Young entrepreneur may hold the key to spacecraft fuel efficiency

Tyler Bernstein

Photo: Bill Motchan

The future of space exploration could be largely influenced by a young Jewish entrepreneur who grew up in St. Louis. Tyler Bernstein, 21, is CEO of a fledgling company called Zeno Power Systems that is developing a system to convert the heat from nuclear waste material into electricity. 

The company was incorporated in April 2018 by Bernstein and his classmates at Vanderbilt University. Bernstein recently completed his junior year of college, and is on leave from Vanderbilt while he’s getting Zeno off the ground.

“It started out when my classmate Jonathan Segal and I got together on campus one afternoon to explore zero-emission power sources for aircraft,” Bernstein said. “We noticed the massive carbon footprint of the aviation industry, and also how the airline industry suffers as a result of its reliance on jet fuel. So we arrived at the very broad concept of using nuclear power to create a zero-emissions, ultra-long endurance aircraft. We quickly found out that’s a bad idea for various reasons.”

Nuclear power for space travel isn’t new. NASA has used a form of plutonium (PU-238) in radioisotope generators for decades. But plutonium is pretty nasty stuff. No surprise that it is tough to acquire and deadly to work with. Bernstein and his team were still curious about the potential of nuclear power.

“We started to see some potential in the broader nuclear energy space and really began exploring that, more as curious college students,” he said.

What began as an idea being kicked around by three college students and a faculty advisor eventually gathered momentum. They won a research grant through the ICORPS program  of the National Science Foundation.

“We were given some money not to do product development, but rather to conduct customer discovery interviews, to see if there is a problem worth solving,” Bernstein said. “It wasn’t to determine if the technology is possible, or to develop the technology, but to see if what you’re building is solving an actual problem. That’s where we started to see the whole mix with nuclear power and aviation. By talking to hundreds of people we did find real problems that similar technologies could actually solve.

“The number one reason start-up companies fail is that they frankly build something that nobody wants. The tech is cool, but you see companies that raise hundreds of millions of dollars that are doomed from the beginning because they’re using technology that consumers are never going to accept regardless of how much time and money goes into development. So we spent a lot of time in the early stages to avoid that, and by doing that we pivoted a few times until we finally did find a problem that our tech or a slight variation of our tech, could solve.”

The name of the company, he said, comes from Zeno of Elea, a Greek philosopher who came up with the concept of infinity. That’s fitting because the goal is to develop a power source that lasts for a long period of time.

The Zeno solution consists of a variation or hybrid of what’s been used in the field of radioisotope generators in the past. The prototype fuel generator will be affordable and compact, roughly the size of a microwave oven. Bernstein said Zeno plans to deliver a prototype by the end of 2020.

“It’s an aggressive schedule, but one of the benefits of being a small startup is that we can move pretty quickly,” he said.

Small may be an understatement. Zeno consists of three partners, all former Vanderbilt students. Bernstein provides the business development expertise and his friend and colleague Jonathan Segal is the chief operating officer. The third member, Jake Matthews, is chief engineer. Zeno also has a part-time safety officer, Steve Krahn who is a professor at  Vanderbilt and former senior executive at the Department of Energy. Professor Krahn said Bernstein presents himself as a seasoned businessperson in spite of his age.

“I certainly think that his skills and approach are extraordinarily mature for someone as young as he is,” Krahn said. “I’ve seen him in numerous meetings with very senior government and industry folks, and he is observant and poised. He wouldn’t have gotten this far if that weren’t the case, but he is the face of the company to those people we are interfacing with and he has been extraordinarily successful in putting across the concept of the company’s development.”

Krahn explained his role with Zeno is to advise the team on nuclear safety and regulatory matters and provide senior engineering expertise. He remembers the day in September 2017 when Bernstein and Segal first described their concept.

“They walked into my office at Vanderbilt and asked ‘What about nuclear powered airplanes?’ So I spent six months walking them through the history of the U.S. nuclear power program which helped them understand why that program hadn’t been pursued past the early 1960s. They still had a passion for applying nuclear energy technology to innovative opportunities, and in the spring of 2018, we started casting around for nuclear energy applications.

“We hooked up with Jake Matthews who had a concept for how to significantly reduce the weight associated with a strontium 90 radioisotope generator. (This would) make it a much more interesting power source for critical infrastructure needs both for the Department of Defense and potentially longer term for civilian applications. That’s the concept the company has spent about a year and a half refining.”

Bernstein didn’t always aspire to be a business leader. He did have a very specific education and career goal he remembers forming at the age of 10.

“I thought I was going to go to medical school at Washington University and be the St. Louis Blues team orthopedic surgeon,” he said. “I had that plan set so I shadowed quite a few surgeons in high school and eventually decided not to be a surgeon. In my senior year at John Burroughs I took a computer science class and kind of fell in love with that and that kicked me off into an entrepreneurial streak.”

Tyler isn’t the only entrepreneur in the Bernstein family. His grandparents on both sides of the family started their own businesses (manufacturing and industrial real estate). His father Jeffrey was an attorney who practiced law for a few years, then made a drastic career switch and became a custom home builder. His company, Jeffrey Homes, has succeeded in a competitive industry for more than 20 years.

Jeffrey Bernstein and his wife Sara, who teaches at Temple Israel, are extremely proud of their son. Jeffrey said the concept of the kid who he took to hockey practice just a few years ago being a CEO is “a bit surreal.”

“It’s funny, you think back to different incidents that have occurred since he was a little kid,” Jeffrey Bernstein said. “He’s always been a bright kid. I don’t know why I remember this but he was playing hockey at an out-of-town tournament and the assistant coach asked the head coach ‘What’s the format for the playoffs?’ We were in the last game of the round robin and they were trying to determine the tie-breakers for the next round. The head coach didn’t know and Tyler, who was like 10 years old, recited exactly what it was—’first it’s head-to-head, then goal difference, then goals allowed, etc.’ My point is that he’s always been inquisitive and pays attention. I’m a custom home builder and I used to take him around to different job sites when he was young. The things he would notice and ask questions about were excellent observations to make.”

Tyler Bernstein grew up attending Temple Israel, where he still attends synagogue when he visits St. Louis. The growth and development of Zeno requires him to travel quite a bit, and the full management team is now based in Washington, D.C. Bernstein said he looks for opportunities to attend synagogue in whatever city he stays. The ideals he grew up with and lessons learned at synagogue and through his parents made an impact on how he views the world.

Curiosity

NASA’s Mars rover, named “Curiosity,” is powered by radioisotope generators. St. Louis native Tyler Bernstein is working on creating a new hybrid of what’s been used in the field of radioisotope generators in the past. Photo: NASA

‘I think what we’re doing has a positive impact on the world,” he said. “At our core, humans are driven to explore the unknown, and there is no greater unknown than space. We’re proud to utilize a waste product on Earth to potentially power space explorations that fulfill our desire to explore.”