General Fusion’s new CEO Nathan Gilliland wants to be ready for fusion “breakthrough”

“Starting to believe in the eventuality of our success is important.”

General Fusion's test-scale generator. (General Fusion)

General Fusion’s test-scale magnetic-fusion reactor. (General Fusion)

General Fusion, Canada’s most ambitious alternative energy company, hired a new CEO this week. Nathan Gilliland was the founder of Boston-based biomass energy company Harvest Power and more recently served as an entrepreneur-in-residence with Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, one of the world’s largest venture capital firms.

The appointment caps a management makeover that began in 2012 with the installation of Rick Wills, the former chairman and CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Tektronix, as chairman of the Burnaby, B.C.-based company. Last year, former Areva Group North America president and CEO Jacques Besnainou and Powerlink Transmission Co. president and CEO Fred Buckman became directors, adding energy industry expertise to the previously investor-dominated board.

As Gilliland puts it, General Fusion is transitioning from an internationally recognized but decidedly Canadian startup to one with a broader set external relationships with energy industry partners and investors around the world. It’s worth noting the team that brought the company to this point are all still on board: founder Michel Laberge is chief scientist (and will be recounting some of his adventures in fusion research at the upcoming TED conference in Vancouver in March); former CEO Doug Richardson is chief technology officer, in charge of the research team; and former chairman Michael Brown remains a director.

What he brings to the enterprise, Gilliland says, is “experience taking entrepreneurial companies that are a little chaotic and making them a bit more productive, more valuable, and being an architect for growth. I’ve done a couple of startups before this and I’ve had experience at a big venture capital firm. I’ve seen a lot of pattern recognition across those experiences.”

By the time Gilliland left Harvest Power in 2012, the company had 600 employees spread over 29 locations (including its largest power plant in Richmond, B.C.). He wanted to work with smaller, more entrepreneurial companies, he says of his decision to leave.

When approached by General Fusion last fall, Gilliland was impressed by its magnetized target fusion technology which—if able to prove its concept—could revolutionize the energy industry with emissions- and nuclear waste-free power. But he also liked the core team of Laberge, Richardson and vice-president of business development Michael Delage. Another thing he thinks he can bring to the company is confidence.

“We’ve created something that might just have a breakthrough here. We need to bring self-confidence to that endeavor,” Gilliland says. “Starting to believe in the eventuality of our success is important.”

The recent success of the U.S. government-funded National Ignition Facility in generating a laser-assisted fusion reaction where the hydrogen-based fuel served up as much energy as was directed at it is not so much competition as a source of credibility for a global fusion research effort that “has had some false starts,” Gilliland says. “Fusion isn’t just going to have one winner. It’s going to be like the wind industry or solar—it’s an industry, not just a technology. There will be multiple winners as this thing matures and we certainly hope we’re one of them.”