Start-up of the Week: The magical veggie garden of tomorrow

.”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.

 

Vienna Textile Lab – Colorful microbial microfibres

Giving clothes a bit of color has been done for thousands of years. Dyes from nature has been used for this ever since prehistoric times. Yet these had their limitations and that meant that certain colours were very difficult to come by. Purple is a good example. Have you ever noticed that this colour can’t be found on any country’s national flag? That”s because purple dyes used to be very expensive. Synthetic dyes came on the market in the 19th century and solved that problem.

Vienna Textile Lab is really going to where it originally all started – back to nature. Another discovery was made in the 19th century: the existence of bacteria. These microorganisms can be an organic and sustainable method for dyeing textiles. The disadvantage of synthetic substances is that they are bad for your health and the environment. And the beauty of this Austrian textile dye is that it is based on an entirely organic process.

Energy Floor – Streets made of solar cells

This Rotterdam team came up with a groundbreaking innovation in 2010. A sustainable dance floor that could generate its own energy using the kinetic energy of dancing partygoers. They collaborated with artist Daan Roosengaarde and this resulted in a luminescent interactive floor. This was world news at the time and the floor was actually in place.

The principles behind this dance floor are still very much alive ten years later; it’ s just morphed into a street tile now. The kinetic energy has been replaced by solar energy, so that anywhere where there are streets, small power stations can be installed. Which means charging stations for electric cars might no longer be necessary. The Energy Floor also monitors traffic flow so that everyone can see exactly where there is available parking space. Any other advantages? A lot of street lighting is switched on when nobody is around. Such a waste! Lastly, it just looks really cool.

Revibe – Electricity out of thin air

On railways, construction sites and in heavy industry, colossuses of machines are in constant motion. These movements cause friction and friction equals energy. However, this energy is still being completely wasted at the moment, even though it could also be used to generate electricity. This is the main starting point underlying the Swedish start-up Revibe. They have developed a compact module that serves as a kind of mini-generator for where there is a lot of kinetic energy present.

The advantages are obvious. Equipment that uses this start-up’s technology no longer need a battery or a power cable! And on top of that, it might be the cleanest form of electricity generation ever. The patented battery is very easy to mount on a vibrating surface and then goes ahead and does the job all by itself. And not insignificantly, the electricity can even be stored so that you can use it to do things like make coffee or something similar.

Spaceflow – The e-VVE and landlord

Homeowners’ associations usually have a rather old-fashioned baby-boomer image. Tenants’ contact with their neighbours or with the manager of an apartment complex tends to happen on an inefficient and decentralised basis. This ought to change; that’s what they thought at the Czech start-up Spaceflow. They developed an app specifically for tenants of residential complexes that was designed to take over all communication concerning residential and communal areas. Think of it as a kind of Facebook, but only meant for people who are part of your building complex.

Through the app you can get in touch with neighbours, request repairs, read service announcements and give feedback. There is no need either for separate keys for the communal areas. The app can also be configured for specific situations in a modular way for property managers.

In theory, the app could even replace your house key. So if you lose your phone, you’ll immediately lose your house key as well. Want to make it even more disastrous? In the event you pay for everything via Apple Pay, you would strike out three times in a row then.

Grow X – Vertically grown top quality vegetables

Human beings have been growing crops horizontally for some 7,000 years now. And as this past century has seen us all of a sudden doing just about EVERYTHING differently, we’re also now seeing a trend with vertical gardens and fields. Why vertical? It’s a bit of the same principle behind skyscrapers; they take up less space and are efficient. Vertical gardens have been around for some time already, but now there are also vertical vegetable gardens. Grow X is an example: they grow high-end vegetables for the more luxurious segment of the market.

Fresh vegetables that are grown in their own region are of great importance to the best restaurants. This is what distinguishes them from the hospitality industry where imported or canned vegetables are on the menu. Entrepreneurs can choose from around fifty organically grown mini vegetables offered by Grow X. The advantage of these mini varieties is that their taste is more concentrated than conventional varieties. Grow X is nowadays a regular supplier to the leading Dutch restaurants.

