This is Part 1 of a 2-part exclusive interview.
Last year I acquainted Asia Times readers with hydrogen-boron laser fusion, one of the most promising near-term approaches to realizing nuclear fusion as a clean, economical energy source.
|Asia Times series on hydrogen-boron laser fusion Part 1: Hydrogen-boron fusion could be a dream come true Part 2: Nuclear power’s ray of hope: hydrogen-boron fusion Part 3: Nuclear power: Lessons from the hydrogen bomb Part 4: Fusion power enters world of ‘extreme light’ Part 5: Lighting the nuclear fusion fire Part 6: How to build a hydrogen-boron fusion reactor Part 7: Meet the father of the hydrogen-boron laser fusion reactor|
I also interviewed the physicist Heinrich Hora, scientific director of the private company HB11 Energy, which has taken the lead in developing hydrogen-boron laser fusion.
The big news now is that Lukasz Gadowski, a globally known entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has decided to invest in hydrogen-boron laser fusion. Earlier this year, Gadowski joined the board of directors of HB11 Energy.
This gives a big boost to the project, in more than one way.
At first glance, nuclear fusion appears quite distant from the main area of Gadowski’s activity so far. The German business weekly Wirtschaftswoche ranked him as one of the most important internet entrepreneurs in Europe. He is most famous as the co-founder of Delivery Hero, a global online food delivery service. Through his holding company Team Europe, he has been investing in a variety of tech companies.
Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Gadowski and to learn about the long and fascinating path that brought him to hydrogen-boron fusion. In the following, wide-ranging interview, readers can get to know the thinking of one of the most successful young entrepreneurs in the world today.
Jonathan Tennenbaum: Lukasz, how did you get into fusion? As far as I knew until recently you were mainly launching and investing in internet companies – a completely different area.
Lukasz Gadowski: Yes, it seems to be a different area, but one reason why I became an entrepreneur in the first place was my passion for science and technology, with the goal to be able to contribute to scientific progress. In school, physics was one of my favorite subjects. I was also very interested in astronomy and realized that only with technology can life be sustained and survive over long periods of time – astronomical periods of time.
Those astronomical periods of time do not matter, maybe, for our individual life. But since we have minds, and the ability to reason about these time frames, then when you think about the purpose of life it might make sense to think about them. So that’s why I became an entrepreneur, to be able to contribute to scientific progress.
JT: But why didn’t you just become a scientist?
LG: I knew from school that I’m not the scientist type, although scientists were the heroes of my youth. Einstein, Feynman, Hahn, Meitner, Curie or whatever names one could mention.
JT: Why do you say you were not the type to be a scientist?
LG: I was maybe too outgoing. Science seemed too detailed, too meticulous. Today scientific discoveries are made by huge teams of scientists. That is what was in my mind.
And then I considered that my value contribution could be to decide which resources to dedicate to science. Scientific progress, as I read in the newspapers, depends on large investments, like particle accelerators. How could I contribute to science when such armies of people are needed – when scientific teams are so large? How do we enable society to be more educated, to uphold education more as a value?
What is the highest value today? It is not producing scientific progress. It is probably GDP.
JT: That is what many economists think is value.
LG: But I think we are now starting to acknowledge that there is more. What about a happiness index and a scientific progress index? Probably we’d argue that the happiness index is more important. But don’t we need a sustainability index? What use is one generation of very happy people if they leave a scorched Earth?
So that’s where sustainability comes in. You don’t want happy people for just one generation, you want them for many generations.
All of this you see in a very long timeframe and, as you zoom out, at some point the time frame becomes astronomical.
JT: So how did you identify your own personal role in this grand perspective? You said you decided not to go into science, so what was the next step?
LG: As a young man I thought maybe it would be politics. I looked at a few political parties, joined one of them, but after a very short period I discovered that was also not for me. Politics is not a meritocracy, it’s not about your talent. It’s about your seniority. As a young person you have no patience.
JT: I can sympathize with that. But what then?
LG: The next thing I thought about was that my role could be as an inventor-entrepreneur. I decided to become an entrepreneur, and to choose fields of study appropriate for that. I combined business with computer science.
I also looked at business together with physics or mathematics, but eventually ended up with computer science. The plans somehow unfolded. When I started, it was just around the turn of the century. I graduated a couple of years after the birth of the internet bubble, and the internet was the most accessible field in which to start companies.
JT: What was your first startup?
LG: From today’s perspective it was something very mundane: e-commerce, a company called Spreadshirt. It’s headquartered in Germany, but with customers all over Europe and the United States. I also want to expand to Asia.
It’s a great company. I am still active in it as chairman. We never sold it, which I’m very proud about.
Based on this success, we continued to venture into adjacent spaces. We were one of the first clients of Facebook. We saw how great Facebook is. Back then it was called TheFacebook. With one of our interns we basically made a copycat for Germany, called StudiVZ, which became Germany’s largest website, with 10 million users after a bit more than a year. That is a lot in Germany, with 80 million population, and internet use wasn’t that high yet.
From that we went further, and the big success was, as you mentioned, Delivery Hero, the online food delivery marketplace. All great successes, but not the mission to contribute to scientific progress. It’s pretty commercial, right? Food delivery network, e-commerce. It’s not our mission.
