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E Ink Founder's Startup Goal: Power The World With Efficient Nuclear Power

This article is more than 10 years old.

Russell Wilcox has helped change the way we read. Now he wants to change the way we produce nuclear power. Wilcox co-founded E Ink, the company that created and built the screens in e-readers such as Kindles and Nooks. Now he’s taken the helm of another start-up out of MIT. The goal? To make a new kind of safe and efficient nuclear reactor that could run on nuclear waste. His is the first story of our relaunched series, "Visionaries."

Russ Wilcox at his home in Natick (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Russ Wilcox at his home in Natick (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At first, Russ Wilcox had no idea he was experiencing a natural disaster that would be terrifying and transformational. He was waiting in line with his young son to take a ride at Tokyo DisneySea, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

"And we walked under a 10-story tall volcano built by a movie prop company," Wilcox remembered. "All of the sudden the whole room started shaking, and we thought: 'This is really great, I mean, this is quite lifelike!' "

It was lifelike. It was a real live earthquake. People started yelling in Japanese. Blood drained from faces. Everyone crouched down.

"And then the earth really started to shake violently," Wilcox said. "And we were clinging to the rail. It was a real, true fear-for-your-life moment."

People in Tokyo Disney crouching down during the earthquake in Japan in 2011 (Russ Wilcox)
People in Tokyo Disney crouching down during the earthquake in Japan in 2011 (Russ Wilcox)

They were going through the earthquake in Japan last year, the same one that spawned a tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Wilcox, his wife and two kids were among the tens of thousands who fled Japan to escape the reactor explosions that spewed radioactivity. The family went to Australia, the next stop on a yearlong trip around the world.

There were a lot of things Wilcox saw on that tour that would influence his next career decision. Japan, and the look on those faces, was a big one.

The Fateful Coin Flip

Russ met his wife Gina in college, at Harvard. He grew up in Boxford; she’s from upstate New York. They both went through Harvard Business School at the same time.

"That was magical because we got to go through the program and have these same experiences," Gina recalled.

"But at the end of the day when we had to do our job search, we literally, like, flipped a coin, saying one of us has to take a corporate-paying job, and the other one of us gets to do a start-up. And I ended up losing. So I had to get a corporate job."

Gina went into management consulting. At first Russ worked for a software start-up. But he wanted to make something, something more tangible. One day, Gina remembered, he found what he was looking for.

"And I distinctly remember being on a client site in Chicago getting ready to go into a very important presentation for the CEO," Gina said. "And he called me, and he said, ‘I’m gonna quit my job. I’ve met this professor at MIT, and we’re gonna change the world.’ And I was like, ‘Great, honey, sounds perfect, I’ll see you when I get home.’ It was one of those! And by the time I landed back at Logan, he had quit, and he was up in the study trying to write the first business plan for E Ink."

Changing The Publishing Industry

E Ink got its name from electronic ink, the display technology that’s now commonplace in e-readers. Russ was at the company for 13 years, CEO for half of that. There were a lot of ups and downs, and at one point, the company had lost $100 million and looked like it might fail.

A photo from the E Ink Corp. shows a flexible screen that can be bent, twisted and even rolled up and still display crisp text. (AP/HO)
A photo from the E Ink Corp. shows a flexible screen that can be bent, twisted and even rolled up and still display crisp text. (AP/HO)

"At a certain point I stopped thinking we would ever make any money on the company," Wilcox said. "And I just decided this technology is too important to abandon. And so I’ll just give some time out of my life just to make it real.

"And the irony is the moment I stopped caring about the share [price] and I just tried to make the product real, we were very successful after that.

"And there’s a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, his name’s John Doerr, and he’s got this quote: ‘First make meaning, then make money.’ And I didn’t really understand that. But then later I did."

Today, every one of those displays in all those Nooks and Kindles — they’re all made at a factory in western Massachusetts. And Wilcox made money. E Ink sold for $215 million. Russ and Gina then fulfilled a long-held promise to themselves. They told their kids they’d be leaving school to travel the world for a year. In the words of their daughter, that was like 365 Saturdays.

Saturday Every Day Of The Year

They traveled through 32 countries, including France, Egypt, China, Argentina and Tanzania. The Wilcox family planted stalks in rice paddies in Thailand. They swam with seals in the Galapagos Islands. They saw two shifts of children take turns using a single schoolhouse in Cambodia.

Cambodian school and student (Russ Wilcox)
Cambodian school and student (Russ Wilcox)

The Wilcox children, who were missing fourth and seventh grade that year, helped with writing a blog about the journey.

They saw some really amazing things. And they also saw many deeply troubling ones.

On every continent, Russ Wilcox saw people living in severe conditions, because they don’t have electricity.

He didn’t know it at the time. He didn’t realize it while he was terrified during that earthquake in Japan. But new nuclear technology would become the vision he would want to make a reality.

After he returned, Russ attended a TEDxNewEngland event last year, where a couple of nuclear scientist grad students from MIT, Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, presented a new way to fire nuclear power that’s many times more efficient than conventional nuclear. It could even run for decades on existing nuclear waste.

The two scientists were looking for someone to help them get their ideas off the ground. Massie says it didn’t take long to decide to team up with Wilcox.

"We’d met with several other businesspeople to consider them joining our company," Massie remembered. "And Russ was the only one that didn’t give us the creeps within like the first 30 seconds."

Changing The Nuclear Power Industry

The company, Transatomic Power, meets in temporary offices at the Cambridge Innovation Center. With their technology, they want to build nuclear power plants:

  • That cost a third of what conventional ones run.
  • That you could walk away from without radioactive leaks.
  • That are air-cooled, not water-cooled, so you could put them anywhere.
  • That could be built prefab in America and shipped overseas.

Simply put, what they want to do is more than audacious.

Challenging Dream, Lasting Value

Wilcox could have taken his career a lot of different places. After building and running E Ink, a $200 million company with 200 employees, he would have been a shoo-in for any number of high-paid executive jobs. But he says he wanted to make an even bigger impact on the world.

He says safe, accessible, efficient nuclear power is it.

"I happen to be the person at this moment who has the free time and the ability to take a big risk," Wilcox said, "and has had the experience of already bringing one technology out of MIT and making a difference.

"So I feel like, if it’s not me, who? And I’m not sure how the human race is going to get its energy needs without cooking the planet if we don’t find some solution like this. So I feel that we should try very, very hard."

Wilcox doesn’t consider himself a visionary. He says the nuclear scientists, Dewan and Massie, they're the visionaries.

He’s just the entrepreneur, trying to make their vision come true.

This program aired on November 2, 2012.

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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