World Saviour. To win the fight against climate change, the world is dependent on new ideas. The start-up scene is booming, impact investors are providing capital. Ten stories of entrepreneurs who are making a difference.
If humanity wants to have a chance of achieving the climate goals, it must rely on the inventiveness of entrepreneurs. Because, according to the International Energy Agency, almost half of the emission reductions needed by 2050 will have to be achieved through technologies that currently only exist on paper.
Mission Climate is a mission innovation. "And there is a lot happening right now. More and more young investors are financing more and more young entrepreneurs with innovative ideas," analyses Andreas Rickert, CEO at Phineo, co-CEO at impact investor Nixdorf Kapital and member of the supervisory boards of several impact investment companies: "The market for investing with impact is taking off."
Impact combines a social impact - reducing CO2 emissions, for example - with financial returns. Rickert attributes the fact that this idea is increasingly gaining followers to three mutually reinforcing factors: "Firstly, the general social climate. Many people - consumers and investors - are worried. They are asking themselves what they can do. This drives politicians to act. At the same time, more investors from the traditional venture capital sector are looking for companies with impact. And are finding innovative founders."
One of these impact investors is Thomas Festerling, CFO at GreenTec Capital Partners in Frankfurt. It has been looking for impact investments since 2015 and focuses on Africa.
"The population is growing incredibly fast there. If we don't implement a sustainable energy supply in Africa now, we will get the same problem as in China. In order to develop the economy and society, more and more fossil fuels are being burned," explains Festerling and concludes: "Every euro invested in Africa's climate protection today generates more climate impact than elsewhere. Because here there is a chance to skip the fossil age completely."
Right now, Festerling informs us, start-ups are also springing up like mushrooms in Africa. "They are innovation drivers and incubators. Their ideas are then often adopted by larger companies." Members of Africa's young generation have received their education in the US or Europe, now come back and want to make a difference at home. "They wholeheartedly stand behind their ideas.
To increase the likelihood of economic success, GreenTec has developed a (special) venture-building approach for Africa. "We support the companies very early on, even before any money flows. If the project doesn't work, we can quickly pull the ripcord."
Success seems to prove him right. "Our first financial product was launched 2.5 years ago. There are seven companies in it. Based on the valuations of later financing rounds, we are at a return (IRR) of more than 30 percent. Sure, those are unrealised gains - but it shows we don't have to hide from other venture capital funds."
"That is the key - impact investments are already keeping up with classic financial products today," Rickert makes clear. And because ideas that can help reduce emissions address a huge market, this should not change.
When you hear Rickert and Festerling speak, you can almost feel the spirit of optimism. Perhaps it is not too late after all. On the following pages, private-wealth authors tell the exciting stories of ten founders who have set out to make a difference. They convey hope. Because there are many, many more such innovative minds out there.
Away with CO2.
The decisive progress on the way to a climate-neutral world was already achieved in 1999, when Klaus Lackner, a German physicist now working in the USA, first proposed a process for removing carbon dioxide from the air, the so-called carbon capture process. The idea was to filter large quantities of CO2 directly from the air and store it in geological reservoirs.
Ten years later, this concept had progressed so far in research that a colleague of Lackner's, David W. Keith, founded the company Carbon Engineering in British Columbia, Canada. In 2010, another company with a similar idea was launched - Global Thermostat. Its co-founder and CEO is the mathematician Graciela Chichilnisky. Her academic focus is on environmental and welfare economics and emissions trading. She was instrumental in formulating the emissions trading section of the United Nations Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, which became international law in 2005. She is also one of the lead authors of the IPCC's 2007 Assessment Report.
Two companies, one idea. Carbon Engineering is currently planning two huge plants that will use renewable energy to remove up to one million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. The plant in Texas, construction of which will begin early next year, is scheduled to be ready by the end of 2024. A second one is being built in cooperation with the company Storegga Geotechnologies in the north-east of Scotland and should be in operation by 2026. It will then be the largest carbon capture plant in Europe.
Storegga Geotechnologies plans to produce hydrogen from natural gas produced in the North Sea. The CO2 produced in the process will be captured in the carbon engineering plant and fed into empty oil caverns under the North Sea floor via the existing oil and gas pipelines.
