How harmful is microrubber to humans?

Microplastics is literally on everyone’s lips. Every person eats, drinks and breathes up to five grams of microplastics per week – and therefore basically eats a credit card. There’s not just a lot of microplastic in the air and in our drinking water. There is also another polymer that’s in everyday use: microrubber.

Drivers are familiar with this problem. Tires wear out and you have to buy a new set, for better or for worse. After all, depending on how you drive, a tire lasts about 40,000 kilometers until it has to be replaced. But where does all the rubber that originally made up the tire’s tread disappear to? It’s pretty obvious once you hit the brakes if you’re going fast. The black tracks on the asphalt are unmissable. Yet even without applying the brakes hard or taking off like a rally driver at the traffic lights, tires inevitably wear out and rubber is scattered all over the place.

Cars and trucks main source of microrubber

Researchers revolving around Bernd Nowack from the “Technology and Society” department of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) in St. Gallen have calculated that between 1988 and 2018 around 200,000 tonnes of micro-rubber had accumulated in the Swiss environment alone. Among other things, they examined the import and export data on tires in Switzerland. They then linked this to a model simulating how rubber behaves on the road and in wastewater. They also analyzed the wear and tear of surfaces such as artificial turf.

The results showed that car and truck tires are the main source of microrubber. Especially given that the removal of artificial green areas such as artificial turf played only a minor role, accounting for just 3 % as Nowacj states. The remaining 97 % was the result of tire abrasion. Roughly 3 % sticks to the right and left side of the road within the first five meters. Another 5 % in the nearby residual soil and almost 20 % in water bodies. Only a small part is distributed into the air which is constantly being stirred up.

© unsplash/Hannes Egler

Microrubber vs microplastics

The adverse effects of microrubber on humans are evidently less severe than those of microplastics. Christoph Hüglin from Empa’s Air Pollution / Environmental Technology department estimates that the impact is only minor. According to Hüglin, a study carried out in 2009 shows that the proportion of tire abrasion in inhaled fine particles is also in the low single-digit percentage range at traffic sites.

You can find articles on microplastics here.

Nevertheless, microplastics and microrubber cannot be lumped together. “These are different particles that can hardly be compared with each other,” says Nowack. Even if microrubber does not seem to pose any danger to humans, it should not be ignored. As the amount of released microrubber exceeds that of released microplastics many times over. The scientists have calculated that only 7% of the polymer-based microparticles released into the environment are made up of plastic. Whereas the remaining 93% are made up of microrubber. “The amount of microrubber in the environment is huge and therefore highly relevant,” Nowack underlines.

Hazardous heavy metals?

While Bernd Nowack stresses that there is no health risk from microrubber, there are other well known sources that do see a danger in the tiny rubber particles. In recent years in the USA, thousands of children’s playgrounds and sports fields have been equipped with rubber surfaces made of recycled tires. Not only parents but legislators as well are concerned about the health effects on children. Car tires are not just made of rubber, but contain a lot of materials that are believed to cause cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Chemicals such as sulphur and zinc oxide are used along with various metals such as lead and cadmium, as well as harmful plasticizers and fire retardants.

A group of Indian scientists conducted a study as early as 2014 with the aim of assessing the potential risk presented by rubber particles in the air. They performed a lung function test on 60 male employees at a rubber factory and a control group. The groups were divided according to the duration they were exposed to the microrubber particles. As in, 1-3 years, 4-7 years and 8-11 years. Group 1 was a control group.

After evaluation of all lung functions of the participants, group 2, 3 and 4 showed a significant decrease in lung function compared to the control group. The worst values compared to the control group were found in the subjects in group 4. They had been exposed to the microrubber for the longest period of time. These results would indicate that lung function was affected by microrubber particles and the severity of the effect depended on the length of exposure, the researchers wrote.

Start-up of the week: a Dutch solution for a Dutch problem

”Your sneak preview of the future” is the slogan of Innovation Origins, and that’s just what we will highlight with our Start-up of the Week column. Over the past few days, five start-ups of the day have been featured and on Saturday we will choose the week’s winner.

Innovation Origins presents a Start-up of the Day each weekday

We shall consider various issues such as sustainability, developmental phase, practical application, simplicity, originality and to what extent they are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of UNESCO. They will all pass by here and at the end of the week, the Start-Up of the Week will be announced.

EP Tender: a powerbank on wheels

It’s a strange sight, but the battery trailer from the French start-up EP Tender is definitely a very serious plan. You can regard the vehicle as a kind of extra battery for electric cars. This increases the range of the electric car by a maximum of 150 kilometers. Useful for holidays abroad where there are less charging stations than in The Netherlands. For the start-up it is to be hoped that battery nanotechnology is not set to overtake this wee trailer in the next decade.

Credimi – Fast financing for start-ups

Often an ambitious innovative business model needs money. Money that those involved don’t always have in their own pockets. Of course, you could go to a bank to finance your project, yet that frequently takes up an incredible amount of time. What makes Italian Credimi different from other lenders is that they are very fast. An applicant knows within 48 hours whether or not they will receive the loan. And this can be very welcome if you need to act quickly in a volatile market.

Skinive – Pocket-sized dermatologist

Almost everyone has discovered something on their skin that they were a little concerned about. A birthmark you didn’t know existed. Or a type of rash, an innocent spot. Or perhaps it would be a good idea to see your family doctor after all? By using the app from the Belarus start-up Skinive, you can find out directly by pointing your phone’s camera at your skin and taking a few pictures. The app then matches the images with data from a database that contains a multitude of nightmares for hypochondriacs.

The project initially began with the aim of discovering the first stages of skin cancer.However, the founders soon figured out that their smart app also worked for many other conditions. And because the app works on any smartphone, skin research is more accessible than ever. Skinive just offers advice on dermatological conditions, but unfortunately it doesn’t help against hypochondria.

Hydrogenious – All hail hydrogen

That hydrogen has the potential to be used as a fuel has been known for some time now. And how nice it would be if this would also be possible to roll it out en masse. Hydrogen is not a greenhouse gas. It produces about three times more energy than the same amount of petrol and there is more than enough of it on earth. So much for the advantages. Hydrogen is quite flammable at room temperature. Something that is obviously not very practical when you want to travel by car. In addition, the gas has the lowest density of the entire periodic table of elements, which makes it extremely difficult to work with. The gas evaporates just like that.

The German team behind Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies wants to address and overcome these two disadvantages with an innovative bit of chemistry. The ambitious start-up devised a process whereby hydrogen can be stored without any risk of explosion. And that’s not all. They have also discovered a way in which the gas can be transported to the end user with a tanker or a pipeline. How great would it be if we no longer needed to reduce the use of environmentally hazardous fuels, but simply had a clean alternative that we could burn which never runs out?

Fieldfactors – Avoid wet feet with green fields

Climate change is likely to have serious consequences for the Netherlands. Due to the fact that half of the country is actually below sea level, the risk of flooding is constantly looming over our tiny hinterland. And this is not the sole threat. Heavy rainfall will be more frequent as a result of a warmer kind of climate. Excess rainwater has to go somewhere if you don’t want the streets to be flooded. This is especially a problem in built-up areas. It can be very difficult to get rid of water when everything is packed in tight. However, the Dutch wouldn’t be Dutch if they didn’t have an innovative solution for this. One of these is Bluebloqs, a system from the start-up Fieldfactors, whereby 95% of rainwater can be stored underground in a basin.

This storage technology not only keeps our feet dry, it also looks pretty green. The system is visible at street level in the form of a plant bed. This naturally enhances the appeal of the street scenes. A win-win situation. An underground system is currently being installed in Rotterdam and is also dealing with a third sore point. Climate change does not limit itself to heavier rainfall, but also to longer periods of drought. Thanks to the compact storage basin, rainwater can be stored for months and reused at any time.

The biggest job these ex-students from Delft University have done so far was to install a storm water drain near the Kasteel football stadium, the home of Sparta. The football field is being watered in a sustainable manner through this basin. The square in front of the station has become a lot greener. And the local residents are no longer inconvenienced by flooding.

That the Dutch are internationally known as experts in the field of water management has once again been by Fieldfactors. The initiators show that innovation does not necessarily have to involve high-tech gadgets. One can also look towards nature too. In fact, everyone benefits from this system at a time when a well thought-out irrigation policy is more important than ever. This is enough reason for us to reward Fieldfactors this week with the title of Start-up of the Week!

Best read: Professor says – ‘Don’t panic about the rise in sea levels’

Soaking wet feet through flooded streets. We are increasingly faced with heavy rains or periods of drought as a result of climate change. The municipality of Eindhoven is taking all kinds of measures to mitigate flooding. Last week’s best-read article featured a measurement tool developed by the municipality to figure out how much water building constructors need to divert from new buildings in order to reduce the risk of flooding. The municipality of Eindhoven is also addressing problem areas with new water storage systems aimed at reducing the disruption caused by heavy downpours.

