Rethinking Nuclear For A Greener Planet

Troels Schönfeldt, co-founder and chief executive of Danish start-up Seaborg Technologies, talks to Julianna Photopoulos about his career in nuclear and particle physics—and how he unintentionally became an “impact entrepreneur”

Troels Schönfeldt

Impact entrepreneur Co-founder and chief executive of Seaborg Technologies, Troels Schönfeldt. (Courtesy: Seaborg Technologies)

Troels Schönfeldt has had an innate curiosity about how and why things work since childhood. However, his career path into physics “took quite a big detour” thanks to his decision to leave school at the age of 16 and travel around Europe. “I was not the typical career guy,” he says.  I started off as a dropout but I got back on track.” Today, he is the chief executive of Copenhagen, Denmark-based start-up company Seaborg Technologies, which is working towards manufacturing and commercializing a safer, cheaper and cleaner nuclear reactor—a Compact Molten Salt Reactor (CMSR)—that cannot be weaponized, or result in nuclear disaster.

Schönfeldt’s interest in physics was piqued after he returned to school and found it gave him the deep understanding and knowledge he longed for. He had spent five years working as a laboratory assistant at Danish company Coloplast, which manufactures medical devices, before returning to his studies. “I still wanted to know how and why,” he recalls. His initial goal was to earn a chemistry degree but he soon realized that for him physics was “the king of science.” He graduated from the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen in 2011, with a master’s degree in particle physics, in collaboration with CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

Schönfeldt continued his studies at the Technical University of Denmark (TUD) and the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, and earned his Ph.D. in neutron physics in 2015. “I worked on advanced neutron moderators, so I had to design the ESS moderator system to slow down the fast neutrons the source produced, and make them useful for neutron scattering experiments,” he explains, adding that “The moderator now actually has a specific shape—the so-called butterfly moderator—which I came up with as part of my Ph.D.”

Talking Nuclear

During his Ph.D., Schönfeldt occasionally met up with two fellow physicists he had known through his Master’s to brew beer and discuss nuclear power. “We called it the Beer Nuclear Power Club,” he recalls. Each meet-up concluded with them complaining about how nuclear was not being used as a solution for the climate-change crisis. One night in 2014 they decided to take matters into their owns hands and start a company, becoming “impact entrepreneurs”—those who start companies with the aim to generate change in society, and improve lives. “We didn’t even know what a company was, but nobody was reacting; sometimes you cannot expect other people to do it, you have to do it yourself,” Schönfeldt says.

At first, Seaborg Technologies—named after US nuclear chemist and Nobel laureate Glenn T Seaborg—started as an ambitious volunteer project, where the three worked on the technology in their spare time. “We were trying to pick up from where the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment was shut down in the 1960s. They didn’t have the computers to calculate the advanced calculations they needed to handle neutronics in a liquid,” says Schönfeldt. In the meantime, Schönfeldt finished his Ph.D. in 2015 and had several postdocs lined up. “My plan was to take one of those offers, but I was so much in love with Seaborg Technologies that I actually said no and went full time with no salary.”

The company designed its compact molten salt reactor that same year, aiming to provide electricity, clean water, heating and cooling to around 200,000 households with renewable energy. The liquid salt is used as a neutron moderator that acts as a catalyst to improve the chain reaction—similar to what Schönfeldt had previously worked on. “My Ph.D. geared me very well to work on nuclear reactors,” he says. Soon after, two other physicists and a serial entrepreneur joined the team, became co-founders and helped set up the company properly. Schönfeldt points out that having an entrepreneur on the team really helped with the business side of things. “The mindset you have as a physicist is valuable in business, but you cannot do everything as a physicist.”

Learning Business

Schönfeldt unintentionally became chief executive after his co-founders nominated him for the role. “I was 10 minutes late for that meeting,” he recalls, “I had no interest in being the CEO, I wanted to do physics.” Over the next few years, Schönfeldt learned the ins and outs of business, licensing processes, commercialization, management and human resources. “I started to love and understand being the CEO. It turned out it was a really lucky choice.”

Seaborg Technologies' power barge

Change is afloat Seaborg Technologies is hoping to get its first commercial reactors running on power barges in south-east Asia by 2025. (Courtesy: Seaborg Technologies)

After refining the business plan, Seaborg Technologies found its first investors in 2018, and since then has received numerous funding from venture capital funds, grants and private investors. “We started off really small, but we have grown to about 30 people from five continents—including physicists, nuclear engineers, chemists, safety experts and business developers—and we’re now in the process of hiring 50 more. We also receive a couple of handfuls of interns every year,” he says.

In 2019 Seaborg Technologies built its own small-scale laboratory, enabling on-site experimental research. “We are well under way to license the next generation of nuclear reactors to save the world,” Schönfeldt says. Despite setbacks due to coronavirus, he explains their goal still remains to have the first commercial nuclear power source up and running by 2025. “To make it truly impactful we will place our reactors on power barges and mass produce them at Korean shipyards, and then tow them to seaside cities in south-east Asia.”

Maintaining Company Culture

As Seaborg Technologies’ chief executive, Schönfeldt’s job involves lots of meetings, navigating opinions and stakeholders, and ensuring everyone is happy. “Culture is fundamental for any company, and building it requires a lot of nurturing and a lot of work,” he says. He often misses doing physics, but at the same time, he enjoys the varied challenges. “We have a lot of clever heads here and my main role is to ensure that they have the framework to solve problems—not solve them myself,” says Schönfeldt.

Having ended up in a career that he never expected, Schönfeldt pauses before giving advice to today’s physics graduates. “It has been a hardcore transition—founding a company is the best thing you will ever do, but it’s also the worst,” he says. Even so, he encourages them to think outside the box to create change in the world. “Please start a company. The world needs young creative people and new ways of thinking. But don’t expect to know and solve everything from the beginning. Your physics skills might not be where you end up.”

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