Geological carbon dioxide storage, known as carbon sequestration, has been used by industry for decades. More than 200 million tonnes of CO2 have been successfully stored in geological reservoirs worldwide. However, it has still not been fully researched how long the greenhouse gas will remain dormant there, sealed off. It would have to be many thousands of years.
In Texas, on the other hand, most of the filtered CO2 is used for so-called enhanced oil recovery in the controversial fracking process. In this process, CO2 is injected underground to squeeze out additional oil from stagnant wells. The carbon dioxide remains in the ground in the hope that it will turn into stone under the geological conditions there. The disadvantage of this method is that it can at best make fossil fuels climate-neutral. For the time being, this does not contribute much to the necessary decrease in the concentration of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
If carbon engineering now captures two million tonnes of CO2 per year, that sounds like a lot at first - but it is only a drop in the ocean. For climate researchers assume that the world will have to remove at least 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air every year by the end of the century in order to cope with the residual emissions from air and shipping traffic, steel and cement production and agriculture, which cannot be eliminated so easily at lower cost. That would be many thousands of air vacuum cleaners of the scale Carbon Engineering is planning. The profitability of such plants depends mainly on the cost per tonne of CO2 captured compared to the global price of CO2. Carbon Engineering does not comment on costs, even though the company is otherwise exemplary transparent in its information. But in a 2018 study, Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David W. Keith came up with a price range of US$94 to US$232 per tonne once the technology reaches commercial scale. That's still some way from the price companies pay today for commercial carbon dioxide for industrial processes - between US$65 and US$110.
Global Thermostat works more cheaply. In its demonstration plant in Huntsville, Alabama, it seems to be able to remove CO2 for only 120 US dollars per tonne. That would be truly groundbreaking. Because that would already put the price within the range of what companies pay for industrial carbon dioxide gas today. Unlike other carbon capture initiatives, Global Thermostat therefore does not need government subsidies or carbon credits from CO2 trading to be economic and profitable.
Global Thermostat's technology is based on organic chemical binders attached to porous ceramic honeycombs that act as carbon sponges. Similar materials and processes have been used for decades for other purposes and have been shown to scale up well.
The chemicals bind the CO2, which is sucked in via large fans, both directly from the atmosphere and from chimneys of power plants or from a combination of both - this is unique so far. At a relatively low temperature of 85 to 100 degrees, the CO2 can be scrubbed out with steam, which can ideally be obtained from process or waste heat from other companies. The ceramic honeycombs can then be reloaded with CO2. This process requires only steam and electricity; there are no emissions or waste water.
In view of the favourable price, it is no wonder that there are already contracts with large companies like Coca-Cola. The beverage multinational wants to use the gas for its carbonated drinks. Oil and gas giant Exxon is also on board. It wants to use CO2 to start a carbon-to-fuel business, to produce oil on the basis of carbon dioxide.
Global Thermostat's markets are therefore in all those production sectors that already require CO2. In addition to the beverage and fuel industries, these are manufacturers of plastics and building materials as well as industrial gases and water desalination plants where the clean water has to be enriched with carbonates that can be produced from CO2 gas.
So the prospects for the environment - and the companies - are gigantic. Today, venture capitalists widely agree that direct CO2 capture could become one of the world's largest industries by mid-century.
Double the yield.
Photovoltaics and agriculture - can't they work on the same land? "It can," informs Reiner Egner, CEO of Tubesolar AG: "Vegetables, lettuces, tomatoes, chillies - all of them and many plants more have partly achieved better yields under our agri-photovoltaic pilot systems than on arable land without solar panels."
The idea: generate electricity with solar panels in tube form. They are set up on stilts at a height of, say, five metres above farmland. The advantages: Rain permeability and clean electricity, as well as easy shading of farmland, which protects the soil in extreme sun. "The bottom line is that higher yields can be achieved in agriculture and clean electricity can be generated at the same time," Egner explains. There are more and more hot days and long droughts around the world, he says. The solar tubes help to reduce the drying out of the soil, they are rain-permeable, weatherproof and tractors can drive under them. Eventually, the vision is for the photovoltaic thin-film tubes to reach an annual production capacity of 250 megawatts.