The fact that the Netherlands is internationally known as a major innovator in the horticultural sector has been confirmed once again by this start-up. It is even not commonly known in The Netherlands that our small country is the second largest food producer in the whole world. And this is not per square metre or per capita. No, this is in absolute numbers. Innovation and efficiency are the magic words here and Grow X is an excellent example of this. It is such an excellent example that we have crowned this ambitious start-up from Zeeland Start-up of the Week!

Start-up of the day: Energy Floors is making smart parking spaces in Rotterdam

Over the coming year, Rotterdam’s Energy Floors wants to sell smart surfaces for public outdoor spaces that generate data, measuring how many cars, pedestrians and cyclists are passing by. These can be used to regulate traffic flows and lighting, for instance. These Smart Energy Floors also generate energy via the solar cells that are integrated in them. At the moment, the Rotterdam municipality is on the lookout for a suitable location for the application of this kind of energy surface in a city parking lot, says Michel Smit, CEO of Energy Floors. A trial of this is planned for 2020 in cooperation with the Engie energy company.

What motivated you to set up Energy Floors and what problem has this resolved?

“Our first idea was to create a Sustainable Dance Floor on which people can dance to generate energy, something that you can actually see because the tiles light up. (By converting the vertical movement of the dancer on the floor into rotational movement through a mechanism underneath the flexible floor tiles so as to generate energy, ed.) That idea originally came from two companies: Enviu and Döll. In 2017, they brought me in as a hands-on expert from the club scene. I had been running a large nightclub in Rotterdam for four years, called Off-Corso. They wanted to bring sustainability to the attention of young people and thought that the Sustainable Dance Floor could help with that.

Unlike today, it was difficult to get young people interested in sustainable energy at that time. It had a bit of a stuffy image. We initially tried out that first version of that dance floor at the Rotterdam pop stage Watt (which went bankrupt in 2010, ed.) – that made it the first sustainable club in the world. We started building our business around that first Sustainable Dance Floor.”

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

“That we had customers for the Sustainable Dance Floor before we had the actual product. At first, we only had a drawing of the floor, an artist’s impression. We worked out the concept and technology with TU Delft and TU/e in Eindhoven. And together with Daan Roosegaarde, we were able to further develop the interaction between the public and the technology. This is where our Sustainable Dance Floor is unique: the interaction between people and sustainably-generated energy. When they dance harder, they generate more energy.

This is what we want to offer people when it comes to our business proposition. That they themselves have an influence on improving the sustainability of energy. We want commitment. This is what we are specifically focusing on. The second obstacle was how we could go about expanding the scale for things that this product can be used for. So that it has a real impact. That’s why we wanted a surface that was suitable for large permanent fixtures in outdoor areas. We had to drop our initial unique selling point – as in ‘human energy’ – for this type of surface. Instead, we came up with our Smart Energy Floor. We use solar energy rather than kinetic energy. Otherwise, the project would be impossible to complete. The system has to be cost-effective, robust and resistant to wear and tear.”

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“That we sold 25 of those Smart Energy Floors to schools last year. Three of them in Germany and the rest in The Netherlands. As a company, we have three business propositions: the Dancer for clubs and discotheques, for example, the Gamer for schoolyards and the Walker for large outdoor facilities. The first Walker in the Netherlands is located near Croeselaan in Utrecht on a crossing opposite Rabobank’s head office. Rabo has partly financed this floor. There is also one in the palace garden of the President of Malta. He found us via Google. It is a public garden with a Gamer and a Walker. A Gamer costs 13,000 euros including the installation. While a Walker is available from 25,000 euros.

The fact that we appeal to people all over the world doesn’t surprise us at all. Our first signed contract was with the producer of Absolute Vodka. He wanted to make a road show around New York with our dance floor in 2009. So, that’s what we did. We get two to three requests a day. Our challenge is to be able to deal with these properly. Because we want to keep on innovating too. As an example, you could also use the Smart Energy Floor on motorways if you developed the software for that.”

 What can we expect from Energy Floors over the coming year?

“We want to start selling more Walkers. This is a new market for us that has a lot of potential. Smart city projects that you can use it in are much larger projects than what we have done so far. You could equip bike paths with our technology so that you can turn them into walkways. We are going to do a smart parking trial next year together with Engie and the municipality of Rotterdam. We will be installing  a Walker for that reason. The energy generated by the solar cells in the surface goes to the electricity grid and can subsequently be used to charge cars. Currently, we’re looking around for a suitable location.

