Silicon Valley’s most prominently polarizing billionaire has his “fingerprints all over the administration” of President Donald Trump, according to a new report.
We speak, of course, of Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, libertarian and member of Trump’s transition team.
Meanwhile, another report described Thiel’s fingerprints on a firm just called “the Theranos of the nuclear power industry” after it was probed by a group of MIT professors who found its claims to be overblown, as were those of the infamous Palo Alto blood-testing startup.
But first, back to the nation’s capital: To get cozy with the most powerful man in the world, Thiel got in on the ground floor, seeding the Trump administration with his proxies, a Politico report said.
“Working with a staff of four to six aides from an office in Trump Tower, Thiel dispatched associates from his investment firms to help staff agencies across the government,” according to Politico. “Their reach extended from the Department of Commerce to the Pentagon and eventually to the White House, where one of his closest aides, Kevin Harrington, was recently elevated to the National Security Council.”
Someone identified as a senior Trump-transition aide told the news outlet that, “When you have offices and you bring staff with you and you attend all the meetings, then you have a lot of power.”
That power has given, it appears, a very high seat indeed to Thiel, 49, the iconoclastic PayPal co-creator, Facebook investor, venture capitalist and co-founder/chairman of data-analysis firm Palantir, which calls itself “the war on terror’s secret weapon.”
“At the Presidio, the old Army fort in San Francisco where Thiel’s investment firms are housed, many of his employees have taken to calling him ‘the shadow president,'” according to Politico.
Thiel’s push into political power fits a pattern, the Feb. 26 report suggested.
“His support for Trump was a signature long-shot bet that is paying big dividends in terms of access to and influence on the new administration,” Politico reported.
A Thiel spokesman declined to comment to Politico for its story. The news outlet said a senior White House official said only, “Peter has been a very prominent supporter of the president’s and we are grateful for his support.”
According to another new report, Thiel has also been a supporter of Transatomic Power, a Massachusetts startup that claimed its molten-salt nuclear reactor could generate spectacular amounts of energy from spent nuclear fuel produced by conventional reactors.
“In a white paper published in March 2014, the company proclaimed its reactor ‘can generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor,'” said an article in the MIT Technology Review.
That claim helped Transatomic bring in millions of dollars from investors, including Thiel’s Founders Fund, according to the Feb. 24 article.
But Transatomic’s assertions also caught the attention of MIT nuclear-science and engineering professor Kord Smith, who in 2015 analyzed the firm’s projections then enlisted two academic colleagues to probe further.
Smith told the Technology Review that he believed Transatomic’s claims were “incorrect based on basic physics.”
He asked the company to run a test, which resulted in confirmation that “their claims were completely untrue,” Smith said.
Smith added that promising to increase a reactor’s fuel efficiency by 75 times is equivalent to saying you’d developed a car that could get 2,500 miles per gallon, according to the Technology Review.
Transatomic CEO Leslie Dewan told the publication in an email that she was “very glad” to have the professors’ “robust technical analysis,” and she said her firm was “committed to moving ahead with our plans for low-cost, safe nuclear power.”
Founders Fund expressed confidence that it had made the right move in backing Transatomic.
“We invested in Transatomic because of their reactor’s passively safe design and dramatically reduced costs and waste,” Founders Fund partner Scott Nolan told the Technology Review in a statement.
“Together, these unlock the viability of grid-scale, carbon-free energy production. These aspects of their design are stronger than ever and we’re extremely excited about the company’s execution and future potential.”
MIT’s Smith noted that Transatomic failed to subject its technology early on to peer review, but suggested the overblown claims were not crafted to deceive.
“They didn’t do any of this intentionally,” Smith told the Technology Review. “It was just a lack of experience and perhaps an overconfidence in their own ability. And then not listening carefully enough when people were questioning the conclusions they were coming to.”
Still, the indication that Transatomic over-reached in its claims, paired with its leadership by the young, attractive nuclear physicist Dewan, appeared to have drawn the following conclusion from website Ars Technica automotive editor Jonathan Gitlin:
“Oh look,” Gitlin tweeted, above a photo of Dewan and a link to the MIT Technology Review article, “it’s the Theranos of the nuclear power industry.”
Theranos, whose labs have been shut down in the wake of findings that the firm’s heavily hyped blood-testing technology was unreliable, was founded by the telegenic Elizabeth Holmes.
Dewan told the Technology Review by phone that not imposing peer review earlier was her mistake.
“We should have open-published more of our information at a far earlier stage,” Dewan said.
Longtime Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ray Rothrock, chairman of Transatomic, told the Technology Review via email that he stood fast behind the company’s mission and plan.
“The world needs more nuclear power,” he said. “And while we are still early days for (Transatomic), I’m encouraged (by the) results so far.”
Photo: Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, center, listen as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. (Evan Vucci/AP)