Egner's target markets are not only agri-photovoltaics but also industrial commercial roofs with corresponding greening - "a market with gigawatt potential in Bavaria alone for existing and planned commercial buildings. By using our modules on industrial and commercial roofs, in combination with green roofs, we make a significant contribution to environmental and climate protection while generating energy at the same time." The team has already solved the most important challenges regarding statics and air contact area, he said.
Tubesolar was founded at the end of 2019 as a spin-off of the Osram/Ledvance laboratory production in Augsburg. In addition to Reiner Egner, Jürgen Gallina, Chief Technology Officer, has been a member of the board since then, and the majority shareholder is Bernd Förtsch, an entrepreneur from Kulmbach.
At that time, Osram/Ledvance produced, among other things, fluorescent tubes that serve as the basis for photovoltaic thin-film tubes. "The product needed an investor because the Chinese investors did not want to set up solar production in Germany," Egner recounts. And they were not interested in the solar tubes and the know-how of the employees. Vesselinka Koch, who had brought this idea of thin-film tubes to Osram, asked him to take a closer look at the company - which he did.
In the process, Egner met motivated developers and mechanical engineers with a great deal of experience in a market that the trained banker considered to have a promising future. "We then found strategic investors who acquired patents for the production of solar tubes and took on ten employees as a first step."
A cooperation Tubesolar has agreed with the American Ascent Solar (ASTI) offers particular potential. The start-up has acquired a stake in the US company for 2.5 million dollars, thus securing a second source of supply of large volumes of thin-film photovoltaic foil for its glass tube modules. There are also plans to set up a joint production facility in Germany and to develop special solar cells.
These CIGS perovskite tandem cells are very efficient and cheap to produce. "They therefore have disruptive potential in the solar industry, as the market-leading monocrystalline silicon cells are getting closer and closer to their practical maximum efficiency," writes analyst Karsten von Blumenthal of First Berlin Equity Research.
In 2020, Tubesolar generated a net loss of €2.3 million. No sales were generated in the first half of 2021 either. The net loss was 1.2 million euros. The company needed money primarily for the construction of a fully automated production facility. For this purpose, the Free State of Bavaria has promised a subsidy of 10.8 million euros, and Tubesolar is raising another part through two capital increases that have already been placed. In March of this year, the most recent one was successfully completed with 6.5 million euros. "With our automated production facility, we can scale and offer competitive prices," says Egner.
The biggest risk for Tubesolar is the pending certification of the modules by TÜV. Egner expects it in the next few months. Production can only start once certification has been granted - "we expect to start sales in the second half of 2022," informs Reiner Egner.
Wood instead of oil.
When Florent Héroguel closes his eyes, he sees a world in which petroleum no longer plays a role. "Our vision is that everything that is produced from petroleum today can be produced from biomass tomorrow - thanks to the technology of our start-up Bloom."
How is this going to work? Bloom takes a carbon that already occurs in large quantities in nature, lignin, and turns it into a chemical feedstock that can be used wherever fossil fuels have been used so far. "Lignin," explains Remy Buser, co-founder and current CEO of Bloom, "is the second most abundant biopolymer on earth. It is the supporting material in wood - similar to reinforced concrete in a building. It is very similar in structure to petroleum. It just hasn't been used yet because for a very long time it was simply impossible to extract it."
For a long time, researchers apparently simply did not understand its structure and properties. Unexpected and undesirable reactions repeatedly led to the lignin being destroyed during the extraction process. That is why its extraction has never been profitable until now. Bloom has now overcome this weakness.
The company emerged from a spin-off of the University École Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne and was founded in 2019 by the two chemists Remy Buser and Florent Héroguel. Bloom is based in Marly, a suburb of Fribourg in French-speaking Switzerland. "Bloom," explains Remy Buser, "has used state-of-the-art analytical tools to develop a unique 'stabilisation chemistry'. It allows lignin to be extracted in its natural structure and its properties fully exploited for applications in the chemical industry."
