After a construction mishap knocked out the heating system in the home of his friend Boaz Leupe on a cold day, de Meijer stopped by to visit, a laptop under his arm.
“He said, ‘Hey, why don’t we go to Dell.com, buy 100 laptops and then we’ll have some nerd heat,’ ” Leupe recalls. “We had a bit of a laugh about that and then we realised it wasn’t a bad idea.”
Now, Nerdalize, based in Delft, the Netherlands, is ramping up its plan to replace home radiators with disguised computer servers and sell data processing time to remote users while the excess heat warms the house for free. The company is valued at between 2 million and 3 million euros ($3.07 million and $4.61 million).
Along the way, de Meijer, Leupe and the company’s third co-founder, Florian Schneider, have gotten a helping hand from YES!Delft, a small-business incubator that, like others in Europe, offers advice, office space and connections to help environmentally focused tech start-ups get off the ground.
The incubators, many backed by government funding, are seeking both economic and environmental returns. At the same time, they hope to keep Europe competitive in the global sector known as clean tech, an area that includes everything from electric cars and “smart grid” power transmission systems to high-capacity batteries and technologies to harvest energy from new sources like waves and tides.
Would-be entrepreneurs “come in with a nice technology”, says Frans Nauta, deputy director of entrepreneurship at Climate-KIC, a European Commission-funded effort that supports environment-focused tech start-ups through incubators at universities. “To get them in 18 months to the point where they know their stuff so well that an investor can be comfortable to invest a million, that’s my work.”
Between 60 and 70 incubators across Europe offer support to clean tech companies, says Stephan van Dijk, innovation program manager at the Delft University of Technology, who is researching the role of clean tech incubators for a European Union study. Most do so as part of a program aimed at promoting tech start-ups in general, he said.
The incubators often rent space to young companies in buildings that house dozens of start-ups, so the entrepreneurs can chat over coffee or meet in the hallways and exchange ideas. Often linked to a university – Climate-KIC’s sites include Imperial College in London, the Paris Institute of Technology and the Technical University of Berlin – they offer access to coaches who help with business issues, scientists with a wide range of technical expertise and networks of contacts, including suppliers, potential customers and private investors.
At YES!Delft, where about 20 of the 70 start-ups are clean tech-focused, Leupe of Nerdalize says the offices are brimming with energy and creativity.
“You do get engineers running through the building shaking their hands in victory every once in a while,” Leupe says.
“Recently, we had the entire executive board of one of the largest energy companies in Europe in the office, sipping coffee,” Leupe said. “It adds a lot of network, It adds a lot of knowledge.”
The clean tech sector, particularly its renewable energy segment, has been through a bumpy few years, particularly in the United States, where enthusiastic investors jumped in in droves in the mid-2000s, then took losses as falling prices and scaled-back government support hurt many companies. Many investors are now more cautious about a sector in which up-front capital requirements can be high, development periods long and technologies risky and complicated.
Progress has been smoother in Europe, where the clean tech frenzy was never as fevered as in California’s Silicon Valley, says Nauta.
But because the Continent lacks the rich environment of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that characterise start-up hotspots like Silicon Valley or New York, many incubators still depend on government funding, he said.
“It’s very hard to run a privately run business incubator in Europe and be profitable,” says Oriol Pascual, a clean tech consultant whose firm, Enviu Barcelona, works with two incubators in the Spanish city. In the United States, he says, “every time you have a new round, you have 300 candidates, you pick 20”. In Europe, “if you get 30 or 40 or 50, you are lucky,” he says, perhaps because risk-taking is less a part of the business culture.
Welcome to cleanweb
The clean tech sector is changing, though, as expensive projects like big solar arrays and windfarms are joined by a new, lower-cost area known as cleanweb, whose companies make use of software or internet applications to more efficiently manage resources.
Many cleanweb companies focus on energy and water, and on making smart use of the troves of data generated in an increasingly digital world. Those are all important themes at this week’s CeBIT information technology trade fair in Hanover, Germany. Unlike the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month, which is more consumer oriented, CeBIT focuses on the tech needs of businesses.
In Copenhagen, clean tech start-ups benefit from the Danish government’s strong commitment to renewable energy. Denmark, whose strength in the manufacture of wind energy equipment stems from a government decision to back the sector in the 1970s, plans to wean itself from fossil fuels entirely by 2050.
Entrepreneurs are responding, and Copenhagen has become an important hub of new clean tech activity.
At the Green Entrepreneur House, more than 70 companies seek advice from professors at the Technical University of Denmark and make use of the school’s sophisticated testing and demonstration facilities to try out new energy technologies.
A model energy system, complete with wind turbines, battery-charging stations and houses that mimic consumer habits, helps start-ups hone new smart grid applications, says Kristine Garde, head of clean tech innovation at Scion DTU, the university-linked technology park that runs the green incubator. The effort is backed by more than $2 million euro in government funds, Garde says.
In Britain, the Carbon Trust, a group focused on fighting climate change, works with about 300 start-ups across Europe in efforts that have been backed by the European Commission, the British government and General Electric.
“The gaps that each venture has, the problems, differ from one venture to the next. They differ according to the stage the company’s at or the particular challenge that venture faces,” says David Aitken, head of the trust’s incubation efforts. A big part of an incubator’s value is “the external sounding board, someone saying, ‘We think your gaps are here and here, and we’ll help you address them.’ ”
Among the companies the Carbon Trust has supported is SenseLogix, whose product combines sensors with software to tailor buildings’ energy use to occupants’ needs, an approach it says can cut consumption by as much as a third.
With companies around the world pushing forward on clean tech, Europe must be on top of its game to stay competitive, says Aitken. And in such a technologically complex sector, incubators can play a key role in helping companies get products to market.
“They don’t do it for you,” says Wouter Robers, whose company Epyon, which makes fast-charging batteries for electric vehicles, was bought by the Swiss power technology firm ABB in 2011. But the help he got from YES!Delft “was pretty instrumental”, he said.
The biggest testimony to the role played by the incubator?
Robers has a new start-up venture, using three-dimensional printing to make prototypes for companies designing new products, and he is back at YES!Delft again.