Greg Piefer Greg Piefer

Time to SHINE: UW, Morgridge spinoff has great hopes for fusion’s future

It’s no secret that startups are on the rise. Economists point to the economic and social stressors brought by the pandemic as a big contributor. Startups are being spun up at such a high rate, odds are you might personally know someone who is starting one of their own.

During January 2021 alone, half a million new businesses were established. According to the Census Bureau, more than 4.4 million new businesses were created in 2020, which is almost a 25% increase from 2019. And when compared to the last decade, this is over a 50% increase.

Many Midwest companies are sharing in this trend. One such company is SHINE, a fusion energy company based in Janesville. With origins that date back to 2005, SHINE has a journey that is emblematic of the heartland’s tech entrepreneurial boom, particularly for Wisconsin.

Greg Piefer was a Ph.D. student in the UW–Madison nuclear engineering program when he founded SHINE. At that time, Piefer took a medical imaging class from Thomas “Rock” Mackie, an imaging innovator who was creator and founder of Madison cancer imaging company Tomotherapy.

The Morgridge Institute and Mackie — who at the time was director of medical engineering for Morgridge — played a pivotal role in SHINE’s early growth years.  Mackie and Piefer worked together to land a $20.4 million cooperative agreement from the Department of Energy in 2011, a time when SHINE only had two employees. SHINE was created as its own spinout to simplify the story and vision of attainable fusion energy solutions. More recently, the company has attracted a series of high-profile investors, including Deerfield Management, Oaktree Capital, Fidelity, Koch, and Baillie-Gifford.

One of Piefer’s big-picture goals as both an academic and entrepreneur is to “play a role in helping usher in the fusion age.” He was particularly interested in trying to make fusion energy practical. At the time, it seemed that most people were just focused on the physics of getting it to work. “However, it’s not just a matter of containing fuels at hundreds of millions of degrees. It also takes engineering and building an economical and reliable operating facility,” says Piefer.

“We like to say over the lifetime of our factory here in Janesville, we should be able to take material that was meant to potentially kill billions of people and turn it into over a billion doses of medicine.”

Greg Pfiefer

What does SHINE do in fusion energy? Turns out there are a lot more applications for fusion energy that are attainable in the shorter term, besides efficiently producing energy. In fact, SHINE is in the midst of a four-phase business plan that includes the following:

  • First, perform non-destructive testing, such as neutron radiographs;
  • Second, produce isotopes for cancer treatment;
  • Third, recycle massive quantities of nuclear waste that is currently stored (though well-monitored) in pockets all over the globe; and
  • Finally, create sustainable energy through nuclear fusion.

One of the exciting near-term technologies for SHINE is diagnosing and treating disease through the creation of medical isotopes, which are used in tens of millions of procedures each year. SHINE has developed a novel fusion technology to safely produce these isotopes without the need for enriched uranium.

“We can turn uranium we might buy for something like $6 a gram into medicine — something called molybdenum 99, which is valued at $150 million a gram. At SHINE, we can use fusion neutrons to cause that change to occur. At this facility in Janesville, we also produce materials that are used to diagnose heart disease, diagnose cancer, and even treat cancer.”

An interesting part of SHINE is it uses uranium that was once intended for nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia recognized they greatly over-manufactured weapons-grade uranium, and developed treaties to de-enrich the element so it can no longer be used for weapons.  SHINE purchases this material and transforms it into medicine.

“We like to say over the lifetime of our factory here in Janesville, we should be able to take material that was meant to potentially kill billions of people and turn it into over a billion doses of medicine,” Piefer says.

“Universities and places like Morgridge can play the role of catalysts where academics take on the risk of new ideas.”

Kevin Eliceiri

About ten years ago, many people in the U.S. were driving conversations away from nuclear energy. But now, it seems that things are changing. What have those conversations looked like over the course of SHINE’s journey with investors?

“Leading the charge are some of the most vocal environmental activists who in the past didn’t like nuclear energy options,” Piefer says. “But I think everything in life is a trade-off and there are no perfect options. Nuclear energy generates about up to 10 million times as much energy per kilogram of fuel burned versus fossil fuels, so you just have a lot less waste – millions of times less waste.

“That’s actually one of the things SHINE wants to do longer-term – help the world deal with nuclear waste,” Piefer adds. “Burning fossil fuels obviously creates carbon waste. The Earth’s atmosphere cleans it up with a half-life of something like 100 years, but we’re putting so much in the air that there’s just not a lot of great solutions to address it more quickly.

“We have a real problem right now that nuclear fission can help solve,” Piefer adds. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than global warming running amok and destroying all our coastal cities.”

Piefer offered some advice for people thinking about starting a company of their own, especially those who are academics.

 “One of my favorite questions for entrepreneurs is ‘does it make sense?’” Piefer says. “Ask yourself that all the time. You’re already an entrepreneur if you want to change the way things are done, and if you don’t think the current way of doing things makes sense. If it’s possible to find a mentor, that’s amazing. Find others who have done it; learn some lessons and make friends with them. Mentors can help you make fewer mistakes.”

Kevin Eliceiri, a Morgridge biomedical imaging investigator and current director of the Morgridge Fab Lab, says SHINE is a great example of the role basic research plays in enhancing quality of life.

“A lot of people don’t realize that companies often have academic sparks, and are ‘spinoff’ companies from scientific research,” says Eliceiri. “Universities and places like Morgridge can play the role of catalysts where academics take on the risk of new ideas.

“Academics can jump out early before the big money is there, where a company can help develop an idea to a big payoff,” Eliceiri adds. “Companies see an idea all the way through large-scale production. For SHINE and other companies, Morgridge was the collaborative catalyst that helped the transition to happen. Ideas come and go, but the ones that take hold give hope. The only way to kill an idea is to never share it.”

Students and faculty at UW–Madison with creative ideas are particularly lucky. They can receive support along the way from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), Discovery to Product (D2P), and other startup supporters and incubators.