“Now is a good time to chat, I’m not underground.”
That’s the first thing Mark Russell tells me when I finally reach him on the phone. But I suppose that goes with the territory when you are trying to dig really deep holes.
Russell is the CEO of HyperSciences, a Spokane-based company that is trying to use rockets to drill anywhere on the planet to access geothermal power. Right now, using the earth’s heat to create energy is not economical because drilling a hole deep enough is too expensive. That’s why Russell wants to use rockets.
“I think I’m solving a huge energy problem, and we are going to drill 10 times faster than anyone else has drilled before, which means you can access energy faster than ever before,” he said. “Bullets are slow on our dial.”
Russell has a perfect resume for attempting a project of this scale.
His background includes stints at Boeing and NASA, but more recently, he ended up at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space project. While at Blue Origin, he was a lead engineer on the Charon Test Vehicle, developed in Kent, Wash. The vehicle used rocket engines to take off vertically, fly to space, and then return. The vehicle is now on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
Russell left Blue Origin to move back to Spokane and work in his family’s abandoned mine with his brother, trying to drill the two deepest holes in the world. To do so, he wanted to integrate what he knew about aerospace and mining. “I took a big bet that I could learn something,” he said.
By using so-called “hypersonics” and “hypervelocity,” he says “I can impact the ground so fast, it looks like fluid interacting with a fluid. It doesn’t look like normal.”
It is that kind of galactic talk that has gotten the attention of investors.
HyperSciences has received roughly $1 million in grants from Shell’s GameChanger program, which supports unproven ideas that may impact the future of energy. The next round of funding came from angel investors, including the Alliance of Angels in Spokane, W Funds, Washington Research Foundation and Seattle tech entrepreneur Mike McSherry, who most recently sold his company Swype to Nuance Communications.
In the most recent round, HyperSciences has raised $880,000, but Russell expects to raise another $370,000 over the next few weeks for a total of $1.25 million. With that cash, he expects to enter into contracts and demonstrations with multiple companies within six months.
Ultimately, the company’s goal could evolve over time. Initially, it’s focused on developing the drilling technology, which could be licensed to key suppliers or used directly by HyperSciences to produce geothermal energy. Russell said you must dig 5 kilometers (roughly 3 miles) into the earth to do so. At that depth, rocks are hot enough without being radioactive. To transfer the energy, you use water to bring steam to the earth’s surface. From there, a turbine captures the steam and turns it into energy.
One day, the energy could even be used for space exploration, he said.
HyperSciences is not the only company Russell has founded. In 2010, Russell launched a rideshare startup called Zebigo in Seattle, which in hindsight could have been the next Uber. He still carries many valuable lessons from that experience.
“Zebigo was a fantastic technical success, thousand or more initial users in Seattle,” he said. “We were maybe too early for purely ride-share…We needed to be more aggressive like Uber and break, re-write the rules.”
This time Russell isn’t holding back, and breaking plenty of rock instead of rules.