We are also planning to enter the German market. This fits in well with our product and company. There is plenty of capital there and focus on sustainability. And the German way of doing business isn’t that different from the Dutch way of doing business.”

What is your ultimate goal?

“Ultimately, we want our Smart Energy Floors to be used in all the world’ s major cities and have their data connected to each other. You can learn a lot from each other’s experiences. You could monitor and influence the behaviour of the users of our surfaces on city roads. For example, in order to regulate busy situations at certain locations. You can apply the technology in a smart way. If there are very few people driving or walking on the road, you could turn the lights off in the evening.”

Start-up of the day: Solar panels for DIY-ers – plug it in and you’re good to go!

The Supersola plug-in solar panel may be a nightmare for the installation industry. But this new gadget on the market is not that at all for the consumer who prefers to do as many chores around the home as possible by themselves. It will be up for sale next year. “Then anyone who can connect a plug to a wall socket can install a solar panel on their own,” says Julius Smith, founder of Supersola in Delft.

What was it that motivated you to set up Supersola and what problem did it resolve?

“About 10 years ago I first started working and began in the renewable energy sector. In other words, sustainable energy. Then I found out that the sales of solar panels were slower than we had expected at the company which I was working for back then. The question was why. That’s what I then looked into. It turned out that the majority of the Dutch population really wanted to generate their own solar energy. However, lots of people decided against buying panels in the end. It was often the case that when people did buy solar panels, they only did so a year after having decided that they wanted them.

The reason for this long period of reflection turned out to be that consumers aren’t able to easily find all the information they need in order to find a suitable installer. They also often don’t know which solar panels to buy, and what other products they need to connect them to. Not all components of all brands are compatible, and not all systems are the same. That makes the choice difficult. I then realized that I wanted to design a ready-made panel that consumers could buy with all the necessary parts already on it. So that you get a panel where you only have to plug the attached cord into a socket.”

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

“When I told the suppliers of all those various parts that I wanted to make and sell a plug-in solar panel with everything on it, they would always say: ‘it can’t be done’. The entire solar panel supply chain is geared towards the installation sector. Whereas I want to bring this product to the consumer electronics market ready-to-use. That sometimes made it difficult when it came to getting cooperation.”

 

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“That was at the beginning of 2018 when we sold a hundred ready-to-use plug-in solar panels as part of a pilot project. They cost €700 each. Some of them were sold via our own website following a campaign on Facebook. While others were sold via Sungevity, a supplier of solar panels. Only one of those hundred had problems. The power cord was damaged when a windstorm blew through the village of that particular customer. We then sent them a new cable. That fixed the problem.”

What can we expect from Supersola in the coming year?

“That’s when we start selling the first commercial version of the plug-in solar panel. Initially through our own web shop. And we are also working on contracting other parties who are willing to sell our product. That’s not quite finalized as yet. Next year we want to focus on the Dutch market. After that, we plan to go abroad.”

Where do you want Supersola to be in the next five years? What is your ultimate goal?

“We want to be available in Europe and the United States by then.”

What does Supersola’s innovation do better when compared to other products on this segment of the market?

“If all consumers could buy our product, then there’s no longer a hitch when it comes to buying solar panels. You can start with one panel. You don’t have to spend more than €600 or €700. At the moment, installing solar panels costs so much more because you have to bring in an installer. Plus, you have to have more than one panel installed in order to recoup those costs. You’ll end up paying €5000. This would not be the case with our system. You can do it all yourself.”

Start-up of the day: ‘Happy to get rid of gas thanks to Woon Duurzaam’

Rense van Dijk worked in the energy sector for many years yet always felt uneasy about the amount of CO2 that is emitted. That’s one of the reasons why he eventually he went on to do something else. Last year he launched a company which is dedicated to making homes more sustainable. In the past month he has signed several agreements with investors that will enable the company to expand into this new market, including, amongst other things, the installation sector.

What motivated you to set up Woon Duurzaam and what problem does this resolve?

