Joe Montana To Invest in YC’s Helion Energy (Nuclear Fusion) & Backpack

Joe Montana To Invest in YC’s Helion Energy (Nuclear Fusion) & Backpack

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Energy was high today at the Y Combinator Demo Day, as a sea of young entrepreneurs jostled for attention – and funding – from a vast throng of Silicon Valley investors. I chatted with NFL Hall of Famer, Joe Montana who’s ditched his 49ers helmet for an angel investor hat these days (see the halo?) He was busy with the much buzzed about Helion Energy team which is working on “the world’s first commercial nuclear fusion reactor.” They hope to prove commercial scale fusion within 3 years by building a 50 Megawatt reactor in Redmond Washington, providing carbon emission-free power for 40,000 homes.

I’m curious to find out if the nuclear fusion company Tri-Alpha Energy, backed by Mad Men’s Harry Hamlin will consider a joint venture, or perhaps just some knowledge fusion?

Montana said he committed to four other startups today, including Backpack, a company that connects travelers to shoppers, cutting price differentials for items like medicine and electronics around the world; and Unwind Me, an on-demand massage app. Sign me up for that demo!

Here are photos from today’s Y Combinator Demo Day, where 75 startup teams presented and deep-pocketed investors like Jillian Manus looked for the next WhatsApp.

Alexis Ohanian (of Reddit fame) & Irina Lukashuk call time at Y Combinator.

Picture 1 of 8

Photo credit: Fresh Dialogues

And some more (green tinged) highlights:

1. Edyn is a smart irrigation system for home gardeners and small farmers. Given California’s massive drought challenges, this one caught my eye. A huge Kickstarter success with a cool design by Jambox designer, Yves Behar, it’s set to go into production with Flextronics. Selling for $160, it could be a popular holiday gift this winter.

2. UPower is building nuclear batteries. This smart team, all MIT grads, describe their product as “a plug-and-play nuclear thermal battery.” Their target market is off-grid locations such as remote islands. I spoke with cofounder Caroline Cochran who emphasized the carbon-free, emission-free nature of nuclear batteries and assured me that they were addressing safety concerns around radioactive waste. According to a report by Kyle Russell at Techcrunch, “the reactor, in addition to being fuel agnostic (it can use thorium, uranium, or recycled fuel) can actually reduce the half life of existing waste, and spent fuel from it can be reused in another reactor with some processing.”

3. Beep is an operating system to make your speakers smart. Think: the Internet of “Audio-Things.” The ex-Googlers confirm that Beep already works with Pandora and Spotify and say you’ll soon be able to control your favorite NEST thermostat using your voice. It sounds like Star Trek’s Enterprise is closer than you think…

4. Vatler offers a valet service for workers, special event attendees, etc. Think: Uber for parking. As the CEO said in his presentation, drive into any big city (say San Francisco?) and “parking’s a bitch.” His team’s solution: an app to help you find an instant valet, using a quick tap on your phone. Quicker than looking, cheaper than parking.

5. The Immunity Project is developing a free vaccine to end AIDS and HIV. Frankly, it made all the earlier presentations seem trivial solutions to “first world problems” (except perhaps UPower) and got the audience’s most enthusiastic response. Find out more about this ambitious project here.

And read more about the day from Colleen Taylor at Tech Crunch, Vauhini Vara at The New Yorker and Roberto Baldwin of Nextweb, who shares his top 10 picks.

Big thanks to Y Combinator partner, Kat Manalac for the invitation.

Joe Montana photo credit:  Vicki Thompson of SV Business Journal.

The event was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View where there’s a remarkable collection of photos by Doug Menuez in the foyer, featuring Silicon Valley tech luminaries, including the inimitable Steve Jobs. Check it out next time!


Mad Men’s Harry Hamlin on Tesla, Clean Energy

Mad Men’s Harry Hamlin on Tesla, Clean Energy

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

It’s amazing who you bump into at Silicon Valley conferences! Last week, it was Harry Hamlin of Mad Men fame. Turns out he’s a huge fan of Tesla Motors and Elon Musk. I put my Mad Men zeal aside and we talked internal combustion vs electric cars; the need for clean energy and why he thinks nuclear fusion, not wind and solar, is the answer. (Here’s a little primer on nuclear fusion if, like me, your physics is a wee bit rusty).


“I will never buy another internal combustion engine car,” says Harry Hamlin. The Mad Men star is completely enamoured by his Tesla Model S, and says it outperforms any car he’s ever driven, and he’s driven them all during his long and tumultuous acting career: from Aston Martin to Ferrari and Lamborghini to Porsche.

