Late last week, in a rare session before a small audience, this editor spent an hour with Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator and since 2019 the CEO of OpenAI, the company he is known to have co-founded Elon Musk and numerous others in the Year 2015 to develop artificial intelligence for the “good of mankind”.
The crowd wanted to know more about his plans for OpenAI, which has taken the world by storm over the past six weeks thanks to the public release of its ChatGPT language model, a chatbot that has both dazzled and alarmed educators and others. (OpenAI’s DALL-E technology, which allows users to create digital images simply by describing what they envision, drew only slightly less attention when it was unveiled to the public early last year.)
Because Altman is also an active investor — one whose biggest return to date is payments startup Stripe, he said at the event — we’ve focused the first half of our time together on some of his most ambitious investments.
To learn more about these, including a supersonic aircraft company and a startup aiming to create babies from human skin cells, you can watch the 20-minute video below. (You’ll also hear Altman’s thoughts on Twitter led by Elon Musk and why Altman is “not particularly interested” in crypto or Web3. “I love the spirit of the Web3 people,” Altman said with a shrug. “But I see not intuitive why we need it.)
We’ll be sharing more from this broader conversation soon, including OpenAI. In the meantime, below is an excerpt of our discussion of one of Altman’s biggest bets: a nuclear fusion company called Helion Energy that, like OpenAI, aims to turn another long-elusive promise – that of plenty of energy – into reality. The excerpt has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
What makes a deal with Sam Altman?
I try to only do things that interest me at this point. One of the things I’ve realized is that all the companies that I think I’ve brought a lot of value to are the ones that I like to think of in my free time on a hike or whatever and then the founders text and say, “Hey, I have this idea for you.” Every founder deserves an investor who thinks of them while hiking. And so I’ve tried to stick to the things I really love, which is hard tech, [involving] years of research and development, [is] capital intensive or some kind of risky research. But when it works, it really works.
A particularly interesting investment is Helion Energy. You’ve been funding this company since 2015, but when it announced a $500 million round last year, including a $375 million check from you, I think people were surprised. There aren’t many people who can write a check for $375 million.
Or how many people would [invest it] in a risky merger company.
What have been your most successful investments to date?
I mean, probably multiple times, definitely multiple times: Stripe. I also think this was my second investment ever, so it seemed a lot easier. This was also a time when reviews varied; it was great. But you know, I’ve been doing this for like 17 years, so there’s been a lot of really good ones, and I’m super grateful to have been in Silicon Valley at such a magical time.
For me, Helion is more than an investment. That’s the other thing I spend a lot of time on besides OpenAI. I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen there.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had a breakthrough in nuclear fusion last month. (Using a giant laser approach, his scientists announced the first fusion reaction in a laboratory setting that produced more energy than was used to start the reaction.) I wonder what you think of his approach, which is very different from Helion’s (which builds a fusion machine said to be long and narrow and uses aluminum magnates to compress fuel and then expand it to make electricity from it).
I’m really happy for them. I think it’s a very cool scientific result. As they said themselves, I don’t think it will be commercially relevant. And that’s what I’m looking forward to – not getting fusion to work in a lab, although that’s cool too, but building a system that works at a super cheap cost.
If you look at the previous energy transitions, if you can lower the cost of a new form of energy, it can take over everything else in a couple of decades. And then also a system in which we can generate enough energy and enough reliable energy, both in terms of the machines that don’t break down, and without interruptions or the need to store solar or wind or anything like that. If we can create enough for Earth in about 10 years – and I think that’s actually the most difficult challenge Helion faces in outlining what it would take operationally to replace all of Earth’s current generation capacity with fusion and to make it really fast and to think about what it really means to build a factory that can produce two of these machines a day for a decade – this is really difficult but also a super fun problem.
So I’m very happy that there’s a fusion race, I think it’s great. I am also very happy that solar and batteries are becoming so cheap. But I think it will depend on who can provide the energy cheapest and in sufficient quantities.
Why is Helion’s approach superior to what dozens of nations in southern France are working on?
Yeah, well, that thing, Iter, I think it’ll probably work, but to what I just said, I think it’s going to be commercially irrelevant. they also [themselves] think it will be commercially irrelevant.
What excites me about Helion is that it is a simple machine at an affordable price and a reasonable size. There are a lot of other elements besides the giant [experimental machine being developed by these nations], but what’s very cool is that what comes out of the reaction is charged particles, not heat. Almost everyone else [alternatives], like a coal fired power plant or natural gas fired power plant or whatever, produces heat that drives a steam turbine. Helion creates charged particles that push the magnet back and drive an electric current through a wire. There is no heat cycle at all. And so it can be a much simpler, much more efficient system.
I think that’s being left out of the whole fusion discussion [is] really great. It also means we don’t have to deal with a lot of nuclear material. We never have hazardous waste or even a hazardous system. You can touch it fairly shortly after turning it off.
It is currently building a large facility. Has it already proven its thesis?
We’ll have more to share there shortly.