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Startups from CEE are fixing climate change with innovation

A few months ago, tech giant Amazon announced its Climate Pledge Fund, a new venture capital investment program that funnels an initial 2 billion US dollars into startups building sustainable technologies across various industries such as transportation, food, manufacturing and more.

Putting aside the debate over Amazon’s overall environmental impact, the company’s ambitious climate pledge sheds light on a highly important aspect of fighting climate change: the role of start-ups in our green transition.

In the past years, we have seen a proliferating number of governments and corporations committing to becoming climate neutral in the coming decades as part of global efforts to meet long-term sustainability goals. However, without a major acceleration in clean innovation, net-zero emissions targets will not be achievable.

The urgent need for groundbreaking technological innovation in our quest to fight climate change is evident, but turning a great idea into a successful product is easier said than done. The pathway of innovations from the drawing board of their originator to maturity and commercial use can be long and success is not guaranteed. Despite the inherent risks, entrepreneurs and innovators around the world are dreaming big to find solutions for the most pressing issue of our century.

Addressing the global waste problem with plastic-to-fuel technology

“Our vision is there is no waste, only renewable resources,” Susan Kim-Chomicka, CEO and co-founder of Handerek Technologies, tells to CEENERGYNEWS.

Headquartered in Warsaw, her company is dedicated to providing innovative, sustainable and profitable solutions for the global waste problem.

There is over 4.89 billion tons of plastic in landfills around the world and a dump truck of plastic lands in our oceans every minute. Yet even in the EU, less than 35 per cent of plastic is recycled. One of the reasons is the lack of technologies to effectively and economically address the dirty, multi-material and multi-layered plastics in the waste stream.

To address this problem, Handerek Technologies developed an innovative solution that chemically recycles the plastic to liquid hydrocarbons which then can be used as a feedstock in the production of new plastics – bringing landfill-bound waste into the circular economy – or as EU standard fuel components, diesel, gasoline – and jet fuel fractions.

Since its founding, Handerek Technologies was awarded by the President of Poland among the top five Polish Startup in 2019 and recognised as one of the top 30 cleantech company in Europe by Climate KIC, Europe’s largest public-private innovation partnership focused on climate innovation.

Handerek Technologies found a market niche by addressing the global challenges of plastic waste disposal and managed to push its project through the innovation pipeline. Ms Kim-Chomicka tells that the development of this technology has taken over ten years and it is an ideal time to bring it to the market.

“We are currently commissioning our semi-industrial continuous process pilot and have started our 10,000 tonnes per year commercial project,” she explains adding that they are in the permission phase for three sites with plans to develop 5-7 installations in Poland, but they are also in talks with several international companies regarding licensing abroad.

The cool way to store heat

The story of HeatVentors – a Hungarian startup specialised on efficient thermal energy storage – started as a university research project eight years ago. Since then, the founders managed to establish their own company, patented their technology, expanded the team and stepped to the international market.

When talking about storing energy the spotlight is usually put on electricity storage, however, thermal energy storage – storing heat or cold – is also a key issue for effective energy management. It is estimated, that 20 billion euros could be saved or 250 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases could be avoided only in Europe with optimal thermal energy storages.

“Traditionally heat is stored by changing the temperature of the water,” Rita Andrássyné Farkas, co-founder and CEO of HeatVentors, tells to CEENERGYNEWS. “Instead of water, we use special biomaterials called phase change materials. By changing the phase, like melting and solidification we can store the energy in a more concentrated way, we can reduce storage volume by 90 per cent, save at least 20-50 per cent energy with a total return on investment within three to five years.”

Ms Farkas takes the example of data centres – one of the potential beneficiaries of the efficient cooling solution provided by HeatVentors – to explain the working mechanism of the technology.

“When the efficiency of the cooling system is high we generate more cooling energy, store it and when the efficiency is low we can use the pre-stored energy. Additionally, we can also use the price difference between peak and off-peak times and the free-cooling,” she explains adding that the technology also provides an extra layer of operational safety in case of equipment failure.