The potential of lignin is indeed considerable. Wood, for example, is 40 to 50 per cent cellulose, 20 to 30 per cent hemicellulose and 15 to 30 per cent lignin. Besides cellulose and chitin, lignin is the most abundant polymer in nature. Now that Bloom's technology has made the extraction of lignin profitable, huge opportunities are opening up to use and exploit the already existing reserves of this raw material.
The market for carbons and carbon compounds is indeed huge. They are found in almost all objects of our everyday life - in principle everywhere where plastic is contained: plastics, cars, medicines, paint, even in food in the form of flavourings. In Germany, 87 percent of the carbon compounds come from fossil raw materials such as crude oil, natural gas or coal. For the time being. Because if the founders of Bloom have their way, that will change in the future.
There is no shortage of lignin as a raw material. The paper industry alone produces around 50 million tonnes of lignin as a waste product every year - a waste product that can now be turned into an extremely valuable and sustainable raw material. "If you take a tonne of wood that has a value of 100 dollars, this wood contains raw materials worth 1000 dollars," Remy Buser calculates.
Moreover: "The resource wood is produced sustainably and its production is not in direct competition with food, so there is no ethical problem," knows forest scientist Dr. Marcus Lingenfelder from the University of Freiburg.
Bloom is still in the start-up phase. "The technology has been validated on a pilot scale, now it has to become a commercial process," says Remy Buser. "In the longer term, we would like to open up a new, sustainable carbon source, especially for the petrochemical industry. However, market entry will initially be through low-volume, high-value markets."
The markets Buser is talking about are perfumes, flavours and cosmetics - markets with traditionally very high margins. Another very interesting area is the market of phenolic resin, which already exceeded the value of ten billion US dollars a few years ago.
"These markets can be integrated into Bloom's strategy within the next 18 to 24 months," explains Sebastian Heitmann, partner at the German impact investment company Extantia. Sebastian Heitmann has been accompanying Bloom for over a year and is convinced by the concept. "The technology fits, the team works highly motivated - in less than two years we will have first concrete results."
"The fact that everyone who still uses fossil-based products today will have to adapt to a decarbonised world plays into our cards," says Remy Buser, "legislators will help to promote this transition."
Heitmann is certain: Bloom will have paid back the investment needed to build it by 2030 at the latest. If the business model is fully successful, Bloom will become a gigacorn: a company whose technology saves more than one billion tonnes of CO2 per year. In perspective, this would reduce EU-wide CO2 emissions by 33 percent. That is about as much as the CO2 emissions of 35 million cars. An enormous positive impact.
Fuel from CO2.
One of the great hopes in the fight against climate change is electromobility. But even if there were sufficient charging stations, corresponding power lines and vast amounts of green electricity - other solutions are still needed for aviation, shipping and heavy goods transport.
One alternative could be so-called e-fuels, electricity-based fuels produced from CO2 and water: E-kerosene, E-diesel and E-gasoline. These fuels have the same properties and qualities as fossil fuels and can be filled into existing engines and drives. There is no need to convert engines or build new infrastructure. And the best part is that CO2 is needed to produce these fuels.
"When we talk about decarbonisation," says Sebastian Heitmann, partner at the impact investment company Extantia, "there are essentially two options: We can try to avoid putting more CO2 into circulation. That is usually laborious and expensive. Or we can try to convert the existing CO2 through intelligent technologies in such a way that we can thereby meet our carbon needs. If we manage to manage the CO2 that is there without increasing the amount per se, we create a circular economy."
The P2X Copernicus project shows what such a cycle looks like. There, the world's first integrated plant produces fuel from air, water and renewable electricity. In addition to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), three companies are involved in the prototype: Climeworks, sunfire and Ineratec.
The fuel is produced in four steps. In the first step, the CO2 is filtered out of the air. In principle, the carbon dioxide can be extracted where it is produced anyway, i.e. in industrial or biogas plants. A very elegant solution for this is offered by the Swiss company Climeworks. It is a world leader with its technology and filters the CO2 directly from the ambient air (private wealth, issue 04/2017). "Our systems," explains Louise Charles of Climeworks, "can be set up in any location in the world. They are modulable, scalable and can be mass produced."
