02 Jan 2014
The Power to Change
After disrupting the book industry with E Ink, Russell Wilcox (MBA 1995) hopes to transform the energy sector by converting nuclear waste into a safe electricity source.Re: Gina Wilcox (MBA 1995); Joseph Lassiterby Ralph RanalliTopics:
by Ralph Ranalli
Talking about his ambitious plans to create a safer, cleaner type of nuclear power plant, Russell Wilcox says, quite matter-of-factly, that he was "looking for a project that would have an impact on the world." There aren't many people who can make such a statement free from irony. But Wilcox has been at the helm of world-changing companies before.
Prior to his latest venture, Transatomic Power, Wilcox (MBA 1995) was the CEO of E Ink, the company that created the display technology for the Kindle, Nook, and other popular e-readers. With their easy-on-the-eyes screens, long battery life, and ability to store hundreds of titles, the devices launched the e-book revolution and transformed book publishing in arguably the most significant way since Gutenberg's printing press.
Russ Wilcox discusses his new venture, Transatomic Power, and his experience as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School.
Yet for all his big thinking, Wilcox doesn't necessarily view himself as a visionary. He says he's more the guy to help transform the Big Idea from mere brainstorm to reality.
"In my career, I haven't really cared so much about whether something was my idea; I've cared about how to make it happen," Wilcox says. "I adopted the dream and it became my dream too."
Wilcox first saw Joe Jacobson and Jerry Rubin's electronic ink dream in 1997. He discovered the two MIT Media Lab professors through the HBS grapevine and recognized the potential in their technology right away. He was with E Ink for 12 years, six as CEO, guiding it through multiple near failures to runaway success.
The company sold in 2009 for $215 million. Wilcox then followed through on a fatherly promise to his wife—and former classmate—Gina (MBA 1995) and their children to take the family on a world-travel adventure for a year.
They were at a Disney resort in Tokyo—riding through a simulated volcano attraction of all things—when the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck. Wilcox says the terror of the moment, the nearby disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and the stresses on the planet's environment he saw in places like India and Africa, helped to shape his next move.
Fast forward to a TEDx New England Conference, when he first saw grad students Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan.
"One of the presentations happened to be these two scientists from MIT who stood up and talked about this new kind of nuclear reactor," he says. "And at the end I watched 300 people cheering nuclear energy, and I thought, 'Wow, this is different.'"
The crowd was cheering the WAMSR (Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor). Unlike conventional light-water nuclear plants, the young scientists' reactor runs on radioactive fuel dissolved into liquid molten salt. In theory at least, that means it can use nuclear waste from conventional plants as fuel and that it needs no active, electricity-dependent safety measures of the type that failed so catastrophically in Japan. Once fully deployed, Transatomic says its reactors could use existing stockpiles of nuclear waste to satisfy the world's electricity needs through 2083.
But that's a long way off. With Transatomic, Wilcox faces many of the same challenges he had to overcome with E Ink—a technology that will take a long time to develop, the financing challenges that come with that, and a firmly established market status quo.
The risks, he says, are worth it.
"When people feel like they are part of a grand cause, they stay committed and they make the impossible happen," he says. "And if I think back to when I was as an MBA 20 years ago, that's something that has distinctly changed. There are more people who link social causes with their businesses now."
Wilcox gets to see those young, socially conscious entrepreneurs on a regular basis as an HBS Entrepreneur-in-Residence. He also maintains close ties with professors who helped his development, including entrepreneurial finance Professor Joseph Lassiter, who recently invited Wilcox to help teach a class about nuclear energy.
"There is this great chain of people who have entrepreneurial experience helping the next generation," Wilcox says. "Fifty, maybe 100 different people gave me a hand, so I have the responsibility, but also the pleasure, to work with these people."
"I come out of the day refreshed, reinvigorated, and feeling like I probably helped them, but also that I've got some new ideas and that I've helped myself."
Class of MBA 1995, Section B