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.