“When my own central heating had to be replaced three years ago, I wanted to find out what the alternatives were. I wanted to stop using a gas boiler so I asked several installation companies tocome up with a solution and give me a quote for it. Most of them said they couldn’t, so they wouldn’t give me a quote. Others did give me a quote with a solution that didn’t suit my house. That was because they hadn’t looked into my living situation. Then I started to find out for myself how I could make my house more sustainable. I installed a heat pump which draws in heat from the outside air. It heats the water in my radiators. I replaced the radiators with a type that, thanks to an improved technology which uses less hot water, still generates a lot of heat. This also saves a substantial amount of energy. I also installed a heat pump in the attic. This works as an airco during summer and provides heating in winter. And I had insulation material installed in the cavity walls. Chips that were blown into these walls through little holes. These holes were then cemented up again. I haven’t done certain things because they didn’t really offer much energy savings compared to what they cost. You could also insulate the floor and I could have replaced double glazing that isn’t HR++. But the return on those kind of investments was outweighed by the costs. All in all, the whole process cost me about €20,000. I borrowed this at a low interest rate through a government scheme. This loan can be deducted from your income tax, just like your mortgage. On balance, I am saving money, despite the loan that has to be paid off in 15 years. While I was doing all this in my own house – which was built in 1938 – I came to realize that a lot of people must have been asking the same questions. And that there was a need for advice on how to make homes more sustainable. That’s how I came up with the idea to start Woon Duurzaam.”

The founder, Rense van Dijk van Woon Duurzaam (second from left), with new business partners Els Hoenkamp from Greenchoice, Wouter van Westenbrugge from Stichting DOEN, Jaap Willems from Mijndomein and Alexander Goos from InnoEnergy. Photo: InnoEnergy

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

“We still haven’t completely overcome the biggest obstacle yet. We have to get rid of gas over the next 30 years. What has been difficult so far is that politicians and the media are giving out mixed signals about this. In the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, you read about how none of this is affordable. Former leader of the Dutch Labor Party, Diederik Samsom, was at the head of the negotiating table on the built-up environment at the climate conference in Paris. He told the media that he himself hadn’t done anything to eliminate gas from his own home either. He said: ‘I’m not going to do anything yet. I’ll wait a little bit longer.’ Because the Netherlands was so shocked by biased articles in the media and he just wanted to reassure people. I get that. But they just fail to understand that there is a real need to get rid of gas in houses and make these buildings more sustainable.”

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“When we realized that in order to make 80 percent of the homes that were built after 1930 more sustainable, a financially attractive deal could be made. We are talking about around 5 million homes across every category: terraced houses, detached houses and apartments. That was in November 2018, half a year after its foundation. A second breakthrough happened this year when we entered into agreements with large market players who want to work with us. This month, we signed an agreement with the energy supplier Greenchoice to run pilot projects next year in order to make their customers’ homes more CO2 neutral. Various manufacturers of heat pumps such as Vaillant and Panasonic as well as Nathan, a representative for Alpha Innotec pumps, have asked us to do their installations for them. That’s because the regular installation companies are not able to do this. Generally, they are only specialized in the installation of gas boilers.”

 What can we expect from Woon Duurzaam in the coming year?

“Next year we want to remove the gas systems from a hundred homes and offer a deal that will help consumers make their homes more sustainable step by step. You don’t have to do everything at once. But it’s important that you do all the right things properly and not do anything that’s unnecessary.”

Where do you want Woon Duurzaam to be within 5 years? What is your ultimate goal?

“We would like to have made 10,000 houses more sustainable by then. We are working in the Netherlands at present. Through our relationship with InnoEnergy, one of our investors, we see that markets in other countries differ from those in the Netherlands. But we also see that there is also a need there for a reliable party who is prepared to make homes more sustainable. So we want to work on that as well.”

What does Woon Duurzaam’s innovation do better compared to other products in your segment of the market?

“Our sole aim is to offer solutions when it comes to making homes more sustainable. These must be geared to the situation of the people we work for. We don’t work with standard quotes. We offer well thought-out plans that are carried out properly. Such a service wasn’t available in the past. It is now.”

