Meet Sam - Making Small Scale Fusion Technology A Reality
Meet Sam Samida-Pugh, the founder and CEO of Progressive Fusion Solutions (PFS) a technology company ‘introducing accessible and affordable fusion energy technologies to power humanity now, and forever’. No big deal, and by the way he is also a 1st year engineering student at UBC. At League of Innovators we were lucky enough to work with Sam on a couple of occasions, and even have him bring Progressive Fusion Solutions into our Labs accelerator program in Fall 2018. We chatted with Sam about his journey, his interests, and some candid truths about his experience.
What is the story of Progressive Fusion Solutions? How did you get started down this path?
I’ve been intrigued by science ever since I was young, I grew up near the ocean, so my curiosity began with the complexity of sea life, eventually leading me to nuclear physics and engineering. The official early journey I’ve had so far with PFS began in September of 2016, right at the beginning of grade 11. My friends and I were brainstorming and came up with the idea to build our own nuclear reactor. There wasn’t necessarily a specific reason why we came up with the idea, we were just thinking of projects that we could do as a group, whilst at the same time acquiring something impressive to put on our resumes. My friends didn’t really take the idea seriously, but it stayed in my mind. I slowly started researching the idea, just reading and learning from as many sources as possible. I didn’t really know how I was going to build a reactor, I just started teaching myself as much as I could. Fast-forward a couple months later and I had built a few small “demo- reactors” using parts from home depot. It was a good start, but I knew that if I wanted to go further, I would have to raise money. I started crowdfunding pages and slowly began gathering donations for my reactor. Skip ahead to May 2017 and I had raised $10,000 for the project, toured TRIUMF, and made a decent network of people who were interested in what I was doing. A few months later in August I had completed the reactor and achieved nuclear fusion with it, meaning I had essentially created a “star in a jar”. It could fit on a table and the fact that it only cost $10,000 to make is impressive as most other fusion reactor designs cost millions of dollars to construct. Despite this, it didn’t seem like a huge deal to me, everything I had done up to that point was pretty much a fancy high school science project, and I hadn’t really made any significant contribution to the realm of fusion physics. So I decided to officially start PFS, a company which would act as a platform for me to continue researching small scale fusion technology, and eventually invent a fusion reactor which produces power. Today PFS is still going strong, we’ve built two fusion reactors, raised $17,000 to date, and have a talented team. We’ve still got a long way to go before we solve the problem of fusion; but the fact that PFS has accomplished so much in just 2 and a half years provides me with confidence that we have a chance.
If you could pinpoint to an event or person or an interaction – what do you think prompted or sparked this entrepreneurial journey for you?
Although I started working on PFS in September 2016, it wasn’t till a few months later in November that I started thinking with an entrepreneurial mindset. Between September and November, I had made decent progress in getting my project going, I had a fair grasp on the concept of nuclear fusion and had played around with basic electrical and vacuum equipment needed in a fusion reactor. It was in November that I launched my crowdfunding page to start raising money, and soon after, Bill McKenzie (an associate of my mom), a retired engineer and alternative energy advocate, approached me saying that he was interested to learn more about what I was doing. We met and spoke about my motivation and scope for building the reactor, as well as the topic of making a company out of it. By the end of our talk, and to my surprise, Bill donated $500 to the project; it was the first donation I had received, and it gave me hope regarding the success of the reactor. I started asking myself questions such as: How far do I want to take this? And Why can’t I make this more than just a science project? It’s questions such as those which truly affect how one approaches an idea or project, ambition is key.
In your opinion what are some of the biggest challenges for young people starting out?
As an 18-year-old entrepreneur running a fusion energy R&D company, I can personally say that my age and therefore lack of experience has been a roadblock in my journey thus far. There are pros and cons associated with being a young individual trying to do something big. One pro is that ordinary people may feel inspired, or even obligated to take interest in what someone young is doing, and that’s great. However, when dealing with more experienced professionals in your field, there’s almost a 100% chance that they will doubt your ability due to your age. That’s a fair concern, it makes sense; but at the same time, it can be unfair for a young entrepreneur to be seen in that way, when in reality, they do in fact have the toolset to accomplish what they have set out to do. So the biggest challenge, for me at least, is definitely the lack of confidence people may have for you. It’s unfortunate, but it shouldn’t hinder any young person’s motivation to set out on what they want to do. What it should do is give a young individual more motivation, to prove their doubters wrong.
