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Deeptech December 6, 2021

Meet Flox: the deeptech startup helping animals and humans coexist in harmony

All around the world, wild animals are damaging crops and young forest, posing a dangerous threat to landowners’ livelihoods. We spoke to Flox Robotics CEO and co-founder Sára Nožková, to learn how they’re solving this problem and discuss the challenges deeptech startups often face.

Where did the idea for Flox come from?

Marco and Matteo came up with the idea for Flox in 2019. They were collaborating on a project at KTH, because Marco has a background in drone robotics and Matteo works with AI and software. It was a perfect technological match.

They’re both from Northern Italy, and at the same time the country started having huge problems with wild boars destroying crops, and people’s homes and gardens. It’s crazy! It’s actually become a political problem there, and a lot of landowners and farmers are quitting their jobs in central Italy. They thought about how they could leverage what they were working on to address the problem, and got help with some market validation. The more they dug into it, the more they realized that this is a huge problem here in Sweden too, and in many other countries, like the US and Australia.

They were very into the tech side of things and needed someone who could work on the business side, which is where I came in. I’ve been working with drones and autonomous vehicles and their applications, bringing emerging technologies within smart cities to the market, and whereas it will take a couple of years until we see large-scale drone traffic there, the possibilities to use autonomous drones in the fields in sparsely populated areas are opening up already. I knew Flox had enormous potential from the start.

Tell us more about the problem you’re trying to solve.

Even before working with autonomous drones we all saw the scary predictions when it comes to climate change and how it affects wildlife and local communities as the balance between them is getting harder and harder to maintain. Winters are getting milder because of global warming, destabilizing animal species and biodiversity. Due to deforestation and human population expansions, we are taking more of the wildlife’s natural habitats. As a result, the human-wildlife conflict rises and it will get much worse – that is if we do not do anything to restore the balance in a mutually-beneficial way, and maximize output of the cultivated fields and reforestation areas.

Some species are rising in number (wild boar populations increase 30% each year) and there’s no way around that really. Animals are encroaching further and further into arable land, causing billions of euros of damage to crops each year. They also often eat newly planted trees which also sets us back from a climate perspective. We also need to feed a growing global population which is a serious concern. The research shows that human-wildlife conflict will continue to rise unless we can redefine the boundaries. 

How does Flox prevent this from happening?

We provide tailored, easy to set-up autonomous drone solutions that use AI, deep learning and robotics to prevent wild animals from damaging crops.

We install a charging station in the area that needs to be protected, and the drone takes off to patrol the area and returns every half an hour to charge. They can cover about 200 hectares before they need to charge again, and it just continues on the same mission to provide continuous protection and mapping. We use thermal cameras and AI so the drones understand the difference between people, dogs and wild animals. If it’s a person or a domesticated animal, nothing will happen. But if it detects a wild animal, like a boar, it will automatically head towards them and switch into repellent mode, where it omits a sound a specific frequency that only the animal can hear which is super annoying for them and drives them away from the area. These deterrent sounds are tailor-made for each species and the whole process is autonomous. 

Our customers can also use our app to track all of the activity that’s happened on their land and review video footage to see what sort of animals appeared and where they came from. This provides valuable insights and statistics, and also evidence for insurance companies if farmers need proof to support compensation claims. This data is also great for different wildlife associations so they can track how many animals are in different areas. At the moment they just interview farmers and it’s not very data-driven. Now authorities can make decisions based on our information. 

What are the most important things you think you’ve learned so far on your startup journey?

For us, it’s that everything takes more time than expected. Especially working with the technologies we do. We’ve also learned that you will break and destroy equipment and have to start over again until you get it right! 

But I think the major learning is the team. Launching a startup is such a bumpy ride with lots of ups and downs, but as long as we have a really strong core team with different capabilities and expertise we’ll figure things out.

We come up against a lot of skepticism as well, which is okay, because a lot of people don’t really understand what we are doing yet. People say things like ‘oh this will never work because boars will get used to anything’, but it’s natural to be skeptical of brand new technologies. So we focus a lot on educating our customers and providing concrete examples of it working in action. And I really like that, because we get to talk to our customers a lot and run different demos for different stakeholders – so it’s like building relationships and branding at the same time. We’ve also learnt that how we brand ourselves is super important, and we really need to be careful about what we say and our vision. Biologists, farmers, hunters, and agronomists all have different priorities and opinions and our messaging needs to resonate with all of them –  after all, we started Flox with the vision to help protect our planet, starting with both local communities and wildlife. This is what drives us every single day.

Has Sting helped you on your startup journey?

We really like all the coaches, they are brilliant. We were also quite surprised about the level of support you get, and there’s so many things to choose from. You get a lot of hands-on support and it feels like the coaches really care about our business. There’s always an expert on hand too, for example, Karin really helps out with impact and sustainability, then we can talk to Raoul about IPR, then ask Julia about PR – so that’s super nice to pick up different brains.

Would you like to learn more about Flox?

Head to their website or contact Sara Nozkova, CEO at Flox at sara@floxrobotics.com.