Great, all these measures, but they won’t help you if The Netherlands floods. There is the idea among some sea-level experts that unstable ice sheets cause the sea level to rise faster than is presently thought to be the case. But according to Bas Jonk, professor of hydraulic engineering at Delft University of Technology, at the moment we will be able to technically cope with a rise in sea level of 1 to 2 meters. “It is expected that the water will rise by 20 to 30 centimeters by 2050. This is not a problem right now. We could raise dikes and replace storm surge barriers as the water rises.”

According to the professor, the Netherlands has things pretty much under control when it comes to flood protection: “Many flood barriers have been designed with an increase of 1 meter in mind. Every year, the government invests around 1 billion euros in flood protection. Which is something we can maintain and that’s a good thing. Compare it with other countries – there are plenty of areas in the United States that are not yet well-protected so they still have a long way to go. Thought is being given to constructing dikes or taking other measures over there now.”

Not acting is not an option

He gets that the Dutch are worried. However, there is no need for panic. “60 % of The Netherlands is low-lying and vulnerable to flooding. This can have many consequences. So yes, that concern is justified. But you should put it in perspective. Between now and 2050, the sea level will rise by a maximum of 30 centimeters, only after that will it rise faster. The threshold of 2.5 to 5 meters will probably not be reached until the 22nd century. This means that we still have ample time to see what can be done technically. Nor would it be a bad idea at all to raise that budget by 2050 from 1 billion to 2, maybe even 3 billion euros a year.”

The Maeslandkering storm surge barrier near Rotterdam is designed to close about twice a year. If the sea level rises above 1 meter, this barrier would then have to close every day. This is far from ideal because ships will no longer be able to sail freely. And the Oosterscheldekering storm surge barrier will also have to close every week if the sea level rises that much. This in turn will have negative repercussions on the wildlife environs.

Dams, dikes and drainage

“That’s why it’s good to think about alternatives now. Start by figuring out and planning what is needed to replace these barriers. What happens to the area if you build a permanent dam? Perhaps a new flood barrier would be a better idea. This involves a lot of work and the implications are considerable. These are expensive projects that have an impact on the environment and the economy. Planning and all the procedures surrounding these projects take up a lot of time. This is where the biggest challenge lies for the time being,” Jonkman explains.

In Jonkman’s opinion, we are more likely to be affected by other climate factors, such as heavy rainfall and temperature hikes accompanied by drought. “Recently a report was published by Deltares (a Dutch research institute) on this and their conclusion is that rising sea levels have not accelerated. Even though we are already suffering from drier summers. e.g. rivers are becoming less navigable as a result of low levels. Drought is endangering constructions built on piles and dikes. And in cities there is heat stress to contend with. In some places, drainage of water after heavy rainfall is also a problem.”

Advancing innovation, also outside of The Netherlands

Not only the Netherlands suffers from heat stress, drought or heavy rains. This is why various partners from fifteen different countries within the European Union are working on local solutions to climate-related problems. Brigaid helps entrepreneurs and inventors to flesh out their ideas. Bas Jonkman is also busy with this on behalf of TU Delft. “Often you see that innovations are difficult to get off the ground. Not much is put into practice. We want to support innovators in advancing their innovations through this project,” the professor explains.

The EU project runs until April 2020 and so far, Jonkman has already seen solutions from twenty different European countries. From a smart green roof in Antwerp that retains water during heavy rainfall and releases it during drought, to solutions for water basins in Spain where the water evaporates at high temperatures. “In Romania there is a test facility where you can test a smarter alternative to sandbags. And you are able to simulate all kinds of situations with temporary flood barriers here in Delft.”

“Furthermore, project participants receive advice with regard to the technical side and help with building a business case. Another objective is to boost education and research. Students who are doing an internship or are in the process of graduating are able to participate in various projects. You bring each other further this way.”

Tomorrow is Good: The Benefits of Mistakes and Failures lie in Learning

The topic of a “culture of error” or a “culture that allows mistakes to be made” is fashionable and has recently been discussed in many companies and conferences. This discussion ranges from the enthusiasm and the desire for a quick introduction of so-called FuckUp Events in companies to the complete rejection of any tolerance for errors. The proponents want to celebrate mistakes as a learning opportunity while the critics describe mistakes as a cost factor that reduces profits and must therefore be bad per se. Both of these views fall short of the mark.

I have already written in previous articles why I love FuckUp Nights. This is because they enable us to learn: both the people concerned, who must have reported on such an experience and reflected on it, and the listeners, because they can learn through observation and the experiences of others. Talking about mistakes, errors or failed projects is an important part of a learning culture. Do they really need to be celebrated, as critics like to argue? No, they don’t. It is not at all about celebrating mistakes, as is sometimes done in Silicon Valley. What is the point of celebrating a failure and highlighting how grandiose it was? That would mean that we actually want to fail and make mistakes. I don’t think anyone likes to fail voluntarily. And certainly not healthy, happy, competent or successful people, as some authors like to express it.

It simply hurts

If failure is the ultimate non-achievement of personal goals, then it’s going to hurt because it is also about identity and downfall. This holds true whether it’s a project, an unachieved important goal, the end of a relationship or insolvency. Some go so far as to link the experience of failure to identity-creating motives and goals, in which case failure is simply painful. When we talk about a real culture of mistakes or learning, this has nothing to do with celebrating mistakes, but rather with the processing of emotional pain on a personal level. These negative emotions can also have a negative influence on the loyalty of an employee to their company.

For companies, the question arises as to how they can nevertheless benefit from the costs of an error or failure. The benefit of mistakes and failure lies in the learning effect. An error culture and a learning culture are mutually dependent, so to speak. Without mistakes there is no learning and there is no learning without mistakes. But learning is also an investment in the future in which the same mistake will hopefully not be made again. And then an open attitude towards mistakes and failures suddenly has a completely different meaning – namely investing in the experience and competence of employees.

Unwanted results are perfectly normal

Of course, not every mistake or failure is the same. If a mistake is predictable and avoidable, there is no reason other than negligence or stupidity for it to happen. The causes should have been known and thus avoided. If a mistake is neither predictable nor avoidable, that’s a different story. This is the case, for example, in complex and unsafe situations or when, as with innovations, new processes and products are involved. These must first be tested and checked in order to find out what the actual properties and results would be. This is different if a mistake is neither predictable nor avoidable, as is the case, for example, in complex and unsafe situations. Or when, as with innovations, new processes and products are involved. These must first be tested and checked in order to find out what the actual properties and results would be. Unexpected and undesired results are completely normal and cannot be avoided. And yet they are valuable for gaining knowledge about how it doesn’t work and new ideas about how it could work.

When I speak of a culture of error or improved learning, I speak of a culture in which exactly these unforeseeable and unavoidable errors may happen in order to learn from them. In principle, we have two learning strategies at our disposal: Imitation or exploration. Imitating others helps us to learn from their experiences and competences. This also means that we don’t try anything new, meaning that the results are predictable and avoidable. If we want to break new ground, explore and discover something new – exploration – then we have to be prepared to engage in something unpredictable and unavoidable.

If this unpredictable and inevitable is personally important and identity-building, then no matter how normal, natural or desirable the failure is – it will be painful.

Overcoming failure

Studies show that negative feelings in connection with failed projects increase the risk of decreasing commitment and loyalty of employees to the company. According to these studies, the processing of negative emotions and coping with failure is also influenced by the employees’ perception of how the company deals with failure and the amount of time given to employees to process it.

A credible error or learning culture is mandatory for all companies that are active in an environment in which errors cannot be avoided or foreseen. This is likely to apply to any company that operates in a so-called VUCA environment – in other words, almost all companies.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns.

Tomorrow is good: 5 trends in consumer behavior that have a shadowy side

Consumers are the cornerstone of any organization’s existence. As an organization, you must work on devising solutions for issues that the consumers of tomorrow may run into in order to improve the lives of these future consumers. But what are these issues? I set off on a journey into the magical land of trend analysis and came across five trends in consumer behaviour that have a shadowy side. That shadowy side is something that we should shed a little light on. And when there is a shadowy side to something, then there’s something that needs to be polished up. As in, something can actually be done to make sure that tomorrow is good.

The addicted consumer

Whoa, we humans are slaves to addiction. Although some people are more susceptible to addiction than others, almost every person is sensitive to some form of addiction. For instance, we are sensitive to an addiction to media. Media outlets like Netflix are so quick in delivering the next episode, that it’s much more difficult for the average consumer to stop their media consumption than it is to maintain their media usage. You become addicted as a result.

Our social media consumption has often been associated with addiction in recent years. It has already been scientifically mapped out which personal characteristics fuel social media addiction. How social media addiction affects your satisfaction with your life. Or what the negative impact of social media addiction is on (school) performance. I could go on and on. Consequently, there are calls for us to regulate media consumption and to protect consumers from excessive media consumption.