The technology developed by Heatventors can be harnessed in many fields, including the heating and cooling of commercial buildings, industries, renewables energy systems, telecommunication sites and even bitcoin mines.

The founders of HeatVentors
Source HeatVentors

HeatVentors was selected among the 10 best Hungarian-based startups to watch out for in 2020. Building on its success at home, the company started to establish its presence regionally and globally as well.

“Now we have working systems in Hungary and Italy for data centre cooling, gas engine heat recovery and increased efficiency of district heating system,” says Ms Farkas.

Stepping out of the region, they are now working on a big project for hotel building cooling in Indonesia.

The story of HeatVentors is yet another example that there is no trade-off between commercial success and positive environmental impact. On the contrary, innovative sustainable technologies developed by startups can provide lucrative investment opportunities and mitigate the adverse effects at the same time.

We need to develop and use better and better solutions to save our planet,” Ms Farkas adds. “Huge corporates have the resources to save the environment but they need innovations. There are more and more start-ups who have great ideas but they need resources. The solutions would be the cooperation between start-ups, corporates and international organisations.

How to scale-up the startup ecosystem in the region

This is exactly the idea behind CleanTech Bulgaria, a leading organisation supporting early-stage innovative ventures in Bulgaria and in the wider region.

“The most challenging task in working with startups is to find appropriate testbed partners for piloting the innovative solutions,” starts Mariyana Hamanova, Co-Chairperson of CleanTech Bulgaria.

Over the years we have successfully managed to connect our startups to key stakeholders from the public and private sector in order to demonstrate the innovation in the real environment. The industry is among the main users of the startup solutions therefore it is crucial to establish the necessary industrial partnerships and create conditions for business impact on a large scale.

According to Ms Hamanova, the Bulgarian startup ecosystem has been undergoing a very dynamic development in the past ten years. CleanTech Bulgaria works in close partnership with the European Institute for Innovation and Technologies (EIT), as an EIT Regional Innovation Scheme Hub Manager, it is responsible for projects under EIT Climate KIC, EIT InnoEnergy and lately EIT Manufacturing. The cooperation with these strong innovation networks has offered access to funding and business development of many Bulgarian innovators.

EU start-up Awards
Courtesy of CleanTech Bulgaria

“The role of the startups is proven to be important in the innovation process, but a sustainable recovery is related to large scale industry-driven projects that should be the drivers of this transition,” Ms Hamanova tells to CEENERGYNEWS. “Our role is to support and manage the complexity of these processes and at the same time offer capacity building to startups […] in order to equip them with the necessary skills and competencies.”

The dynamic economic development requires the constant deployment of new approaches and therefore the educational formats and employment should be directed and better aligned to the real business needs. In Central and Eastern Europe, there is a huge potential for exponential growth which is also visible in fast-developing countries like Bulgaria.

Besides actively supporting startups with breakthrough technologies, Cleantech Bulgaria also aims to address challenges related to strategic and system innovation. They are now leading a multi-stakeholder project supported by many other organizations in the region, which was selected by the EIT Climate-KIC to receive funding as part of the Pandemic Response Projects. The project aims to support the local and regional authorities in the process of strategic planning and decision making, thus supporting the practical implementation of tools for sustainable recovery and transition.

Keep up the momentum of sustainable change! Support innovation!

Many of the technologies that will help us to become net-zero are currently at the prototype or demonstration phase. These projects need better access to funding opportunities, specifically in Europe which – despite setting ambitious climate goals – still underinvests in innovation compared to its main competitors. Startups are crucial elements of fostering knowledge-intensive and sustainable growth. Looking at these examples it is clear that there is a huge potential in innovative ventures, but we have to make sure that breakthrough technologies are successfully integrated into the market.

Today, when rapid innovation is more urgent than ever, the economic crisis triggered by the global pandemic delivered a major setback. Market and policy uncertainties threaten to reduce the funds available to entrepreneurs. Therefore it is crucial that governments, industry, investors and other stakeholders support innovation with the aim of accelerating transitions to a green and more sustainable future.

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