What keeps you going?
Maintaining motivation is one of the most significant struggles anyone will encounter when trying to accomplish a task, regardless of what it is. With that said, the purpose of a task should be the number one source of drive one should look to when unmotivated to get that task done. For me, the purpose of PFS is to transform fusion power into reality, phase out fossil fuels, and end climate change. Those are very fruitful reasons to keep PFS going, because the outcome of our success would be massive. With that said, the first source of motivation for me is the problem I’m trying to solve itself. Coupled with that is my innate drive to do something meaningful with my life. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up during this time period in a 1st world country. I can do anything I want and solve any problem I see fit. For me to not take advantage of that opportunity and improve society would be disappointing to say the least. I know that I want to leave this world in a better place then when I found it.
What is one thing you would never do again?
As individuals, we are all prone to making mistakes, that’s a big part of being a human being, it applies to everyone, including me. I mess up sometimes and that’s ok, granted I do my best to fix whatever I’ve broken; including not repeating the same mistake twice. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of things I would never do again is defiantly related to interaction. In the context of teamwork, I don’t think I would ever trust someone else to do something as much as I trust myself to do that same thing. There have been many times where I have relied on other people to do something and it wasn’t done, then leading me to suffer the consequence of not completing whatever was meant to be completed. It’s happened many times within and outside PFS, and it has always ended in disputes or torn friendships. Those are things I’d prefer to avoid.
What was the moment where you first thought to yourself that you were really succeeding?
The answer to that lies within the early days of PFS. It was in early 2017, when the project started to gain some traction. I had started to acquire the big pieces of the reactor and construction could finally begin. I still remember the sense of drive that I felt at that moment, it was the first physical sign that I was making decent progress. It’s small accomplishments such as those which help to keep me motivated to achieve whatever over- arching goal that small accomplishment is a part of.
What is next for you?
We have a lot going on right now. We are finally starting to make progress in acquiring proper lab space, which is something that PFS has struggled with doing for a long time. Once we move into our new space, research of our most recently completed reactor, Polywell Alpha, can begin. It really is an exciting time, especially for our research, as Polywell Alpha is the first reactor that our team has conducted in-house simulations on. The simulations indicate that it will produce fusion, and at higher levels of efficiency than our first reactor, so there is a lot to look forward to once testing begins. 2019 overall will be an exciting year as we are also looking to start raising large capital and grow our team. Overall, I would say the basic goal of 2019 is to make a significant mark on the map of fusion development.
Biggest lesson you have learned on the entrepreneurial road thus far?
This has been said many times before, but the most significant lesson I’ve learned is to never give up, no matter how bad things seem to be going. There have been countless times in the early stages of PFS (when building our first reactor) that I thought that the project just wouldn’t pan out. But it did, and PFS has gone farther than I ever thought it could go. I believe that if you set your sights on a destination, and truly push to reach that destination, then you will be able to reach it, no matter what obstacles may hinder your path. Sure, it might take more effort or time to accomplish whatever you set out to do, but it doesn’t mean that its impossible.
We know the entrepreneurial journey has lots of ups and downs but along the way there are those moments were you feel you just nailed it, you are on the up and you feel like the ‘entrepreneur’ ‘founder’ ‘boss’. What was your latest ‘founder’ ‘boss’ moment?
The most recent time when I’ve felt like that would be when our team completed PFS’ 2nd reactor, Polywell Alpha. It was a project that took thousands of hours of work and 10 months to complete. It’s a more complex reactor than our first prototype and is much more original in regards to design. However, as I said, we still have a long way to go, and its important to not get hung up on those ‘founder boss’ moments.
Find out more about Progressive Fusion Solutions and follow Sams journey as he tackles clean technology.