The lonely consumer

Although our online world is characterized by words like ‘connection’ and ‘connectedness’, in reality we are gradually becoming more and more lonely. Instead of heading into town with your girlfriends to find a new dress, you simply browse through webshops on your own. You no longer venture out on a pub crawl anymore to find an exciting new love interest. You simply swipe through Tinder profiles. Loneliness caused by the impact of social media and the digital world is starting to surface to such an extent, that it is being referred to as a loneliness epidemic. There is an increasing need to ‘reconnect’ by seeking out actual physical and offline contact with each other again.

The minimalist consumer

Then there is one more trend that goes against our evolutionary roots as hunters and gatherers. While hunting and gathering may act as an impetus for more consumerism, we are now seeing more and more signs directed towards downsizing and minimalism. We build tiny houses, we reuse furniture and we hardly own any books, music albums or films. Minimalism has become a way of life for many.

Some minimalists not only filter their own consumer pattern in excessive ways, but also do that on behalf of others. And that’s where the shadowy side comes in. We are not talking about the minimalists who simply consider minimalism more aesthetically pleasing (e.g. fans of Scandinavian design). Nor the minimalists who for practical reasons aspire to a minimalist existence (e.g. which makes it easier for them to travel). But rather about the minimalists who aspire to nonconsumerism based on moral conviction with a focus on sustainability. Although, of course, there is nothing wrong with that moral conviction.

Many people share that conviction in principle. However, one may have some reservations about those minimalists who act as activists in their approach to others where flight shame, plastic shame or meat shame are concerned. There appears to be a razor-thin line between raising awareness or instilling feelings of shame on others. We should honestly ask ourselves whether we are making our society more appealing when we step over that line. Guilt and shame can certainly change behaviors. Nevertheless, the question remains whether there are not more charming roads to the Rome in question.

The nonmaterialistic consumer

A trend associated with that of minimalism is that of nonmaterialism. Nonmaterialistic consumers consume without any tangible consequence of that consumerism. On the one hand, nonmaterialism is the result of a changing pattern of consumerism. We prefer to spend our money on experiences and adventures rather than on products. On the other hand, we are replacing some products with subscriptions. We no longer buy a CD, but a subscription to Spotify instead.

Especially this second development is beginning to take on such significant proportions that we now speak of a ‘subscription economy’. Subscription models are penetrating markets, meaning that the relationship between provider and consumer is undergoing considerable change. Not only does this relationship become more long-term and stable, but is also characterized by a higher level of dependence. The more subscriptions, the less diversification in the consumer pattern and the greater the dependence on a number of behemoth corporations. From research carried out by McKinsey, it appears that consumers are indeed buying subscriptions en masse, yet only about 11% of them are fans of the subscription model.

The consumer robot

When it comes to consumers, we mean people. It’s almost time to change that mindset. As the consumer robot is gaining ground. For example, a study by Ericsson shows that 70% of consumers think that within three years virtual assistants will be making purchasing decisions for them. Some researchers have even gone a step further and claim that in a few years’ time, 85% of shopping behaviour will take place without human interaction. It is impossible to pin an exact number on this in the future, but the trend is very clear.

Personally I find this the one of most cool trends. I am a huge fan of a society where artificial intelligence provides human intelligence with support wherever possible. Of course, there is also a shadowy side to this trend. How do we integrate ethics into the purchasing decisions of a consumer robot? And how do we ensure that consumers are happy to entrust their wallets to a robot? Together with my research group, I’m working hard on designing solutions to these questions.

Tomorrow is good for our customers if we work on the shadowy side of these developments. When we brighten up something that is shadowy, turn negatives into positives and turn anything that’s a grey area into something that shines!

 

Beyond Media: research on ‘rogue caregivers’ wins prize for open data

During the Beyond Media journalism conference last Thursday evening, the researchers involved in a study of what the Dutch term as ‘zorgcowboys’ (care cowboys, as in rogue caregivers) received the Stuiveling Open Data Award (SODA). As internet pioneer Marleen Stikker says, it is time to regain sovereignty over our data. “People think that technology is neutral.”

The award-winning project is an initiative of Pointer, Reporter Radio and Follow the Money. They used open data from the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) to uncover large-scale fraud in the healthcare system. The research led to internal investigations within several municipalities. The jury praised the methodology used by the applicants, explains jury member as well as chairman of the Netherlands Court of Audit, Arno Visser. “The data used is open. The work method is transparent and traceable and offers room for discussion and other interpretations. This is crucial for proper social debate.”

By the people, for the people

The prize (20,000 euros) is awarded each year by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK). It is named after Saskia Stuiveling, the former president of the Netherlands Court of Audit. She was an advocate for the use of open data within government. “Public sector information belongs to the public. By the people, for the people“, as Visser states. “The whole of society benefits from open data. It leads to surprising insights and a lively public debate.”

Paranoia confirmed

According to Marleen Stikker, member of the jury and speaker at the conference, the pursuit of more open data fits in with the struggle for a more transparent society. “Even with more open data, we are still saddled with other problems, such as algorithms. We no longer feel comfortable on online platforms.” Among other things, Stikker is the founder of the research institute Waag Society and was one of the founders of the accessible internet as we know it today in the Netherlands. “Several revelations, such as those surrounding Snowden and Cambridge Analytica, have confirmed our right to be paranoid. This goes beyond privacy; it’s about regaining our sovereignty. Because do we actually understand the ways in which we are being manipulated online?”

Technology is not neutral

Stikker hopes that people will think about their online behaviour more. “It’s actually quite absurd: we find it important that our products are protected in supermarkets and pharmacies, but we don’t think about the safety issues of the apps that we install. The problem is that many people think that technology is neutral. But the ethics are part of the creative process. And that is monopolized by large companies. We need systems in place to ensure that those companies are not able to misuse our data.”

Beyond Media

The prize was awarded during Beyond Media, a conference on innovation in journalism at Tilburg’s LocHal. The event was organized by MindLabs, a joint initiative on the cutting edge of AI and people. Alderman Berend de Vries from Tilburg opened the evening. “The future is being driven by perspectives on technology, not just technology itself,” he underlined. Consequently, the overarching theme was a question of how the professional field can shift the focus more towards the public, rather than technology. It was also discussed how robot journalist PASS could take over ”chores” from journalists, for instance. Innovation Origins previously published an interview about this project with one of the people behind it. You can read that interview here.

Photo: Open State Foundation, Twitter

Slush Helsinki is filled with entrepreneurs, researchers and investors, but hardly any politicians

Suzanne de Kok Selstad is the CEO of ‘Skape‘, a Norwegian start-up consulting organisation. She lives in Stavanger and is a first-time visitor of Slush, the annual innovation and Start-up festival in Helsinki. She writes about her experiences at “the World’s LeadingStart-up Event” for Innovation Origins. This is Day 2 of the event. You can read part 1 here.

We are several people from our county Rogaland attending Slush for different reasons. Trond Medhus, Opportunity Manager for Invest In Stavanger (Greater Stavanger Region) stated that “Slush is the place to be for meeting start-ups, investors and entrepreneurs. Since we are in a global market, we need to be out there getting inspired, listen to the entrepreneurial stories from different angles”. There is indeed no doubt that this is a place that allows us to look into the future – and a perfect place for valuable networking as well. We are meeting people with the brightest ideas, talents, students, investors and on-the-go we get insights on the future technological trends. Next year, we want to bring more start-ups from the Stavanger region over to Slush and use this conference as a place to inspire young entrepreneurs and give them valuable insights and network.

“Money is flowing in the start-up venues”

Cato Meling, head of conference at ONS, the second-largest energy conference in the world, mentions that “it has been an inspiring day at Slush with engaging speakers and interesting themes”. The State of European Tech 2019, which was presented today, essentially states that money is flowing in the start-up venues and there is a need for more women in tech. This positive vibe throughout the event is contagious and incredibly inspiring, and I will for sure be back next year.

“We need more women in tech”

Day two was also exciting, with different insightful themes. Again, we had to make a choice! Like yesterday, we heard people discussing the challenges about talents. But also, about the different demands of talents themselves. Do future talents want to live in big, expensive cities? Can climate changes create new business opportunities? What can we learn from history? Several interesting questions were raised, allowing us to think for ourselves and dwell on the complexity of the future.

Since we got the opportunity to cruise around Helsinki on an e-scooter yesterday, we had to listen to Fredrik Hjelm, Co-founder & CEO of Voi Technology and Lawrence Leuschner, CEO & Co-founder of TIER Mobility. They shared insights about how their companies work together with cities to change regulations. They challenge cities to rethink their transport system. Most cities today are dominated by cars. They, however, raise the question: do we really need two lanes for cars? Berlin is, for example, moving away from extra car lanes and Paris is implementing safety actions for bikers.

