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Dan Dickey of Continental Electronics Corporation: “Don’t fear failure”

Today, I would say the biggest earth-shattering breakthrough we are working on is nuclear fusion power. For the past three-plus decades, we’ve been working closely with various laboratories around the world to create safe and cheap fusion-powered electric generating plants. In my opinion, this is a viable solution to combatting fossil fuel depletion and global warming. […]

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Today, I would say the biggest earth-shattering breakthrough we are working on is nuclear fusion power. For the past three-plus decades, we’ve been working closely with various laboratories around the world to create safe and cheap fusion-powered electric generating plants. In my opinion, this is a viable solution to combatting fossil fuel depletion and global warming.

Nuclear fusion power has been an elusive technology for a variety of reasons. We could be looking at another 20 years or more before we can create a solution that’s viable. However, there are currently a lot of programs around the world working toward this end-goal. Nuclear fusion power is among the most environmentally friendly sources of energy. This could be the Holy Grail for powering our society, economy and the world. Continental Electronics has been working with labs around in the world on fusion power, including the United States, Europe and Asia. Our company is playing a key role in supporting the R&D and technological components of building this solution, and we are excited to see how these efforts will develop in the years to come.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Dickey. He has been the President of Continental Electronics Corporation since 2009. Dickey is a named inventor on multiple patents, and has previously held design engineering and management positions at Harris Corp. and ADC Telecommunications. He has published papers through one of the world’s largest technical professional organizations, IEEE, and has co-authored a book on broadcast engineering published by the National Association of Broadcasters. Dickey holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical, Electronics and Communications Engineering from the University of Missouri.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in a rural area and my high school had a graduating class of only about 40. One time we had a college professor visit to discuss the rudimentary elements of how computers do arithmetic. I remember speaking up during this presentation and said that I thought we could build this ourselves. The college professor expressed doubt, saying he didn’t think we had the capability. Well, this ignited my motivation to prove him wrong. A few friends and I started the process of building one of these computation units and then took it to the regional science fair, where we received a ribbon for our accomplishments. After this experience, I became interested in exploring electrical engineering and computing as a career path and never looked back. If this hadn’t happened, I would have likely ended up pursuing agriculture and farming.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of the most interesting aspects of my career is the opportunity to travel all over the world and meet seasoned technology innovators and leaders. From Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom, to Ireland and South Africa — I’ve had the opportunity to meet many highly sophisticated and intelligent people. Travelling the world and learning from people like this has really shaped my career. I now have lifelong friends in many countries, and it’s all because we have a shared understanding of the technology we work with every day. Partnering with our various clients across the globe has been another interesting and rewarding part of my career. I’ve especially enjoyed the great conversations I’ve had at places like, for example, the cafeteria at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. I really relish the time I spend where I can speak with so many interesting people and hear their insights.

Can you tell us about the Cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Over the course of Continental Electronics’ nearly 75-year history, we’ve worked on a lot of significant systems and products that have impacted billions of people around the world. In the 1950s, we built many radio transmitters for Voice of America and Radio Europe. Before the Berlin Wall came down at the end of the Cold War, shortwave radio broadcasting waves was used to transmit critical information from the West across the Iron Curtain. Continental Electronics’ role in this history was significant for our company, the technology sector, and indeed the world. It revolutionized long distance wireless communication and is still used to this day.

Today, I would say the biggest earth-shattering breakthrough we are working on is nuclear fusion power. For the past three-plus decades, we’ve been working closely with various laboratories around the world to create safe and cheap fusion-powered electric generating plants. In my opinion, this is a viable solution to combatting fossil fuel depletion and global warming.

How do you think this might change the world?

Nuclear fusion power has been an elusive technology for a variety of reasons. We could be looking at another 20 years or more before we can create a solution that’s viable. However, there are currently a lot of programs around the world working toward this end-goal. Nuclear fusion power is among the most environmentally friendly sources of energy. This could be the Holy Grail for powering our society, economy and the world. Continental Electronics has been working with labs around in the world on fusion power, including the United States, Europe and Asia. Our company is playing a key role in supporting the R&D and technological components of building this solution, and we are excited to see how these efforts will develop in the years to come.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

From my point of view, there aren’t many potential drawbacks to abundant, cheap, carbon free electrical power. The main challenge is that the technology isn’t complete yet. There are still unsolved technical challenges in developing a mainstream solution. It’s going to take more research and cooperation among companies like Continental Electronics, government laboratories and policy makers to make this available for public use, but Continental Electronics is confident that our technology will help pave way for this solution.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

Since our company’s origin, we’ve maintained relationships with nearly all of the world-renown energy research laboratories. Just in the United States we have eight to 10 national laboratories focused on this, such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Fermi Laboratory in Chicago. We also work with laboratories overseas, including labs in Japan, India, Korea, France and more. Since we have strong relations with these global labs, they know to reach out to us if they have a problem we can help solve. Continental Electronics’ reputation as a leader in high power radio energy sources is how we began to work in the nuclear fusion power space.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

The biggest challenge right now with this technology is finding a way to contain the high temperature plasma created through electromagnetic heating. The process works a bit like a microwave oven and involves heating atoms until they fuse together, creating very high energy and temperatures — hotter than the sun. Trying to essentially contain the sun in a bottle for a long period of time is especially difficult. The solution will lie in developing materials and innovative magnetic structures that prevent the extreme temperatures from touching and melting the container. However, if the container did melt there is no real danger because the system would not be able to sustain the reaction. Unlike traditional fission nuclear power generation, fusion is self-limiting. It does not “run-away.”

