2555 Industrial Drive, Monona
CEO: Ross Radel
What it does: Manufactures commercial neutron generation technologies.
Employees: About 70 full-time, 20 part-time
Phoenix LLC designs and manufacturers particle accelerators, primarily neutron generators, that are used for a broad range of applications in health care, energy and defense.
Phoenix Nuclear Labs, which has since shortened its name to Phoenix, was founded in 2005 in Monona by Gregory Piefer. After he completed his doctorate in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Piefer was moved by an idea championed by his Ph.D. thesis advisor, Gerry Kulcinski. He set out to “commercialize near-term applications of nuclear fusion technology as a way of generating near-term revenue that could be reinvested to incrementally advance fusion technology to the next level on a long-term path to clean, fusion energy,” said Evan Sengbusch, president of Phoenix.
It’s the original idea that spurred Piefer to create Phoenix that Sengbusch says continues to be a long-term drive for the company.
“We are currently focused on the first phase, which is commercializing a few key medical and industrial applications of neutron-generating fusion sources,” he said.
This includes producing radioisotopes used in medical imaging, high resolution neutron imaging of high-value defense and industrial components like aircraft engine turbine blades, and inspection of nuclear fuel for carbon-free energy generation.
Furthermore, providing next-generation fusion capabilities also became the inspiration for the company’s name.
“The name Phoenix was tied to the notion of a nuclear renaissance, with Phoenix’s technology playing a key role in helping the nuclear industry rise from the ashes,” Sengbusch said.
As Phoenix developed as an organization, the use of radioisotopes in nuclear medicine grew.
“Nuclear medicine uses radiation to provide diagnostic information about the functioning of a person’s specific organs, or to treat them. Diagnostic procedures using radioisotopes are now routine,” said Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager at the World Nuclear Association. These procedures are so routine that “over 40 million nuclear medicine procedures are performed worldwide each year” with half of those taking place in the U.S.
In 2010, Piefer left his role at Phoenix to become founder and CEO of SHINE Medical Technologies Inc., a company that spun out of Phoenix and is aimed at becoming the world leader in the safe, clean, affordable production of medical isotopes.
“SHINE was spun off based of a market need for alternative production technologies, other than nuclear reactors, for the medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99),” Sengbusch said.
According to Cobb, the market for Mo-99 is substantial.
“Of fission radioisotopes, the vast majority of demand is for Mo-99, and the world market is some $550 million per year,” he said.
The world’s supply of Mo-99 comes from only five reactors, none of which are located in the U.S. and all of which are between 52 and 61 years old, according to the World Nuclear
“There was a large U.S. Department of Energy program funding technology development in this area and SHINE was an awardee of this program,” Sengbusch said.
When SHINE spun off from Phoenix, it made sense for the two companies to operate independently, he said.
“Manufacturing high volumes of a specialty radioactive chemical product is a fundamentally different type of business than manufacturing low-volume, high-cost capital equipment,” Sengbusch said.
SHINE and Phoenix announced in August 2014 that they successfully operated their second-generation neutron driver prototype for 24 consecutive hours with 99% uptime. The operating success preceded a January 2015 announcement that the two companies would enter into an exclusive, long-term development and supply agreement.
Now, SHINE and Phoenix consider themselves sister companies and Sengbusch believes it remains logical for the two organizations to continue operating independently. The companies will continue to have a close customer-supplier relationship and maintain a close proximity and cultural connection as they both continue expanding independently.
SHINE opened its global headquarters in downtown Janesville in January 2017. Building One was completed on the medical isotope production campus in February 2018 and SHINE installed its first Phoenix production accelerator in October 2018. The first production unit is a state-of-the-art accelerator system that was designed and built by Phoenix specifically for the SHINE medical isotope project. SHINE is using the unit to gain operating experience, train employees and develop maintenance procedures prior to construction of its commercial production facility.
Not only does Piefer remain directly connected to Phoenix’s work through its partnership with SHINE, but also as an active member on the Phoenix board of directors.
In September 2018, Phoenix announced it would be leaving its leased facilities in Monona and heading to a new facility in Fitchburg. The property, located at Highway 14 and Lacy Road, will be home to two new Phoenix buildings: Phoenix’s headquarters and its new imaging center. The two buildings are estimated to cost a combined $12 million to $15 million.
“The first building being constructed is the Phoenix Neutron Imaging Center,” Sengbusch said. He describes the facility as a “standalone neutron imaging services business that will give access to Phoenix technology to a much broader range of customers through easily accessible, low-cost neutron imaging services.”
Completion of the 10,000-square-foot facility housing the Phoenix Neutron Imaging Center is planned for mid-2019.
The state-of-the-art neutron imaging center will be the first facility of its kind to offer commercial neutron imaging services by utilizing Phoenix’s high-intensity neutron technology. Services will include providing neutron activation analysis, radiation effects testing and X-ray imaging, in addition to neutron imaging applications, such as visualizing internal flaws in cast parts, loading uniformity in munitions, and defects in low-density and energetic materials.
“The second building being constructed will serve as Phoenix’s new corporate headquarters. It will provide the much-needed manufacturing and office space to keep up with growing demand for Phoenix systems and our growing personnel headcount,” Sengbusch said.
Construction of Phoenix’s new 50,000-square-foot headquarters building is expected to begin in 2019, with completion planned for 2020.
Phoenix has been preparing for the move by building its equity through a $15 million investment round. The company has already raised $4.5 million from three investors.
Sengbusch believes Phoenix’s current growth is being driven by significant traction with a few key customers and markets, including the U.S. Army for neutron imaging, nuclear fuel inspection and isotope production in conjunction with SHINE.
“Having a stable baseline business with a handful of key customers has allowed us to use internal research and development resources to incrementally modify our core technology to address other market opportunities with huge growth potential,” he said.
Phoenix’s growth doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon, with its innovative technologies constantly driving the company to begin new endeavors.
“I am personally most excited about all the new prospective applications for which our technology could be used now that it’s reaching maturity,” Sengbusch said. “We’ve just scratched the surface of where and how this technology can be commercially implemented, and we have a long list of new market opportunities we are currently evaluating, some of which could be very large and have a big impact on humanity.”
2005 Company founded
2008 First private investment in conjunction with first major U.S. Army grant funding award
2010 SHINE spun out and first Department of Energy award of $25million for moly-99 production
2012 Phoenix moved from Middleton to larger facility in Monona
2013 First Phoenix system delivered to U.S. Army in New Jersey
2014 First isotope production prototype operational
2015 Delivery of first commercial system (and first international system) to U.K.
2016 Delivery of first system for semiconductor manufacturing
2017 First major institutional financing raise; expansion to second production facility
2018 Production of first nuclear fuel inspection systems; broke ground on Phoenix Neutron Imaging Center
2019 Beginning commercial operation of Phoenix Neutron Imaging Center