Skapes Rudolf Hansen and Suzanne de Kok Selstad on their e-scooters in Helsinki

Cities can also think about changing the rules. More tenders for e-scooters in one in town? A maximum number of providers? Limit a licence for maybe two or three years? Madrid has a tender of 15-17 companies for different parts of town. And how about safety? Most accidents are between cars and scooters, we need to rethink the way they interact. It is, however, rarely the case between scooters or scooter and pedestrians.

Build a culture

Personally, I enjoyed the session about people, we know that it is all about people, especially in the startup world. How important it is to build teams, onboard new members, integrate them, build a culture. Always think of diversity: it breathes better decision-making, offers different angles. Start the process of building a company culture early and include people around you in the process. And if you lead a team yourself, dare to be vulnerable. Dare to say I don’t know and ask somebody who does.

At the end of Day 2, we saw the finals for research pitching. When I heard about these researchers, It immediately felt really good. So many bright ideas for future challenges… 95 ideas, 8 final pitches, one winner! The winner of the grand prize, the 100,000 Euro Skolar Award grant, is Thomas Hausmaninger from the National Metrology Institute of Finland.

“This positive vibe throughout the event is contagious and incredibly inspiring”

I felt privileged being at Slush where there were so many people who have this positive energy of being part of creating something. We need entrepreneurs, we need researchers, we need investors. The group maybe lacking were the politicians.

Slush 2019 is finished. Now, on my way back to Norway, I feel inspired, filled with new knowledge and blessed with a whole new network. I’ll be back!

Start-up of the Day: Skinive develops AI-powered app for skin self-examination

Skinive is an AI-technology for Skin Health Self-Examination. Users upload photos of skin areas with suspicious spots, moles or rash into the app, Skinive algorithms examine the image and make an instant diagnosis. Skinive can detect signs of numerous skin diseases such as pre-cancerous moles and skin cancer, papillomavirus, rosacea and others.

Start-up Skinive began life as AI Skin Health Self-Examination service in 2018 in Belarus. Since then Skinive AI has been continuously learning from medical doctors’ input and countless images and descriptions of skin diseases. Recently the company from Belarus has become a finalist of Rockstart AI Accelerator program in the Netherlands.

Innovation Origins has spoken with Kirill Atstarov, the founder of Skinive, about highlights and challenges that the start-up has experienced and about its business journey from Belarus to the international market.

What motivated you to start Skinive? How did it happen?

Our motivation was to create our own health self-examination product. At first, we wanted to create AI technology for diagnostics of some common diseases and prediction modelling. However, this would involve the use of X-rays or ultrasound images. For that reason, the applications of our technology required pilot projects with medical institutions, which was difficult to arrange in Belarus. That is why we restricted our scope to a skin health examination. In this way, we could bring our technology directly to the end-user – thanks to the fact that nowadays almost everyone has a smartphone. We started with the diagnostics of skin cancer. But soon we realized that the market already had enough of AI skin examination apps serving the same purpose, so we broadened the range of skin diseases that could be detected by our algorithms.

What kind of problems do you solve?

Our main motivation is to create a product that would allow many people to be healthy. Now people can have a quick skin examination with our app, get a result and if a (potentially) dangerous skin condition is found, users need to visit a doctor. However, we plan that in the future it would be possible to confirm the diagnosis with a doctor in the app – in the form of a telemedicine service. Two opinions – from the AI and a dermatologist – are especially useful to have if people are dealing with skin allergy.

What is the biggest obstacle that you needed/will need to overcome?

Our main problem was that medical doctors in Belarus were initially sceptical about our technology. In the beginning, we faced a lot of criticism. Some medical specialists did not understand how AI-based diagnostics worked, some people even called our technology health fraud.

When I came to the Netherlands for the Rockstart program, I visited Nijmegen and met medical doctors who are specialized in diagnostics with the usage of neural networks and AI. That was a pleasant surprise!

What is the difference between Skinive and other skin self-examination apps? 

Most of the existing skin examination apps focus on diagnostics of skin cancer. With our AI algorithms and we can detect and identify not only skin cancer but about thirty other skin conditions. Skin cancer is undoubtedly a dangerous disease, but it is not the most common skin problem. Most frequently people suffer from acne or viral infections, and we want to help those people.

Skinive at work © Skinive

Do you receive support from the government of Belarus?

The activity of Skinive and similar start-ups has attracted the attention of the Belarusian government. So, at the beginning of October there was a round table in Minks with the Minister of Health and the administration of Belarussian main technology hub – Hi-tech Park. They were discussing the new ways of cooperation between medical specialists and software companies like Skinive. As a result, they came up with a program that makes IT and healthcare cooperation more convenient both sides. It is an important step for the industry. Previously medical doctors could only work with IT-companies as private individuals in their free time – not as employees of a hospital.

Are there accomplishments that made you proud of your work?

The accomplishment we are most proud of is the first life that we have saved with our app! That happened during an international IT-conference EMERGE in Minsk. We were demonstrating what we do as a start-up to the visitors. We were letting them try out our application and examine moles, spots and rash they were concerned about. One of the visitors took the test and received a “potential threat” result for a mole on his face. We helped this person to arrange a visit to a dermatologist and oncologist in Minsk. They confirmed the diagnosis – the early stage of skin cancer – and directed him to the surgical removal of this life-threatening mole. After that case we received lots of attention in media, many people started using our service and the Belarusian Ministry of health offered us support. So that was a breakthrough for Skinive.

What can we expect from you in the near future?

We are going to become residents of the High-Tech Park in Minsk – the “Silicon Valley” of Belarus. Skinive has finished the Rockstart AI-track and with their help, we are setting up Skinive in the Netherlands. The company is going to start working in the European market. However, we are planning to leave RnD centre in Belarus.

s long as the software development concerned, we are planning to create an educational smartphone app for medical doctors and all the people who want to learn more about their skin.

What is the ultimate goal of Skinive?

We want to create a technology that enables people to diagnose different skin conditions in their early stages – a personal tool for skin health monitoring.

Realistic Routes to Paris (2): heavy-duty transport

Pixabay

As a celebration of its 10th anniversary, Automotive Campus Helmond, together with TNO, is organising the mobility debate “Realistic Routes to Paris”. In this debate, on 3 December, prominent guests from politics, science and the mobility industry will discuss a realistic way to achieve the Paris agreements, without bringing society to a full stop. The themes in the debate are passenger transport and Heavy-Duty. In two episodes, we look ahead to the discussion. Today: Jan Ebbing on the challenges of heavy-duty transport.

Electrification, fuel cells, hybrid: even in heavy-duty transport such as long-distance trucks and buses, all options are still open. Electricity seems a logical choice for urban distribution, but when can we also drive electrically across the continent, or will sustainable alternative fuels bring the solution? Diesel seems untouchable for the time being, but below the surface, there is already a lot of thinking about new infrastructure and production capacity.

For Jan Ebbing, programme manager at TNO, one thing is clear: “We have to reduce CO2 emissions, that’s a given and so our debate on 3 December will not deal with that question. What matters is whether, within that debate, there is sufficient attention for heavy-duty and how we can do something about it. The government has plenty of ideas about passenger transport, but does this also apply to bus and freight transport? That’s where it’s really different.”

In the case of passenger transport, the focus is now to a large extent on electric vehicles, while in the case of heavy-duty the focus is more nuanced. Ebbing: “There are certainly also people promoting e-trucks, but across the industry, there is a lot of scepticism as well. The transport sector’s problem is that rates are dominating the debate: margins are small; a truck that has to stand still for more than 10 minutes to refuel immediately puts the business at risk because another transporter can do it faster. Even with fast charging, electric driving becomes difficult for certain applications for that reason alone.”

Could a hybrid solution then offer a solution? Electric would suffice for the cities but beyond the city limits, we could simply keep using the traditional combustion engine. “That would partly solve the problem,” says Ebbing. “Of course, long stretches on diesel are not optimal. In addition to becoming hybrid, we will also have to look at dual fuel, diesel mixed with a biofuel, for example.” But also hydrogen gas is not unthinkable, according to Ebbing. “Natural gas can achieve a 20% reduction in your CO2 emissions, which is a serious option in the transition.”

By the way, Ebbing nuances that the bad image of diesel is no longer always justified. “Certainly not when it comes to clean air in cities. If you drive through the ‘dirty’ city with the most modern diesels, you are in fact purifying the air, that’s how clean it is now. But that doesn’t solve the CO2 problem, of course. Hence the idea of using dual-fuel to make a relatively quick impact.”

And then there is hydrogen, of course: the fuel that seems to offer a more logical solution for heavy-duty – trucks and buses, but also shipping – than for passenger transport. “Indeed, hydrogen fuel cells can easily be imagined for trucks. But that does not happen by itself. How, for example, are we going to transport hydrogen to the filling stations? It is a substance that is stored under high pressure, which requires a lot of logistics. Not every pump will be able to produce its own sustainable hydrogen.”