The second step is to use technology from sunfire. The company was founded in 2010 and is based in Dresden. Today, sunfire is a leading global electrolysis company. Its vision is "a life without fossil fuels".
In the so-called power-to-liquid process, sunfire uses renewable electricity to transform CO2 and water into a green synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
In the next and third step, the know-how of the Swiss company Ineratec comes into play. "By means of the so-called Fisher-Troops synthesis, the synthesis gas is converted into hydrocarbons of different chain lengths," explains Roland Dittmeyer from KIT. "These hydrocarbon molecules are then the raw products for the renewable synthetic fuels - comparable to crude oil."
"With its technology, Ineratec is years ahead of its competitors," explains Sebastian Heitmann. He reckons that the innovative technology can reduce almost a third of EU-wide CO2 emissions. This would also give Ineratec the makings of a gigacorn - a company that can save one billion tonnes of CO2 per year.
In the last and fourth step - developed by the KIT researchers - the raw products thus obtained are finally transformed into liquid fuel in a further reaction stage. They are thus refined: into e-kerosene, e-diesel and e-gasoline.
All the technology required for this fits into a nine-metre-wide container. The cycle works and is efficient. "More than 90 per cent of the carbon that was filtered out of the air in the first step is found in the liquid product," says Roland Dittmeyer. Even more: the synthetic paraffin burns cleaner than the fossil fuel. And: The waste heat from the synthesis in step three can be recycled and used for the electrolysis in step two. 60 per cent of the electricity used is thus stored in the liquid fuel.
Fossil fuels can therefore actually be replaced by renewable, synthetic e-fuels. With the use of e-kerosene in aircraft, flying would become climate-neutral. The use of e-fuels in heavy transport could reduce CO2 emissions - without high investment costs for the conversion to new propulsion technologies or refuelling facilities. The same applies to shipping. Here, too, e-fuels can contribute significantly to decarbonisation.
In Norway, the first industrial plant for the production of e-fuels has already been built. Filter systems from Climeworks remove CO2 from the air. Electrolysis processes from sunfire turn it into renewable fuel. The plant is powered 100 per cent by renewable electricity from Norway. Within the next three years, ten million litres of renewable fuel will be supplied annually for the Norwegian and European markets. The plant can be expanded to 100 million litres per year.
In Werlte in northern Germany, the world's largest power-to-liquid plant for the production of e-kerosene to date has been built using technology from Ineratec. The plant will produce more than 350 tonnes of CO2-neutral e-kerosene and supply German airlines. And that is just the beginning.
"In 2022, Ineratec plans to start up another pioneering industrial plant for the production of sustainable synthetic fuels in Frankfurt am Main," says Philipp Engelkamp, co-founder and CEO of Ineratec. The location is strategically well chosen, as the Höchst industrial park guarantees low-cost access to renewable hydrogen as well as CO2 from a biogas plant.
"We want to produce up to 3500 tonnes or 4.6 million litres of e-fuel annually here," says Philipp Engelkamp, "from up to 10000 tonnes of biogenic carbon dioxide and renewable electricity. This pioneering plant will be the largest to date from Ineratec and will serve as a trailblazer for other power-to-liquid projects worldwide."
Each litre of e-fuel will then replace one litre of fossil fuel. The cycle has begun. Now all that remains is for politicians to ensure that more and more renewable fuel is actually used in aviation and road traffic by gradually increasing the blending quotas for e-fuels. The technology has proven that it works.
Power for Africa.
Energy is the key to everything. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, more than 600 million people have no access to electricity. And thus also no access to education, health and ultimately self-determination. "If we want Africa to develop and be CO2-neutral, we have to give the continent the opportunity to produce CO2-neutral electricity," say Torsten and Aida Schreiber.
The two founded Africa GreenTec in 2016. The company brings solar power to the often remote villages. For this purpose, a so-called solar container is assembled - a twelve-metre-long standard container with solar panels and associated electronics.