We discuss his vision for a clean energy future and he gives us  a lesson from Einstein on nuclear fusion. You may notice a big smile on my face when he launches into an explanation of E=MC Squared. It was one of the most surreal moments in my eventful interviewing career. Hamlin may be a pretty face, but he’s also quite the intellectual.

He eschewed questions about his investments in clean energy, however Michael Kanellos of Forbes has written about the secretive company, Tri-Alpha Energy, with which Hamlin is connected. Kanellos also points out, that although nuclear fusion offers a tantalizingly abundant source of clean power, it’s not that easy to produce at scale. Hamlin may find it easy to “drive green” but the green energy bit is still a work in progress.

In other news, Hamlin confirmed that Mad Men is “an ongoing project,” so I think we safely can conclude he survives this weekend’s series finale. He also told me about his upcoming independent movies:

“The Erotic Fire of the Unthinkable” – in which he plays “the anti-hero.” Hamlin claims it’s not as X-rated as his sounds.

“The Fourth Noble Truth” – This movie about Buddhism recently won a prize at the Sonoma Film Festival.

The interview was recorded at the World Energy Innovation Forum at The Tesla Factory on May 14, 2014.

Check back soon for my interview with the Forum Chairman and Host, Ira Ehrenpreis.

See and read about more celebrity interviews at Fresh Dialogues, including Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Science Friday Host: Japan’s Nuclear Disaster – An Opportunity

Science Friday Host: Japan’s Nuclear Disaster – An Opportunity

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Ira Flatow, the exuberant host of NPR’s Science Friday came to Silicon Valley this week. At a reception for KQED at the St. Claire Hotel Atrium in downtown San Jose, Ira took the stage for an animated conversation with Andrea Kissack, Senior Editor of KQED’s QUEST. Here are some of the highlights:

On Japan’s nuclear disaster

“This is an opportunity to build something new – infrastructure for solar thermal (power plants) for example, or wind power…we could be the Saudi Arabia of Wind. Why do you need one solution? We should look at science – see the biodiversity lesson.”

On nuclear power

“Japan was ‘prepared’ but didn’t plan for the Perfect Storm. Nature will find a way to outsmart us.”

On Global Warming

“Over 50% of incoming Republicans don’t ‘believe’ in global warming. The great majority of scientists AGREE on global warming…we don’t talk about ‘the debate’ on Science Friday. Should you bring creationists in to debate evolution? Or have a debate that the world is not flat?”

On Clean Energy and California

“We look to California as a leader in clean energy. We have to get over cheap gas and pay the real value of gas. We expect $2 a gallon while Europe is paying $10.”

How to change the energy status quo?

“If you want change, you have to DEMAND IT. Like in the 60’s. You can’t change people’s minds if they’re entrenched. With Global Warming however, change is happening and the evidence of melting ice is visible.”

On Science Education

“All kids are natural scientists – they need good teachers and mentors to nurture it.”

I was surprised to learn that Science Friday gets only 10% of its budget from NPR. The remainder it has to raise through fundraising. If you enjoy Science Friday and want to learn more about supporting it, check out this link.

For other Fresh Dialogues interviews with an education focus, click here

Here’s an interview with Ocean Scientist, Robert Ballard

And check out our YouTube Channel

Elise Zoli: In Defense of Nuclear Power

Elise Zoli: In Defense of Nuclear Power

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Download or listen to this lively Fresh Dialogues interview


We welcome feedback at, click on the Contact Tab

Elise Zoli, a partner with Goodwin Procter, is a specialist in energy  and clean tech law; and teaches at MIT. I caught up with her at a Fountain Blue Green Transport Event where we discussed two hot areas in clean tech: energy storage and nuclear power. Elise explains the important role of energy storage in making solar and wind energy more reliable; and why she’d like to redefine energy storage to make it sexy. She’s coining a new phrase: “dispatchable renewable power.”

On making energy storage sexy

“Energy storage sounds like something that you don’t want to talk about, something that belongs in the closet. But the idea is to enable renewables (solar and wind) to have a greater chunk of the American demand…integrated storage flattens out the intermittency issues.”

On nuclear power

“The N word is difficult in the context of renewable …but most experts who look at climate change and energy security believe there is a significant role for nuclear. “

On nuclear waste and other impacts

“Nuclear has a favorable balance of environmental impacts. Every technology, even solar and wind, have their externalities. On balance, does it advance our climate change goals? The technology deserves to be considered.”

On the traveling wave reactor or TWR

“For the traveling wave reactor they actually consume waste as fuel. The promise of the technology is to reduce waste…The material will be managed in place as opposed to having a long term waste repository.”

This is Part Two of the interview.

To check out Part One, where Elise explores the government’s role in clean tech and the stimulus package, click here.

The interview was recorded at the FountainBlue Clean Green Transport Conference in Santa Clara on July 6, 2009.