Deeptech December 6, 2021

Meet Reselo: the startup turning birch bark into sneakers

A rising global demand for rubber is threatening our planet. We spoke to Reselo co-founder Thomas Baumgarten to find out how his team is replacing fossil-based plastics with green biomaterials through sustainable chemistry and get his advice for other entrepreneurs.

Reselo co-founder Thomas Baumgarten.

How did you come up with the idea for Reselo?

I’m German and I came to Sweden to do a PhD in biochemistry at Stockholm University 10 years ago. I never thought I’d stay, but it’s easy to get stuck here. I realized I didn’t want to continue in science, but back then it was difficult to get into industry, so I applied for a stipend at the Wallenberg Wood Science Center at KTH as a postdoc. 

That was when I got into sustainability and what the problems are from a material science perspective, which are huge. I also realised that there’s not actually as much progress as you’d think and hope for. Take the tyre industry, for example. Every three or four years when there’s a big event they’d present a tyre that’s bio-based. You think it’s going to hit the streets, but it never does, it’s just more of a PR thing. On the other hand, developing sustainable fossil-free materials is also a huge challenge because the amounts needed are enormous. 

During my post-doc I was playing around with birch bark and at some point I got this rubber material and thought, ‘hey, that’s cool.’ Then I showed it to Gustav Notander who is a business coach at KTH Innovation and he saw some potential and suggested trying to commercialise this technology. It took me a while to come round to the idea because I never thought I’d start a company. So I’m more of an accidental entrepreneur.

What happened next?

First, I did Sting’s Deeptech Test Drive course, which gave me a clearer idea of what a startup journey could look like. Then, I joined the Startup Climate Action challenge by Sting and Norrsken, which was a team competition. Initially, I was concerned because I did not have a team but the platform made it pretty easy to find others with relevant skills and experience. In the end, I got really lucky with recruiting a great team, and when we realized we could work well together, we decided to go for it.

Tell us about your product, Nordic Bio-Rubber. 

Nordic Bio-Rubber is made of birch bark, which is a massive byproduct of the forestry, pulp and paper industries in the Nordics. This residue isn’t refined today, they just burn it to generate energy. But this creates a lot of carbon dioxide and has to stop at some point.

From a chemical point of view, there are some interesting compounds in birch bark and isolating these compounds holds great potential for developing biomaterials. I’m not an expert in material science, I did something very different before, but coming in from the outside you have a different perspective on processes. I was less focused on extracting individual molecules from the birch bark, because this has been done before and yields are too low for bulk applications. I realized that if you take a big fraction of the bark and create a material out of it, you’re much more likely to have something scalable. 

Now, we’ve managed to develop a truly sustainable alternative to synthetic rubbers, which we called Nordic Bio-Rubber.

What problem are you trying to solve? 

The global rubber market is worth around USD 45 billion, which is enormous. Today, rubbers are mostly synthetic, fossil-fuel based materials that are produced using strong chemicals . Natural rubber is also common but it’s plantation causes deforestation of tropical rain forest and competes for land with food production. 

Nordic Bio-Rubber eradicates these issues, and with over a million tons of residual birch bark created each year in Sweden and Finland, we’ve got plenty of it to go around. We’re also looking beyond rubber and exploring ways to create other biomaterials. I believe starting from abundant renewable feedstocks has to be the basis for developing sustainable alternatives to fossil-based plastics.

What can Nordic Bio-Rubber be used for? 

Nordic Bio-Rubber can be used as a sustainable alternative to many synthetic rubbers, as it has similar properties as traditional rubbers. Initially, I thought we could make Lego tires from Nordic Bio-Rubber because back then I spent a lot of time with my son playing with Lego. Now, our customers are mainly fashion brands, because our material is great for shoes, but in the long term we believe that our material can be used in many other applications. You can probably make everything from toys to yoga mats. 

After getting some media coverage, we have been contacted by businesses asking if they can use Nordic Bio-Rubber for other applications too. Such a great demand and interest is very encouraging for us.  

What are the most important things you’ve learned so far from a startup perspective?

Every startup is on a different journey and things can develop in very different ways, so you have to be flexible. For example, other deep tech companies I’ve come across have developed much slower with usually a few years passing by before they could attract seed funding. So first I thought okay, I am prepared to have this as a side project for 3-4 years but then half a year later things got really serious. Basically things can go fast or slow, and you have to be prepared for that. And you need to accept that not everything is in your control. 

What sort of things have you found are beyond your control?

How developed the market is. You can have a great product, but if your customers don’t agree, it doesn’t matter. Everyone was telling us that we really need to convince customers to try our product but soon we realised that for us it was the other way around. Customers were super interested in our material and they wanted to have it as soon as possible. So we were really lucky that the market is much more developed than for most other innovations.

Have you faced any other unexpected challenges?

There’s some personal risk involved when you start a company, like financial security. About five months before founding Reselo, I joined a biotech company as a full-time researcher. But since Reselo developed so quickly, I felt I had to spend more time on it to keep the traction going. So I was very open with my former employer which was a bit risky since I was still within my probation period, but we agreed that I could reduce my hours to 80% and this support was incredibly helpful and mitigated my personal financial risks. 

