Miles Palmer and Bill Brown were walking through Manhattan in 2007 when Bill’s phone rang. He lost the call. “How can you lose a call in Manhattan?” He wondered aloud. “Oh, I could fix that, but it won’t happen.” Miles inferred the solution would not have commercial potential. According to Bill, that was the start of 8 Rivers Capital, a technology incubator committed to bringing large-scale technological innovation to market. The MIT-educated fraternity brothers may have similar pedigree, but they are different roles in the company. Miles is quieter, more technical, an Air Force veteran with a background din defense systems. Bill, a former Morgan Stanley trader and Duke Law Professor, shapes their mammoth aspirations into appealing metaphors.
Why 8 Rivers Capital? “Eight is a lucky number in China, and rivers are a source of endless energy.” Bill sees China as a critical aspect of any major industrial change, and builds on the water analogy.
“You can’t just watch the water, you have to be in the water. It is persistent and continuous. The flow is ultimately irresistible. You wind up with the Grand Canyon. This is the story of business. Water is agnostic. It follows downstream. Business is also agnostic. It’s focused on problems. The right solution is always cheaper and better. That is the lower energy state; that is downhill; that is what we strive for.
“To take the metaphor further, the third attribute of our business is scale. We want to work on big problems. We want to have a billion dollar threshold. We want to achieve cheaper and better on a large scale.
“Our initial problem is CO2 output from burning coal. The rest of the world wants to industrialize, and that means coal. How can we get the earth to meet all of its climate goals and keep energy costs in line with current prices?
“Think of seafarers. We were born on land. Some of us fish near the shore. Others trade in boats along the coast. Only a few will go beyond the horizon. People don’t explore much anymore. 8 Rivers has audacious goals. We want to be the guys Queen Isabella supports to explore beyond the horizon.
8 River’s first project to move beyond concept is a demonstration power plant under construction in Texas that will recapture and process all CO 2 emissions. “The coal industry took an incremental response to cleaning plants and carbon recapture. That led to coal becoming an inefficient fuel source in this country. We’re throwing that whole idea out the window and starting from scratch. We want a fuel that will burn close to 100% efficient with zero emissions.
“The gist of the Netpower idea is to burn coal in pure oxygen in a sealed high-pressure container, and keep all the pollutants and the energy in one box. Extract the energy from the box and feed the CO2, still at high pressure, back into the circuit.” They anticipate reusing 94% of the CO2 in each iteration, and sending the 6% unused, still at high pressure, as a liquid into pipelines to sequester in exhausted oil wells or use to displace difficult to release oil. The key is to never return to atmospheric pressure; keep the CO2 supercritical and there will be no energy loss from phase change.
Netpower’s demonstration plant should be ready to commission by the end of this year and begin production in 2017. “The net cost of energy from the demonstration plant will be less than competitors plus the value of the excess CO2.”
Other ideas in the works include the cell phone reception concept that got the company rolling – “The idea has taken a pivot, but it is still in the works.” – and a scheme to move supply chains through space – “Miles is working on sending stuff to space for the same cost as airfreight. Can you imagine Amazon distribution centers in satellites?”
8 Rivers thinks big, even when it looks in the mirror. “8 Rivers is like Bell Labs for commercialization. We are not a typical venture capital firm. We grow our own ideas. We operate in a double blue ocean, a space where neither corporations nor venture capitalists operate.”
That’s not easy in a country wary of the kind of massive investment Miles’ and Bill’s ideas require. “The world does not value industrial innovation the way it used to. They value ‘apps’ which are easy to capitalize. What we do requires large capitalization.
“The 1930’s were the most technologically innovative period of our nation’s history. It was a time of great forest fires, setting up opportunities for new growth. Forest fires serve a place in our world. Mature forests are ready to die; new ones have to come forth. But we live in a world where Smokey Bear warns against forest fires. Alan Greenspan was our Smokey Bear. He prevented forest fires. He turned the world into one huge, mature, ready-to-die forest.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“If we do not have socialization of the Commons, sooner rather than later, the hunger games will be upon us. Automation and robotics will overtake our workforce. If people don’t ‘own’ a stake in the machines, they will be impoverished.”
“We are going to have to redistribute ownership or have massive population reduction or become a 100% service economy. We will decouple our economy from ‘stuff’. That assumes that, at the limit, every person on this earth has service someone wants.”
“It’s going to be a sad place unless we invest more in education. Not the four-year country club experience, but the CUNY system that serves every strata of society, or the Berea model that doesn’t take from students, it gives things to students.”