry about.

In the development phase, the biggest engineering problem is cooling the device. We think the answer is within known technology; we’ll probably be using compressed helium.

We also think it’s certainly possible that fossil fuel companies, which of course have tremendous political power, might use their influence in government to put unreasonable regulatory obstacles in our way. We are preparing for that because we’re trying to educate the public that this is a highly desirable, safe and reliable energy source if it can be developed. We hope to make it politically difficult to put obstacles in the way of this reaching a full market.

For more information visit LPP Fusion.

Interview by Vishnu Rajamanickam.