The panels of the solar power plant can be set up and put into operation on site in just a few hours with local help. A so-called mini-grid, a stand-alone electricity network, distributes the electricity to the workshops and shops of small entrepreneurs and to the homes of the inhabitants. The villagers can pay for the electricity through a prepaid tariff system adapted to their financial possibilities. Africa Greentec remains the operator, which can also provide other services, such as refrigerators or water treatment plants, which can also be set up and maintained by local employees.
Since Aida Schreiber comes from Mali, her company was able to draw on an extensive informal network there. Therefore, Africa GreenTec also started looking for ImpactSites, i.e. places that have a good chance of developing on their own and whose inhabitants are motivated to make a difference.
Currently, it is mainly places with 3,000 to 5,000 inhabitants that already have a kind of middle class, a school and a health station, where the Schreibers are setting up their solar containers and mini-grids. Middle class in African means: craftsmen like carpenters, joiners, blacksmiths, saddlers, but also traders at the market or with small shops and restaurants. Electricity gives them the opportunity to grow economically and improve their standard of living.
At the same time, Africa GreenTec sees itself as a social enterprise. "Everything that is above the black zero is reinvested," Schreiber said in a radio interview. Today, 15 of these ImpactSites have already been established around the Solartainer in Mali, and another is in Niger. The vision is to develop three million people in 1000 African villages into ImpactSites that are self-sustaining and sustainable by 2030.
A first crowdfunding campaign raised over four million euros. The next round is being planned. In another project, Africa GreenTec wants to support the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) at Lake Chad with its solar infrastructure. For this, it will offer subordinated loans with fixed interest rates. Further west, in Senegal, dilapidated diesel-powered water pumps are to be replaced by 100 solar-powered pumps. This will cost half a million euros. For this, too, the company will soon offer subordinated loans with a fixed interest rate of 4.25 per cent.
Perhaps the Schreibers are right when they find that private investment can be a counter-model to traditional development aid. They believe that with the right support, the African continent can make its way to an efficient, renewable energy economy on its own.
A cool cooker.
Cooking is a real problem in Africa. In Nigeria, for example, 96 percent of all households use charcoal or paraffin stoves. Their fuels are not only often exorbitantly expensive, but also life-threatening, especially for women and children: every year, four million people die from smoke pollution. Last but not least, the environment and climate also suffer.
"I grew up in a village and saw how people got chronic lung diseases from the smoke from the open cooking fires," Okey Esse says. "I left the village to study physics - fortunately. In the university labs, I experimented with how to optimise the combustion process in stoves."
In Nigeria's capital, Abuja, Esse's company has been producing the PowerStove , small cooking cookers that can run on pellets made from wood and crop residues, since 2018. This sounds low-tech, but it is an extremely sophisticated system for burning renewable fuels without residues - and generating and storing electricity along the way. What's more: the cookers even have an internet connection.
Thanks to an ingenious air supply through 85 nozzles, the material burns at up to 1000 degrees completely smokeless and residue-free. As a result, the food is cooked in a fifth of the time compared to the charcoal or paraffin stoves commonly used in Africa. They are correspondingly economical, especially since the pellets are also cheaper with the same energy yield.
In addition, the cooker generates electricity - an elegant solution in many villages that are far away from an appropriate power line. Stored in a battery, it is also available outside meal times for lighting and charging phones. "We have eleven different models on offer, depending on the size they cost between ten and 110 dollars," says Esse.
But since 42 per cent of PowerStove customers don't have more than two dollars a day to live on, Esse's company offers the "Buy as you Cook" solution, where users pay off the cooker in small amounts according to cooking times. The internet connection is used for this purpose, through which the costs can be debited cent by cent according to operating hours. After two and a half months, a cooker has already paid for itself for most customers in this way, especially if they switch from the charcoal or paraffin stoves that are common in Africa.
In this way, Okey Esses' high-tech device solves one of the continent's most pressing problems. The PowerStove's exhaust emissions are as low as those of a gas cooker, emitting correspondingly little carbon dioxide.
Last year, the venture capital firm GreenTec Capital Partners invested in PowerStove. This enabled the company to set up a second production facility in Abuja and increase production capacity to 25,000 cookers per month.