JT: Unless you want to deliver to other planets or something like that! But seriously, it is still a long, long voyage to fusion.
LG: So I said I want to do something more engineering-heavy, more scientific. Also, how can I be of value? Because I believe that being an entrepreneur is not about making money. It’s about delivering value.
Making money comes by itself as a byproduct. Delivering value is better karma and it’s also less risk. If you provide genuine value, if you’re doing the right thing, then the universe aligns itself in the right way. That is the pattern I always look for. How can I be of value?
We have great scientists in Europe, we have great engineers. But to build great companies, you need a business culture and you need to understand and be able to play the capital markets. And these have been two of my strengths.
JT: Certainly very few scientists have been really good at doing the business side.
LG: So the idea was, how can I be of service to the scientists and engineers? I can become an investor or start new companies with them. I started to look for opportunities with this pattern.
JT: There are very many different areas of science and engineering you might go into. Why fusion?
LG: I arrived at fusion eventually via two different verticals. One is via personal aviation as a service: flying machines that will enable individual mass transport by air. Imagine a two or three seat vehicle – which no longer drives on the ground but can fly – for short distances within a city, in the vicinity of a city or between cities.
JT: I know you are engaged in Volocopter, which is pioneering urban air mobility and already working on vehicle prototypes.
LG: When you look at these machines, first of all they’re going to be amazing because, to meet the requirements, they’ll have to be safe, quiet and affordable.
When you look at a helicopter today, it’s very loud, very brutal. You would disturb your neighbors. Plus, they are very expensive. Only emergency response organizations or the ultra-rich can afford them. Since few can afford them, there are not many of them around. And since there are not many around you have no cost advantages in producing more.
This is now going to be changed. When you look at the bill of materials of one of these new flying machines, it is not really more than the bill of materials of a mid-sized car. We can build helicopters that are quiet and safe at the price of a mid-sized car.
This is the future that we’re working on and this is the future that is going to materialize over the next three to five years. And then in 10, 15, 20 years it will be like with the cell phone or iPhone today, you will not be able to remember how it was to live without these flying machines.
JT: An exciting perspective, indeed.
LG: So what is the fusion angle? Batteries have been too heavy for the payload you envision. And, again, there’s the noise factor.
The lighter the vehicle, the easier it is to make it less noisy. Already, with the batteries available today, they will be much less noisy. I don’t want to go into the technical details yet, but if we can make the batteries even lighter it will be better. Plus, the range will increase.
So we need lighter batteries – and one candidate for lighter batteries is hydrogen.
JT: Hydrogen fuel cells.
LG: Exactly. When you start to investigate hydrogen fuel, it looks like hydrogen is clean. Yes, it is, in theory; but still, we need to extract it somehow. And today’s methods of extracting it are not clean, because if we use dirty energy, if we use gas reforming, this creates CO2, which we don’t want.
There’s the need for clean energy. Plus, needless to say, the climate crisis is looming. Already four years ago we talked through the climate crisis through with one of my fellow entrepreneurs from Germany – Mario Kohle is his name – and identified solar energy.
Solar is not a big surprise, it’s one of the potential solutions. We already have been active in the renewables market via a company in Germany called Enpal, which is the largest residential solar provider. It makes it really easy for consumers to get their own solar energy.
This was the other vector bringing us to fusion. You have the climate crisis, the “we need clean energy” vector, the “we need hydrogen” vector. And then the passionate interest in physics at a young age.
JT: I have been watching the fusion field for decades, and there are many different approaches. Among them, Heinrich Hora’s strategy for achieving hydrogen-boron laser fusion seems to me one of the most likely to succeed in the near-term, but it is still not very well-known. How did you come upon his project and his company HB11 Energy?
LG: It was a little bit random. I stumbled upon a media article – that might even have been yours – which basically said: Here’s a different approach to fusion, that promises to enable fusion without the large infrastructure needed to accommodate large magnets. They’ve worked on the large-infrastructure approach for 60 years and it is always 30 years away.
But a different approach could come out differently. If it works, it is much less capital intensive, and maybe it could work already in 10 years. So I stumbled upon this article and said, yes, that’s something I’m interested in.
But I have my everyday business, my flying machine business and so on, so I didn’t really have time for that. And I’m not a physicist. So I did not know what to do with it.
So I decided to hire physics PhDs into Team Europe to be able to evaluate these types of opportunities. And once we had the first PhD hired, the first thing we decided to look at was HB11.
JT: When was this?
LG: This was not long ago – last summer. We started to look at HB11 and also looked at a few other fusion companies. Many have large infrastructure approaches, and hundreds of millions of dollars. But we also looked at fission to understand the field better.
In the end we came out positive about HB11 – that this is something that really could work. And if it works, then it’s the dawn of the fusion era. An innovation on the scale of the steam engine or the computer age. And maybe more.
For me there is only upside in this, because if it is successful then it would solve one of the largest problems and bring civilization to the next level. But even if it turned out that we could not solve the technical, engineering and scientific challenges, we still would have advanced and progressed with science. It is a win in any case.
Also it opened up a new world. Today I’m very happy, because as I said I had this passion for physics and today I can work with these scientists, contributing my part, and be able to follow the latest trends of what is happening in the field.
Part 2 of the interview will be published shortly