In short, no clear route has yet been determined for 2030, let alone 2050. But for Ebbing this does not mean that we can’t do anything. “There are still many hurdles to be overcome before we have the final solution. You can sit on your hands, but you don’t want to, because then you won’t reach the targets. What’s more: every year that we don’t achieve the CO2 reduction, the challenge for the following years will become even greater!”

Ebbing says there are steps to be taken in the short and long term. In the short term, he is thinking about making engines more efficient and also using low carbon and sustainable fuels. “The development of the hydrogen engine could really get a big boost. This should be able to produce results in a few years’ time, and we could also make a contribution to this at TNO. Only then – in parallel with this development – new choices regarding the storage of hydrogen will also be needed.”

For the long term, Ebbing is thinking of completely new engines. “Unfortunately they are still in the process of being designed. The government will also have to play a role here in order to stimulate this development.” This is also an opportunity for the Netherlands as a country. All in all, it is a complex puzzle, but, as Ebbing warns, “that should not lead us into a stalemate. We don’t know the outcome in 25 years’ time, but we do know that we have to spend the time we have left as best we can.”

Look here at the participants in this part of the debate. Tickets are still available: subscribe here.

First day of Slush offers a mixed bag of innovative inspiration

Suzanne de Kok Selstad is the CEO of a Norwegian start-up consulting organisation. She lives in Stavanger and is a first-time visitor of Slush, the annual innovation and Start-up festival in Helsinki. She writes about her experiences at “the World’s LeadingStart-up Event” for Innovation Origins.

Finally my first live Slush in Helsinki! I streamed it for four years but hadn’t been able to actually visit the festival. My daily job, being the CEO of a partnership called ‘Skape‘, where we offer free consultancy and education for start-ups in the Rogaland county in Norway. This is on behalf of our owners, the 26 communities, and our Rogaland fylkekommune.

Today, I met a lot of people who are considering to start a company or people who already have started one, everything from ‘basic’ to matured entrepreneurs, innovative ones as well as the ones that still have to do their research while establishing their company. I met investors, public funders and politicians who have to decide about creating public funding possibilities to help start-ups. Politicians are in the position to change the purchasing system, so start-ups can have some assistance to reach their markets.

Slush! We, me and my colleague need inspiration and learn from others, so it is great to be here, together with

  • 25,000 participants
  • 3,500 startups
  • 2,000 investors
  • 350 researchers
  • 2,400 volunteers

There Are speakers on four stages, several mini-stages, so we have to choose our topics.

What did we learn today and what will give more reflection in time?

During the grand opening, it was said that new companies can create opportunities for future challenges. There is a challenge, it’s going really fast these days! And everything should have a social and environmental impact. And yes, of course, it is all about people, your team, culture and talents.

Finding talents is a challenge for some disciplines, but the talent is universal.

One needs diversity between the different environments. One should also take responsibility for one’s own education through different channels, institutional and through self-study.

So we were challenged to be “fucking fearless” when it comes to marketing, challenge the systems, maybe even do it without a marketing team?

Be a changemaker, is what we hear. You have a choice, so make a change in your footprint. Create value and create it for the long term!

Slush 2019 day one, to me: a lot of lights, dark venue, good food, good logistics, lots of service-minded volunteers, a lot to see, good communication app. A great day!

Read the second episode here

Don’t forget the hardware, you can’t build a smart city solely on dreams

The annual Smart City Expo World Congress is taking place in Barcelona. It is the largest in its field with 25,000 visitors. The motto of this edition is Cities made of dreams. Nevertheless, all those dreams also involve a whole lot of hardware.

Dreams are wonderful. But 5G doesn’t just happen, as the people who are responsible for laying the infrastructure are well aware of. “All those 5G antennas that will soon provide super-fast connections will also have to be connected to fiber-optic cables below the ground,” says Petra Claessen at the Smart City congress in Barcelona, She’s the director of BTG, the Dutch branch association for ICT. “In order to avoid having to break open the sidewalk three times in the future, a law must be quickly put in place to ensure that the mobile network operators will share their infrastructure.”

The BTG has come up with a uniform standard that should ultimately lead to legislation, but it is hasn’t gotten that far yet. The three major providers -KPN, T-Mobile and VodafoneZiggo – are currently all building their own transmission masts. Given that 5G requires many more masts, the BTG acknowledges that this will be a never-ending task. “The operators should be able to share the costs in the future.”

Not solely on dreams

Smart Cities are fabulous. However cities can’t be built solely on dreams, as they all know at the BTG. “This also requires a lot of hardware. Lampposts of the future will become multifunctional. In addition to light, there will also be Wi-Fi, and possibly power for electric cars. At the moment, the population is insufficiently informed about what is coming their way. Smart cities are going to matter a lot as far as infrastructure is concerned.”

Also read: Don’t develop technologies which won’t solve any real problems

According to Irene van Bruines (from the brand new procurement platform Smart City Plaza) a lot of missionary work also needs to be done in the municipalities. “In a certain municipality, they have already come a long way with smart street fixtures. But in another municipality, a public servant put it quite bluntly: ‘I don’t want any gimmicks on my patch.’ In that respect, there is still so much that has to be done.”

Bruines, who has a long career in construction and infrastructure, now makes it very easy for municipal purchasers by providing a complete, independent, overview of products for smart cities through her platform. From sensors to charging stations and from solar-powered rubbish bins to ultra-quiet wind turbines, Smart City Plaza offers it all. The only thing municipalities have to do is subscribe to this gift guide for smart city officials.

Rotterdam designs a modular streetlamp

The city officials of Rotterdam no longer need to be told anything more about smart cities. It’ s buzzing with ambition in the Maasstad, which this year almost clinched the ‘Innovation Capital of Europe‘ award. The city aims to be a model digital city by 2025.

One of the projects that fit in with this, was the design of a smart lamppost. The city has developed CENT-R, a modular lamppost, together with start-up Lightwell, the Da Vinci College in Dordrecht, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and the manufacturer Valmont. The CENT-R (Connective Energy Network Tool – Rotterdam) prototype was finished just in time for the expo in Barcelona and was unveiled there. In addition to 5G, electric charging, cameras and lighting, the lamppost can also be retrofitted to accommodate any future innovations. Three smart poles will be put into use in the Rotterdam district of Reyeroord towards the end of next January.

Research shows that carbon in the world’s oceans needs to be recalculated

Godfather of evolutionary theory and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) already assumed that there had to be something even smaller than the protozoa that were visible under the microscope in the “clear blue water” of the ocean. And he was right. Today we know that “every liter of ocean water is teeming with hundreds of millions of microorganisms,” as marine biologist Rudolf Amann says. He is director of the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology in Bremen.

Amann and his colleagues have conducted extensive research into the importance of these microorganisms for the metabolic processes in oceans. This has produced some surprising results. This metabolic cycle is different than previously considered.

Metabolism, biomass and the world’s oceans

“Although they are only micrometers in size, the amount and the high metabolic rate of [microorganisms] determine the energy flows and the conversion of biomass in oceans,” states Tobias Erb. He’s a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. The scientists explain that they have discovered a metabolism method that “plays an important role in the microbial degradation of algae biomass in the ocean.” For future calculations of the carbon dioxide balance of the world’s oceans, it is particularly important to know how the exact processes take place at a molecular level. At the same time, we also need to be aware of the global distribution.

What happens to the carbon contained in glycolic acid?

Single-cell algae (also known as phytoplankton) convert carbon dioxide into biomass. Other microorganisms continue to process many thousands of tonnes of algae biomass on surface water. That’s when the algae excrete the carbon out again, or after the algae bloom has died. Glycolic acid, a direct by-product of photosynthesis, plays a decisive role in this process. Bacteria partially convert this substance back into carbon dioxide.

The researchers then explain that, in order to understand the global consequences of this and its consequences for climate change, it is essential to have an accurate knowledge of the bacterial breakdown of algae biomass. Consequently, it is necessary to know exactly where and to what extent these nutrient networks are occurring. And moreover, what happens to the carbon in glycolic acid. That totals about one billion tonnes per year. This was not exactly apparent until now.

Microbial research ranged from understanding molecular principles in the laboratory, to demonstrating their importance in the marine ecosystem. © Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology/Gunnar Gerdts

The mystery of the fourth enzyme

During subsequent research with databases, he saw a cluster of four genes that provided building codes for four enzymes. Although three combined enzymes are sufficient in order to further convert a compound derived from glycolic acid. That’s why Schada von Borzyskowski did a laboratory test with this fourth enzyme to find out what its role is. He discovered that in this context, the enzyme provides a previously unknown reaction, referred to as imine reduction. The metabolic process is completed with this fourth reaction by creating a cycle “which allows the carbon in glycolic acid to be converted without releasing carbon dioxide.”