But Esse is thinking even bigger. He wants PowerStove to become a truly pan-African company. As a next step, he plans to set up final assembly in Zimbabwe. Since the country is located pretty much in the middle of southern Africa, the now growing market in neighbouring countries can also be served more quickly from here.
Second life for batteries.
E-mobility can make a major contribution to mitigating climate change. But it creates a new problem: what to do with the old batteries that are usually removed from the cars as soon as they only have 80 percent of their power left?
By 2025, around seven million used batteries from e-mobility will be released - there is still so much energy in them that a city like Berlin could be supplied with battery power for around 50 days. Even if the battery is recycled, that is a pure waste of energy. "There's a tsunami of used batteries coming our way. So I asked myself: can't we extend their life and put them to a second use? With my company betteries, I then developed a solution that has the potential to save 0.5 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2030," says founder Rainer Hönig.
The idea is simple - the technology is not: Hönig has developed a process with which he can remove the heart of e-batteries, the lithium-ion modules, and assemble them into new high-performance mobile batteries. "In this way, we extend the productive life of the lithium-ion modules by five to ten years. We also guarantee that the recyclable parts of the batteries will be recycled afterwards," he tells us.
Rainer Hönig had his first impulse to help shape social challenges back in 2009: "At the time, I was a manager at Rolls-Royce plc in England and took part in an unusual one-year training course." It was about bringing successful large companies together with social entrepreneurs. "In the process, I also went to Bangladesh to see Nobel Peace Prize winner Yunus, who invented microcredit. We looked at his activities. That changed my thinking, my view of things - that did something to me." After the training, Hönig pushes a few things in the direction of sustainability at his employer. But it doesn't have the impact he would have liked. In 2016, the aerospace engineer left Rolls-Royce. He wants to make his contribution to the protection of the planet, "in the area in which I know my way around - energy and mobility. I wanted to give as many people as possible affordable access to clean mobile energy from batteries." Since he drives e-cars himself, he got the idea of dismantling and reassembling car batteries in his garage with a few students - "this then became betteries in 2018".
The challenges in setting up betteries, he says, were immense. "There was nothing yet - no efficient process for dismantling lithium-ion modules, no experience and hardly any partners. Because at that time, many people were thinking about selling e-cars, but hardly anyone was thinking about the whereabouts of the batteries after they were used." He finds a sympathetic ear at Renault Mobilize. "The management there wanted to take a progressive approach to the issue of the circular economy even back then." Betteries is now working cooperatively with Renault, which ensures the start-up access to used batteries and industrial manufacturing capacities in particular. From 2022, the second-life batteries will be assembled at the Renault factory.
Potential buyers, he says, are more than enough. "Distribution, which sells small generators today and has to offer sustainable energy systems tomorrow. Companies that rent out machinery for the construction industry, events, festivals, film and TV. Companies that install second-life batteries in other systems, like the Piaggio small vehicles or tuk-tuks in the Asian region that are currently being converted to electric drive. Or the entire project business. For example, this is someone who wants to convert 50 small health stations in Africa to solar power and needs a stationary and mobile storage system, a decentralised energy supply that should be climate-friendly."
However, the competition is intense. "After all, our competition is new products that become cheaper every year. So we have to convince the buyers that the secondary recycling of batteries does not entail any loss of performance. We are still cheaper than new products - whether it stays that way depends heavily on the efficiency of our processes and innovative strength. And the only thing that protects us is to run at least as fast as the competition and to be permanently innovative in order to create added value for the customer."
In the beginning, Hönig invested only his own money, then friends from his network joined him as angel investors. In the first official seed round, he emphasises the mission alignment of his backers. "We want people who share our goals and strive in the same direction. They should also add value - through their network, outlets, experience." He has found impact investors - a fund financed by the Shell Foundation and a pledge fund of wealthy people pursuing climate goals. Both want social return in addition to financial return.
Today, the start-up already makes "a few 100,000 euros in turnover", as Hönig says. Officially, however, the company is still in the pre-revenue phase. "We are just learning how the market launch works. In Senegal, Portugal and in Belize, Central America, our batteries are already in use, also in Germany. But the real wave will come when the product is approved next year."