CEO InnoEnergy Pavía: ‘Timmermans, show some vision and don’t let lobbyists dictate the Green Deal’

Diego Pavía, the CEO of InnoEnergy, (which is a European investor in innovative start-ups), is firmly convinced that we will no longer emit CO2 in 2050 and will all be using green energy. Innovation Origins asked him why and how he views the Green Deal that European Commissioner Frans Timmermans is due to deliver at the end of this year. This outlines how Europe will become CO2-free by 2050. “The most important thing is that Timmermans should have his own vision for the energy transition. He should not be influenced by lobbyists,” Pavía states.

How do you feel about the European member states’ roadmap to 2030. That’s when they should have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by half. And what about 2050, when they will no longer be allowed to emit any greenhouse gases at all?

“This energy transition will become reality. Why? Nowadays, you can choose between generating energy from windmills or from burning fossil fuels. Generating energy from a wind farm is cheaper. This means that technologies that can meet the targets for the energy transition already exist. And they are ‘in the money, as we like to call it. They are competitive. If this wasn’t the case, the consumer would go for what would yield them the most profit. What is most competitive in this day and age is already based on green technology.

Is that due to subsidies?

“No. That was the case during the early stages of sustainable energy generation. But now the business is able to stand on its own two feet. The innovations and inventors of new technologies have demonstrated that they have what it takes to do this. These innovations are feasible from a business perspective. But there are always two sides to a transition. That of the business to business, and that of the business to consumer, or citizen. The business-to-business side is at the forefront. Companies involved will meet the targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions sooner than agreed. Just because it makes good business sense to use the most competitive technology. As far as the business-to-consumer side of things are concerned, the use of innovative technology and the mindset of consumers will have to change. A lot needs to be done before consumers make the switch and buy a new type of car, or a heat pump for household heating, for example. This transition will be much more difficult.”

Is it because people’s ingrained behaviour has to change?

“Yes, the way they deal with the products they use is in their heads. That’s why we organized a conference [last week, ed.] on humanizing the energy transition. We have to take this transition to the citizens so that they don’t become spectators or sufferers, but instead become actors. This is a problem that you simply can’t solve overnight. We all come from diverse cultures in Europe. There are Germans, Spaniards, French, etc. We all behave in different ways and we all react differently to the stimuli that comes from the energy transition. We have to work together as participants in the system in order for that to happen.”

What do you expect from the Green Deal’s European Commissioner Frans Timmermans? If you could contribute something, what would that be?

“I definitely don’t have the answer to that question. But I would say: hey, Mr. Timmermans, you need a vision! Then he needs to provide the tools for implementing his vision. Since Timmermans has the money he received from the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen for the transition, he has been pulled in all directions by practically every lobbyist conceivable. The danger that this presents, is that if Timmermans does not have his own vision and the accompanying tools, he will allow himself to be influenced by these lobbyists and he will make a hotchpotch of all these influences. That’s a mistake.”

The Member States must approve the Green Deal

“No. The Member States must submit their own national climate plans. Already there are concepts of how they will contribute to the climate targets for 2030. But they still need to be streamlined, of course.”

Is it conceivable that there are obstacles that stand in the way of getting this Green Deal approved?

“The Green Deal is the political strategy for accelerating the process of energy transition within the EU. Yet the way in which we are supposed to achieve these targets has already been determined. The groundwork for the legal regulatory system that is needed for this is already in place, so I don’t see any obstacles there.”

You also don’t see any difficulties that might prevent this process from being sped up?

“No. The [requisite sustainable, ed.] technology is there and is valuable. If we stop using fossil fuels for industrial production processes right now, the companies involved would lose money. So we have to help them. Not only the industry and the companies, but also citizens who have to go through the transition.”

So there has to be enough money to help existing companies.

“Yes. There must be clear incentives, though not necessarily in terms of subsidies. But it does need to be like this:  If I have a factory which is currently using coal, I should be able to easily invest in a much cleaner wind farm. Right now, as in today. And then be able to write off that coal factory.

But as an entrepreneur you have to be able to afford that

“Yes, but there is plenty of money available. That’s not the problem.”

There is no obstacle in your view

“Yes, there is. The obstacle is us: we citizens. For example, think about locations where wind farms will be built. We have to accept these changes.”