More articles on marine pollution can be found here

Metabolic cycle of the seas

The next step was to prove the presence and activity of these genes in marine habitats as well as their ecological importance, Tobias Erb explains. In the spring of 2018, the researchers carried out several expeditions near Helgoland so as to measure the formation and uptake of glycolic acid during algal blooms. They were able to demonstrate that the sea’s metabolic cycle actively involved in the metabolism of glycolic acid.

The bacterial genome sequences collected by the TARA Oceans expedition confirmed these results. This research spanned more than 10,000 kilometers of the world’s oceans. Blueprints of the metabolic cycle were found time and again. On average 20 times more often than all other known degradation processes for glycolic acid. “Our colleagues’ discovery in Marburg turns our earlier knowledge of what happens to glycolic acid upside down,” says Rudolf Amann. “Our data show that we need to recalculate the cycle of billions of tonnes of carbon in the world’s oceans.

Tobias Erb stresses that this work makes us aware of the metabolism of microorganisms and their global dimensions and how much remains to be discovered.

Photo caption: In satellite images, the algae carpets with their light streaks look like works of art. In the 70,000 square kilometre wide Deutsche Bucht alone, algal bloom produces about ten million tonnes of biomass in spring.

Start-up of the day: fintech lends a hand to Italian businesses

The Italian start-up Credimi offers the largest digital platform for invoice financing and digital loans in continental Europe.

Credimi provides loan to companies using an almost completely automated risk assessment algorithm, helping companies simplified access to credit. The start-up has supplied a total of over 600 million euros to over 3500 Italian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Furthermore, Credimi is authorized and supervised by the Bank of Italy, meaning that it is subject to all capital, compliance and anti-money laundering and risk control requirements which apply to Financial Intermediaries. This ensures that the start-up is an even more reliable partner.

Innovation Origins talked with Ignazio Rocco, CEO and founder of Credimi, this is what he had to say:

How did you come up with an idea like this one for a start-up?

Before founding Credimi, I was a banking professional and a consultant. I had a real fascination with financial technology. So, in 2015, I wanted to invest in the fintech industry. Even though at first, I did not have the launch a start-up in mind. However, when I noticed there was a demand for fintech services in Italy, I decided to start a fintech company which focused on loans to SMEs. Plus, there were no other loan companies specifically for fintech in Italy. No one else was trying to serve the enormous Italian SME market either. Italian SMEs needed new services, faster and more flexible ones than those offered by the banks.

Ignazio Rocco, Founder & CEO. ®Credimi

Do you only operate in Italy? 

Yes, at the moment we are operating solely in Italy, but we are planning to expand to other European markets.

Did you create the technology that is used in your start-up?

Yes, we did. Our proprietary risk evaluation technology is almost completely automated and allows us to process and analyze thousands of data information in just a few hours. Our team evaluates the information collected this way and decides if a company’s request is able to be validated.

What makes Credimi different from other similar fintech start-ups?

Well our business model is different from most competitors, due to our proprietary risk evaluation technology (which is almost fully-automated) on the one hand. And on the other, the fact that Credimi has been authorized to lend from its own balance sheet. Which means it can approve loans to companies in real time.

Also, Credimi is fast, it takes an SME just 48 hours to know whether they are eligible for an advance. Then a few more hours to actually get the money. It’s simple, it only takes 10 minutes to apply for a loan. Most importantly, it is transparent. We have no hidden costs. In addition, we have special services for very small and micro businesses, which usually find it difficult to get financed by banks.

Who is the Credimi customer?

Credimi’s customers are all medium, small and micro businesses which very often need and ask for alternative credit and invoice financing solutions. As in faster, simpler, more accessible solutions than banks or other traditional avenues have on offer.

Did you have a role model when setting up the start-up?

I very much admire Xero, the online accounting software for small businesses, which offers a wide range of services. This is what we aim to do too: offer as many services as possible.

®Credimi

What has been the biggest challenge while building your start-up?

So, the biggest challenge was to build up the right team. I had no tech experience, so I needed to find other co-founders that would complement the team. That’s how Jacopo Anselmi, a 27-year-old anti-abuse strategist at Google, and Sabino Costanza, a talented project manager at BCG, came on board. Then I looked for other professionals in San Francisco and other Italian talents who would want to join the project.

What can we expect in the future from Credimi?

Credimi is currently focused on further expanding its client base, product range and talent pool. All that while still carrying on with its mission to help companies improve management of their working capital and their supply chain efficiency. In the future we will also be operating in other European markets.

How has been the response been to Credimi? 

We are receiving very positive feedback. The companies that use our services now number more than 3500 and they are satisfied by the speed and ease of our services. Also, the Italian innovation landscape believes in our project. Several of the most successful Italian entrepreneurs have privately invested €8.5 million in Credimi. Four principal investment funds have signed agreements to underwrite €300 million in loans originating from the platform, and contractual agreements have been recently upgraded to match our steady growth.

What is your ultimate goal?

Our mission and ultimate goal is to help SMEs grow and focus on their business and take care of all the needs of entrepreneurs: starting out from credit and small tech businesses.

EU Commissioner Vestager to present new AI law at the start of 2020

Over the next three months, European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will draft a new European law for AI. As of December, she will be responsible for the digitization of the European market. She plans to present her new AI law in March. After that, the European Parliament and the governments and parliaments of the Member States will have to approve her new AI law.

The new AI law is to lay out the rules regarding the collection and sharing of data by, among others, the large American tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google whose internet platforms are being used on a massive scale by European citizens. At the moment there is only a guideline for e-privacy and one set of regulations for data protection (GDPR). The new law must include rules that make the collectors and distributors of data liable for any abuse use of this data.

Nightmare for the US

The greatest nightmare for the high profile big tech companies in the US is her intention to adopt new tax regulations following on from the new AI law. This should apply to internet platforms all over the world which make money from consumers in European countries. In recent years, Vestager has already taken Apple to court for tax evasion. She imposed a fine of 13 billion euros on them for this.

As far as she is concerned, the new tax regulations that she has in mind should be applicable worldwide. If she cannot do this because, for example, some countries do not want to cooperate, she said that the European Commission will continue to impose fines on non-European companies on an individual basis if they pay insufficient tax in the EU.

Breaking up Google and Facebook

She may also impose fines if American big tech companies abuse their dominant market position. She has done so in the past few years while she was European Commissioner for Competition. If these fines do not lead to an improvement in their behaviour on the European market, she wants to break up the American business conglomerates. That is what she said in response to questions from Paul Tang, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament. Tang is also member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats on behalf of this PvdA party (the Dutch Labor Party). Vestager then told Tang that she had the means to do this. She did not specify what kind of means she has at her disposal.

Member of the European Parliament Paul Tang wants Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to break open American ‘big tech’ companies.

Gaining citizen’s trust

With its new European AI law, Vestager said they want to allay the fears of European citizens. In particular those who currently lack faith in the digitization of society. She says this is necessary as she believes there are two types of companies. The type that is digital – and the type that will soon become digital. In other words, sooner or later all citizens will have to participate in the digitization of everyday life, so she wants to make sure that the Internet is not intimidating to them.

In the second place, she wants AI to be used to make the citizens’ lives easier rather than more difficult. She wants to prevent digital platforms from collecting data via AI in order to influence the choice of consumers and businesses so that they can earn money from them. It was precisely for this reason that during her previous term as European Commissioner for Competition, she imposed a fine of 4.3 billion euros on the search engine Google.

More rules, less innovation?

The question is whether the new rules for AI will not stand in the way of innovation. Nicola Beer, an MEP from the Renew Group in the European Parliament, wanted to know whether Vestager had thought about how she intended to preserve Europe’s leading role in AI innovation. Vestager replied that she was looking for a more balanced situation. According to her, European citizens should benefit from the innovations that AI brings. Yet at the same time also be protected against their eventual misuse.

Europarliamentarian Nicola Beer wants to know how Vestager will ensure that the EU will remain a leader in the AI field.

Meanwhile, the initial reactions from the AI group of professionals to Vestager’s plans for new legislation have been quite reserved. “I find it a bit vague that Vestager says that AI sometimes makes life more difficult.” That’s what Buster Franken says, AI entrepreneur and developer from TU/e. “It is true that AI influences your choices via Google. But that can also make your life a lot easier.”

‘Small-scale AI companies in the EU are the victims’

Franken believes that there is a danger that a new law will burden smaller AI companies with far too many rules. “We already have a hard time finding capital to invest in our innovations. If new rules are added now, that will adversely affect us. It also means that you have extra work in order to comply with them. Maybe we don’t have the money for this. While this new law is supposed to combat abuse by large companies such as Google and Facebook.”

Read also: ‘Europe must invest in a hub for collaborative robots in SMEs’

“The point is namely that companies like Google can abuse data because they have loads of money. If there is a new law, they will undoubtedly be able to comply with it. Then they will simply look for another route. They have enough money to hire an army of elite lawyers. Small AI companies don’t have that.”