That's why he's also just getting back to looking for investors with a concrete plan. The next steps are: Approve product by early 2022, launch product, generate first sales, close financing round that secures growth for the next 24 months, and establish the next product category, a larger one. "If we are successful, by 2030 we will have avoided at least 0.5 gigatonnes of CO2, provided clean electricity to millions of people and given a boost to the circular economy."
In five years, says the now 58-year-old, he will be out and will have handed the company over to younger colleagues. "They'll make it really big then. I will look at it and be proud that I got it off the ground."
The forest saviours.
At the World Climate Summit in Glasgow, more than 100 countries pledged to stop the destruction of forests by 2030. Forests are important because they absorb about one third of the CO2 emissions emitted by humans every year.
Currently, however, forest areas are shrinking alarmingly. According to researchers at the climate summit, an area equivalent to 27 football fields is lost every minute - through clearing, fires or damage to the forest.
Even in Germany there are currently around 300,000 hectares of such so-called damaged areas. "Something is going hugely wrong here," Ole Seidenberg assesses the situation: "Every year there are more and more, and in addition there are large conversion areas, i.e. forests that currently still exist in monoculture and should quickly become mixed forests so that they can withstand climate change."
The problem: reforestation is expensive - especially in hard-to-reach areas. "Currently, planting seedlings costs around 4000 to 10000 euros per hectare. To secure soils and nutrients on steep slopes, sometimes even a helicopter is needed. This costs 18 euros per minute. This is not the way to move forward on this issue."
Seidenberg is one of three founders of the start-up Skyseed. His mission: to use a specially developed drone and tree seeds in a pellet casing to reforest damaged forest areas in Germany and Europe cheaply and effectively. "The drones can be used quickly and everywhere. The larger or harder to reach the area, the more useful the drone. And the pellets ensure that no seed is wasted. The pellet protects, it is purely ecological, it can store more water, and the microorganisms and fungal cultures that are in the forest soil anyway can form a better symbiosis with the nutrients in the seed. Germination and growth are clearly favoured."
Together with brothers Dominik and Simon Wind, Seidenberg built up a team within about a year and configured the drone, which can deploy almost all tree species in different locations using two different drop mechanisms. The proof of concept is currently underway: "We have ten test areas, including a state forest, several large forests owned by nobility and areas that are being scientifically monitored by the Technical University of Munich," Seidenberg explains. In autumn, they used their drone to spread pellets on around 30 hectares. "There are different soils there, different climatic conditions."
And that is important, because the last round of financing provided the start-up with money that will last until February. The founders have raised half a million euros from 13 investors so far. Most of them contribute their entrepreneurial experience, the forest owners also their contacts to seed sellers. "The one or other investor will support us until April, but then we need results - and 1.5 to two million euros to be able to scale."
His vision: In the future, forest owners will be able to take a digital look at their land with the help of Skyseed. The soil will be analysed so that it can be determined in advance which tree species would be best suited with which mixture. At the same time, it should be possible to compare in real time with a digital supply chain whether and where the desired seeds can be bought and at what price.
Ideally, the offer to the forest owner is made during the conversation. The owner can accept it immediately with a click. Another click automatically triggers the order and sets the process in motion. In 2022, Skyseed wants to reach 500 hectares of afforestation area and prove that pelleted seeds have a clear advantage over seedlings.
But this is to be just the beginning. "The drones will get longer ranges, the batteries will get stronger, they will be able to tow more and fly out of sight," explains Seidenberg. His goal is therefore to supply ten per cent of the German reforestation market within five years.
"Acutely, 300000 hectares have already been accrued - only in Germany. And the problem will get worse." In the long term, Seidenberg expects around 120,000 hectares of new afforestation area per year: "Neither nurseries nor our own staff can keep up. This leads to more and more open areas that dry out and become grassy in the blazing sun without rapid seeding. That's why every year counts - and that's where we come in, especially with our pre-forest mix." Preventive measures against desertification in Greece are urgently needed for this. Or the conversion of the eucalyptus forest in Portugal. "There is a tremendous amount to do."
Yvonne Döbler, Sabine Holzknecht, Klaus Meitinger, Hanns J. Neubert.