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

I believe clean, abundant and low cost nuclear power is the ultimate answer to many of the ecological challenges the world faces. This type of energy won’t limit how much we can grow our societies or economies, and the opportunities for development are exponential. Today’s world is energy limited — not resources or raw materials — but energy itself. The possibilities for us are endless when we have access to cheap, abundant energy. When we do develop a viable, mainstream solution, that’s how it will be marketed for public consumption.

For now, I think we need to engage more on social media with the message that fusion nuclear power is safe and becoming more technically viable. We have already seen some of this in the past year, but there needs to be more efforts there in my opinion. We need more students in K12inspired to take up STEM studies so they can continue the contributions to this important work.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There have been many people who have impacted my career throughout the years; however, one person of significance to note is Continental Electronics’ founder, J.O. Weldon. When I first started working at the company, J.O. had an office down the hall and would work a few days a week. During this time, I had the opportunity to sit with him and learn about the company’s history and technology it developed over the years. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, but I still cherish the lessons learned and time spent with him as it shaped me into the person I am today.

Another person who really impacted my childhood was my aunt Ina-Carol O’Neal, who was a first grade teacher at my school. She was one of my first mentors, and I’m grateful for all she did. She is still my cheerleader even today. She got me interested in reading very early, which is something I wish more kids could be drawn to today. Being in a technical field, it’s critical to know how to read, write, comprehend and explain information. Developing communication skills early on helped me excel in my academic studies and my career.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Through my role at Continental Electronics, I’ve overseen many research and develop programs that benefit so many lives around the world. Our work with NASA is really impactful, as our radio communication technology makes possible the many missions to the Moon, Mars and worlds beyond. Just in October, our equipment helped guide NASA’s Osiris-Rex space probe to collect materials from the surface of an asteroid named Bennu that was located 200 million miles from Earth. Not many know of Continental Electronics’ critical role in NASA’s space missions, but we are very proud of what we do in helping further space exploration.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Know when to listen and when to speak up: Understanding how to read other people and know when to listen or speak up is a very difficult skill to learn. It’s something I’m still working on to this day. Being able to identify the difference between the two will help you excel in the workplace.

2. Cultivate & maintain relationships: It doesn’t matter what your job title is or what industry you work in — relationships are important. From your co-workers to your bosses, clients and vendors, cultivating and maintaining relationships is a critical aspect of being successful in your career.

3. Pursue life-long learning: No matter how long you’ve been working, there’s always something new to learn or additional skill to pick up. It’s critical to lookout for educational opportunities to stay sharp, pursue new challenges and not become stagnant in your current work.

4. Don’t fear failure: It’s a fact that everyone fails at one time or another in their career. Big or small, failures present an opportunity for you to learn, grow and achieve something you never thought possible. Failures are more important than successes, as they truly challenge you and become pivotal moments in your career.

5. Always innovate: One of the greatest parts about working at a company like Continental Electronics is that there’s always room to innovate technologies and processes. Just because something works well now, doesn’t mean there’s not an opportunity to innovate to make it even better.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The fields of science and engineering were born during the Age of Enlightenment, and the movement has continued to grow and progress. These communities can solve a lot of the problems we face today. Knowledge gathering, research and learning are the tools within STEM that will help improve lives and further society. We need more young people to be instilled with a passion for science and technical knowledge.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote I reference all the time is, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.” In other words, if you’re working on a hard problem, the first thing you need to do is get the initial problem solved. Once you solve that problem, then you can figure out a way to solve it even better. Too many people try to find the best way to solve a problem before solving it themselves in the first place.

I’ve seen too many people not follow this process, and then end up spending their whole careers trying to find a better way to solve a problem that they never solved initially. This happens in engineering all the time. It is similar to the saying, “perfection is the enemy of good enough,” you can keep refining something, aiming for perfection, and never end up actually delivering anything. You find yourself in a constant state of making it better, but never finish it.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There are technologies that need investment, coaching and nurturing that are based on principles of physics that haven’t changed since the beginning of time. Many people in VC are looking for the next big, cool thing that no one has thought of. But I think it is equally important that those in the VC industry also look at companies like Continental Electronics whose technology is rooted in physical sciences that are timeless and don’t change. Our technology has just as much impact as Google and Twitter in terms of the impact of our lives. Often, VCs ignore technologies and companies like ours because we’ve been around for a long time and use well understood physical phenomena, but we have not found all the possible ways electromagnetic systems can benefit humanity. However, this is the technology that shapes our current society, and this is the technology that will continue to innovate and transform how we live and communicate in the future.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn. If you want to learn more about Continental Electronics or stay up-to-date on all we are doing, you can follow us on LinkedIn too.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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