Nabeelah Shabbir: Participation of the audience as a remedy for journalism

Shrinking editorial staffs, the number of subscribers on the decline and, above all, a growing distrust of journalism in times of fake news… altogether this means that many journalistic organisations are in dire straits. Nabeelah Shabbir, the conversation editor at De Correspondent’s English-language sister site and a researcher at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, thinks the solution is simple. Public participation is the cure.

The audience must be better involved in the entire news process; whether it concerns journalistic research, the creation and verification of content or the distribution of the news, that’s what Nabeelah Shabbir is certain about. Shabbir should know: she collaborated as a researcher in the recent Reuters report ‘What if the Scale Breaks? Rebooting Audience Engagement When Journalism is Under Fire‘, in which the involvement of the public in the news was extensively researched. In the study, Nabeelah explains that a solution to the lack of trust is not unthinkable. This requires innovation though. “Innovation and journalism have gone hand in hand for years. It is interesting to see that in recent years it has made a change towards sustainable public involvement.”

According to Shabbir, the solution to make the mistrust disappear is simple. “Involving the audience in creating the news is unavoidable. The public wants to be heard and to be part of the news process. This can be done in different ways. In the Reuters study, a number of media platforms have emerged in which public participation has been applied and where it works. The Rappler” and “The Quint” are examples of this. These outlets, respectively Filipino and Indian, are more than just a news website. They use social media to spread the news and have their publications fact-checked by their public on a recurring basis. This creates reciprocity, a news movement that flows in two directions. “This is a win-win-win situation: the public feels more involved, the news is better disseminated and confidence increases.”

Better cooperation with the audience does not have to go hand in hand with substantial financial investments, according to the report. “It is often assumed that innovation means hiring an expensive web developer. However, I believe that innovation must be mission-driven. Instead of focusing on the latest piece of technology – de shiny things – we need to focus on meaningful innovation through creativity. This can be done with very few resources, as The Quint proves. Even in parts of India where the Internet is almost non-existent, the public is reached by, for example, sharing videos in low resolution.”

Also at The Correspondent, where Shabbir recently started as a conversation editor, the public should play a more important role. “We need to build bridges between the journalist and the subscriber, only then will we be able to provide good journalism that actually reaches readers.

Nabeelah Shabbir will explain the research in more detail on Thursday 21 November at the LocHal in Tilburg during the sold-out (un)Conference: Beyond Media. Follow the event live via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Also read: ‘Cybernetic news’: the automated newsroom is the future of journalism

Start-up of the Day: Hydrogen as the ‘crude oil’ of the future

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Hydrogenious is the product of a university research team that already had faith in hydrogen when it still wasn’t really relevant in Germany. They have managed to find a way to store and transport the hard-to-handle hydrogen in a practical way. After a successful financing round, they now want to establish their LOHC technology worldwide and “make hydrogen the ‘crude oil’ of the regenerative era”, says co-founder Daniel Teichmann.

In terms of mass, hydrogen has three times the energy content of gasoline. This is an impressive feature for an energy source. However, hydrogen also has the lowest density of all gases and is therefore difficult to handle. It evaporates easily, is flammable and must be stored under high pressure or at low temperatures.

Evaporation and flammability

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies took up the challenge and solved both evaporation and flammability issues. The start-up company developed a process whereby hydrogen can be stored and transported together with oil (dibenzyltoluene) without risk. The result? The existing infrastructure can be used. Not only the fuel tanks at service stations, but also the pipelines for transportation. This could pave the way for emission-free mobility and industry.

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies is a spin-off from the Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Managing director and co-founder Daniel Teichmann has been working in the field of LOHC (liquid organic hydrogen carriers) since the start of his PhD in 2009. The company was founded in 2013 as a result of a critical technological breakthrough, which was also co-developed by professors Peter Wasserscheid, Wolfgang Arlt and Eberhard Schlücker.

Dewatering system

What was already working under laboratory conditions could be implemented on a technical scale for the first time in 2016. The first LOHC dewatering system was commissioned at the Fraunhofer ILO in Stuttgart. Electrolysis and hydrogenation take place at the main site in Erlagen. The process works as follows:

  • The hydrogen is produced with the aid of solar energy using PEM electrolysis,
  • Hydrogen is hydrogenated through the chemical bonding of hydrogen molecules to the liquid carrier via catalytic reactions,
  • During the dehydrogenation process, catalytic reactions are again used to release the hydrogen molecules from the liquid carrier medium,
  • The carrier material is not wasted and can be reused again and again.

Target groups are the chemical industry as well as service stations and the chemical industry. Hydrogenious sells two types of equipment. These are storage facilities for use in hydrogen-producing wind farms for hydrogenation, and the so-called Release Box at service stations and industrial installations for dehydrogenation.

 

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious
LOHC recycling system with storage installation and a Release Box (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Innovation Origins spoke with Daniel Teichmann:

What is your motivation and what problem does the company resolve?

We believe in hydrogen as a renewable energy source. This motivated us to start the company in 2013. At that time, we could have developed the technology together with industrial partners, but we wanted to be in business.

What has been the biggest obstacle that you have had to overcome? Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?

Giving up never occurred to us and fortunately there was never a reason to give up. However, setting up and developing a business is a huge challenge. At the start, it’s usually a matter of finding funding. In Germany, there is not really an explicit culture when it comes to venture capital. Things are different in the Anglo-Saxon world and in China. Six years ago, hydrogen was not yet playing an important role in Europe. This has changed over the past year. As a university spin-off, we started out with a technology that works at the laboratory level. We first had to bring it up to an industrial level and make it commercially relevant.

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies
Construction of the LOHC hydrogen infrastructure in the USA (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

What have been the highlights so far?

The successful funding round in July 2019, where we found four partners who not only act as capital providers, but also make a strategic contribution. This was an important milestone in the history of hydrogen-based LOHC technologies.

What are the advantages of your location?

Erlangen is an ideal location for us because of its proximity to the university, whom we also work closely with. In addition, the availability of specialists here is very good. We are also very lucky with our landlords, they’ve provided us with an excellent office and workshop space.

Where will your company be in five years’ time?

We want to progress from our current demonstration level to the realization of large industrial projects. We want to establish a successful global positioning of the LOHC technology. With our technology, hydrogen can then be easily and efficiently transported over long distances. For example, from Africa to Europe. That is how we can make an emission-free industry happen.

What distinguishes your innovation from similar products in the hydrogen energy sector?

Hydrogen has been produced and stored as an industrial gas for one hundred years. Our technology means that using hydrogen in a liquid form is feasible which thereby means it can make use of the existing infrastructure. In this way, we are turning hydrogen into the emission-free fuel of the future. Similar technologies exist in Japan, although they are not exactly the same. We are the technological leaders with our LOHC. As such, we hope to make an important contribution towards combating climate change.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read all articles from our series here.

Also interesting:

TU Eindhoven is bringing hydrogen as a source of energy for households one step closer.

Mobility of the future – battery or hydrogen?

MATD: a hologram that you can feel and hear

Holograms are part of everyday life in science fiction films and series such as Star Trek. On Captain Picard’s ‘Enterprise’ or on the ‘USS Voyager’, there are complete ‘holodecks’ where you can create any environment and any hologram you want. You are even able to physically communicate with them. On Voyager there is even a “Doctor” in sickbay – the Emergency Medical Holographic program (EHM).  Just like a person, this hologram is capable of learning from his experiences. He has many other human qualities as well.

As far as technology has advanced in the 24th century, we are not quite that far yet in the 21st century. But scientists from the University of Sussex have come a step closer to holograms like those in Star Trek. For the first time, they have developed holograms that can be seen with the naked eye, yet can be felt and heard too. The Multimodal Acoustic Trap Display (MATD) is not yet able to respond to emergency calls and treat patients. Though this system can show a colorful butterfly, emojis and other images without the need for a ‘headset’ for Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR).

© University of Sussex

Using sound waves to manipulate physical objects

“Our new technology takes inspiration from old TVs which use a single color beam scanning along the screen so quickly that your brain registers it as a single image. Our prototype does the same using a colored particle that can move so quickly anywhere in 3D space that the naked eye sees a volumetric image in mid-air.” says Dr. Ryuji Hirayama, a JSPS Fellow and Rutherford Fellow at the University of Sussex. He is also the lead author of the study published in Nature.

The holograms in Star Trek are comprised of photons and force fields. According to Hirayama, the researchers’ holograms in Great Britain are produced in a similar way. “To my understanding, the holograms in these fictional mediums are generated by bending and shaping light using force fields. Similarly, our technology uses sound waves to manipulate physical objects. In the case of generating holograms, these sound waves are able to move a bead fast enough to generate solid images, and are given color through an external light source.”

The MATD is modeled on the method that made free floating projections possible as early as 2018. Small particles were illuminated by laser beams which in turn produced a hologram. The MATD uses ultrasonic sound to hold a ball in a room, move it at breakneck speed. Then light it up with red, green and blue light to create a colorful image. With up to 100 position changes per second, the rapid movement through the room creates a 3D illusion.

© University of Sussex

Room for improvement

The MATD prototype is approximately the size and shape of a microwave oven. It is made up of 512 ultrasonic speakers arranged around a clear space. The resolution of the generated holograms is not very good at the moment. “The MATD was created using low-cost and commercially available components. We believe there is plenty of room to increase its capacity and potential,” Hirayama states.

Unlike the holograms that are currently being made, the hologram created by the MATD can also produce sound. It can even be felt in real life. “Even if not audible to us, ultrasound is still a mechanical wave and it carries energy through the air. Our prototype directs and focuses this energy, which can then stimulate your ears for audio, or stimulate your skin to feel content,” Dr Diego Martinez Plasencia, co-creator of the MATD and a researcher on 3D User Interfaces at the University of Sussex. “Our prototype sends and bundles this energy, which can then generate sound or touch our skin so that we are able to feel something. For example, an infrared sensor detects when a hand is approaching the hologram. The loudspeakers are then adjusted to concentrate sound pressure of more than 150 decibels onto that hand, allowing you to feel the hologram.

Revolutionary 3D display

“Our MATD system revolutionizes the concept of 3D display. It is not just that the content is visible to the naked eye and in all ways perceptually similar to a real object while still allowing the viewer to reach inside and interact with the display. “It is also the fact that it relies on a principle that can also stimulate other senses, putting it above any other display approaches and getting us closer than ever to Ivan Sutherland’s vision of the Ultimate Display.” Project leader Sri Subramanian, Professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex and a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies) (Sutherland is the pioneer of VR techniques – ed.)

University of Sussex

Practical applications

In order for the hologram to also be able to produce sound, the scientists had to adjust the ultrasonic waves. They did this in such a way that the relevant resonance effects were created in the hologram. Yet these sounds are still very basic. They are a long way from being anywhere close to speech. Nevertheless, Hirayama believes that this can certainly be improved upon. “Operating at frequencies higher than 40KHz will allow the use of smaller particles, increasing the resolution and precision of the visual content, while frequencies above 80KHz will result in optimum audio quality. More powerful ultrasound speakers, more advanced control techniques or even the use of several particles, could allow for more complex, stronger tactile feedback and louder audio.”

But these new holograms don’t just have an advantage when it comes to science and entertainment. The authors believe that the technology can offer interesting opportunities. Such as mixing chemicals without contaminating them. Or performing ultrasounds in tissues in order to administer life-saving medicines. As well as numerous ‘lab-in-a-chip’ applications.

And what are the odds for holograms like the HoloDoc in Star Trek? “Right now, our display manipulates a single particle to create holograms. Using multiple particles instead will allow us to create more complex holograms. Also, by modelling the dynamics of the moving particle more accurately, the particle would be able to move faster and more precisely, allowing the display to project more realistic holograms. We are going to keep working on such challenges one by one because I personally want to see holograms like the EMH one day!”

Smart City Expo: The rest of the world wants to know how the Netherlands innovates

The Smart City Expo World Congress takes place in Barcelona, with 25,000 visitors the largest in this field. Over 250 of them come from the Netherlands. Report from the Holland Pavillion.

It is a coming and going of international delegations at the booth where the Netherlands give a dazzling show showing how Dutch municipalities and companies are at the forefront in smart and green mobility and in making cities resilient to climate change. Whether it concerns KPN’s 5G field lab on the Automotive Campus, the technology with which engineering firm Sweco will be able to give priority to electric cars at traffic lights and thus make them more economical, Dutch municipalities and entrepreneurs are in no way inferior to other countries in terms of innovation.

Read moreSmart City Expo: The rest of the world wants to know how the Netherlands innovates

European Commissioner Timmermans wants CO2 tax at the EU’s outer border

CO2 uitstoot schoorstenen

Dutch European Commissioner Frans Timmermans (who will be responsible for climate issues) wants to introduce a CO2 tax at the outer border of the European Union. This is in order to avoid products that have not been manufactured in a climate-neutral way. He announced this measure during his approval hearing at the European Parliament. There they are appointing the new European Commission which will take up office next month. According to Timmermans, this is the only way to get the European climate law passed which he is to present this spring. The exact date on which this border tax is to come into effect should be revealed in this climate law. It will apply to all Member States.

A 55% reduction by 2030

This climate law ought to include information on how the Member States will make their economies climate-neutral. CO2 emissions must be reduced by 55% by 2030, Timmermans announced. That is 10% more than what was originally agreed to. By 2050, CO2 emissions need to zero out on balance. With that commitment, in two weeks’ time he will start his mandate as European Commissioner for Climate Change. His most important task will be to deliver a so-called ‘Green Deal’. The new climate law is an important part of this. Along with that, he wants to overhaul legislation on greenhouse gas emissions and energy.

European Commissioner Frans Timmermans announces the CO2 border tax in the European Parliament Image: still live streaming

The problem is not that achieving CO2-neutral production is not technically possible, says Erik Klooster. He is managing director of VNPI, a Dutch association which brings together the major petrochemical companies (together with the chemical and metal industries, who are the main producers of CO2), such as Shell and Esso. “It is,” he states. The problem is that making the industry CO2-neutral makes manufacturing much more expensive. This makes the industry less competitive compared to industry in countries that are not implementing any climate measures. If there is no such border tax, European industry will be forced out of business. “Esso has been calling for this kind of carbon adjustment or carbon border tax for years,” says Klooster. “It is the only way to make Europe climate-neutral.”

A leading role

That is also what Commissioner Timmermans told the European Parliament, who will have to approve his new climate legislation next year. “We shouldn’t want to bring in products that are cheaper because they have not taken the environment into account. I think that such a CO2 border tax will be subject to an assessment from the WTO. If, for example, a country such as China or India also starts to produce in a CO2-neutral way, we will drop that tax on their products.”

Also read: Former Secretary of State of the United States: Quadruple the CO2 price and let the polluter pay

Empty gas fields

That’s also the purpose of such a levy, says Klooster. “The EU’s share in global CO2 emissions is relatively small. So we don’t have to do it for that sake.” The EU, and the Netherlands in particular, can play an important pioneering role by involving other countries in the world such (as India and China) in the production of clean energy. “Industry in the Netherlands is geographically close to each other. There are enough empty gas fields available in the next few decades for storing CO2 that has been emitted and captured. It is therefore cheaper to build a pipeline for CO2 transport to an empty gas field than it is in England, for example. Industry is scattered all over the country there.

Extracting CO2 from air

Another method of achieving CO2-neutral production is to capture the greenhouse gas and bind it to hydrogen via a chemical process. This creates a synthetic fuel that can be reused. This is also a way to ensure that aircraft that don’t fly electrically and therefore continue to emit CO2 will still be able to operate in a climate-neutral way, says Klooster. “You can extract the amount of CO2 that an aircraft produces out of the air, and then store or process it.”

Also read: Aviation industry to European Commission: ‘money is needed to develop zero-emission aircraft’

National Parliaments

The question is whether national parliaments are prepared to sign the climate legislation that Timmermans will be proposing. For example, the Polish Member of the European Parliament Anna Zalewska ( from the Conservatives and Reformists faction) said at the Timmermans hearing prior to his appointment as European Commissioner for Climate last month, that she feared it would destroy Polish industry. Much of it runs on coal. “Hundreds of billions of euros are needed to make the transition possible. We just don’t have that.”

Euro-parliamentarian Anna Zalewska, from the Conservatives and Reformists faction, says that Poland does not have enough money to abandon coal.

Money for Poland en Greece

Timmermans replied that money had to be sent to countries such as Poland and Greece because they are unable to pay for the energy transition themselves. “My grandparents were miners in Heerlen. When the mines were still open, Heerlen was the second richest city in the Netherlands. After the closure of the mines, Heerlen changed into one of the poorest municipalities in the Netherlands. We must make sure that we prevent this from happening in the European regions that are currently dependent on coal.”

Also read: BMW Director: ‘Make recharging electric cars as easy as recharging smartphones’

Timmermans stressed that there is absolutely no future for the coal industry. He wants to work together with national and local authorities, the European Investment Bank and make use of existing EU funds for this transition by diverting them towards making the EU climate-neutral.

Cost: 200 billion euros per year

An important part of the money needed to make poor, coal-dependent regions climate-neutral should come from richer EU countries such as The Netherlands and Germany. Their national parliaments must approve the new climate law, including the redistribution of financial resources. Commissioner Timmermans predicted that it would take in total €200 billion a year over the next five years to make the EU climate-neutral. “But the Member States are almost as stingy as the Dutch,” he said. “They have to open their wallets.”