Many people will tell you that you have to commit 100% to launching your own business, and you’ll have to work 80 hours a week and so on. But I don’t think that’s true. Nowadays, with working from home and part-time contracts we are much more flexible, so you don’t necessarily have to take this risk in the beginning. 

Of course, there’ll be a time when you have to commit fully, but if I didn’t have some kind of financial security, even just for six months, or a year, Reselo wouldn’t have happened. I have a family to support too and that’s something I cannot compromise on. So being able to keep my regular job at the same time as starting Reselo was a really good thing. 

Also in Sweden people generally have a very positive attitude towards starting a company. When I told my family in Germany what I’m doing everybody’s like, ‘did you really think this through? Are you crazy?’, because their mindset is very different. I think entrepreneurship is really encouraged in Sweden, and there are more laws and rules that make it easier than in other countries, like the fact that in Sweden as a researcher at a university you own your technology. In contrast, anywhere else the university owns “your” invention which can be a great hurdle when trying to bring technology to the market.

What is your advice for other startups in a similar space to you?

First of all, enjoy the ride – building your own company is a lot of fun! Second, get external help early on from somebody who’s more experienced than you and get their feedback too. It doesn’t cost you anything and it can help guide you in the right direction. You can always evaluate if you think it’s worth following it or not though, that’s your decision and it can be a very personal decision too. 

Where is Reselo today, and what’s next?

So far, Reselo has been very successful. We’re just over a year old, and customers and VCs are already super interested. We also won startup of the year at the Venture Cup last month. 

We have market verification, which is one of the most important things, and we have technical verification from a third party. Now, we need investment so that we can start scaling our technology with a pilot, a demo production plant and eventually a full size production plant. This will take years, and everybody knows that. However, we also need investors that are patienced enough to join us on such a long journey.  

How has Sting helped you on your journey?

We definitely benefit a lot from the combined experience of the Sting team and the wide network of Sting companies. Opening doors is also something that helps. You get introduced to a lot of contacts and a big business network. And for me the pre-incubator programs, like the Deeptech Test Drive, are really good initiatives to get people out of the lab and evaluate their ideas to see if they have real business potential. It’s a great way to test yourself, the technology, and get feedback from others to see if it’s worth doing.

Would you like to learn more about Reselo?

Head to their LinkedIn or contact info@reselo.se.

Deeptech September 30, 2021

Building a deeptech startup: lessons from the trenches

Building a deeptech startup takes serious mettle. Here, Sting deeptech coach Raoul Stubbe shares his lessons learned and advice for people looking to commercialize advanced, cutting-edge technology.

What’s a deeptech startup in the first place, you might ask? Since this is the first part in a series of deeptech articles, here’s my own short and oversimplified definition:

A deeptech startup is a company that brings to market a superior solution, product, platform or service that’s 10x more effective than existing solutions. It must also solve an important SDG-related problem with novel, truly hard to copy, technology.

If you can tick that box, get in touch btw – I’d love to hear about it! So how is this different from building just any tech startup? Are there any special challenges for deeptech startups? You bet there is.

The important thing here is that the factor “10x superior” is enabled by a technological breakthrough. The factor 10x could in fact be 1.1x – as long as that’s enough to disrupt your target industry.

It’s already very hard to accomplish a technological breakthrough, of course, but using a technological breakthrough to sustainably create significant value for a large crowd of customers is typically much, much harder. This is also the reason for the 10x. If the technology doesn’t make a hell of a difference for the customer, then don’t even bother to build a startup around it.

What are the challenges then?

There are many, but the one I would like to highlight here is time.

Yes, time as in years, sometimes even decades.

If you are a tech nerd like me and born in the previous millennium, you may have read the book Gödel, Echer, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter. One of my favorite passages from the book is the one about Hofstadter’s law which says: “Everything takes longer than you think – even if you take Hofstadter’s law into consideration”.  

Yes, it’s worth a laugh, but when you’re building a deeptech startup, more often than not, this “law” feels like an understatement.

And it’s not just caused by all the hardships and negative surprises in product development and scaling your production, it’s also the time it takes to get your first customer to make the leap of faith to say yes.

Being the first customer to integrate an unproven, albeit 10x superior, and probably mission-critical component into their own offer takes a lot of guts.

This first, and super important step (especially when it comes to funding) takes much longer than your most pessimistic logical mind can imagine.  

Regardless of your superior specs, you’re always selling to a human in the end and earning her trust in this new crazy thing takes 10x the number of meetings, 10x the amount of testing, and 10x the amount of legal loops to jump through. So long before you get there, your team, your investors and your customer champions lose faith in you.

Giving up, are you?

Despite this, there are actually deep tech startups that succeed. So, what are the tricks that make the journey smoother, shorter and increase your chances of success?

  • Manage the expectations

Sure, you are 200 percent convinced that your product and your business model is a total no brainer for the customer, and that if you build it they will come. That actually happens now and then in our universe, but on earth it almost never happens.

Instead, you better leave your ego at home and bring your most pessimistic glasses when you make your plans forward. Assume, in every step of your development, financing and go to market plans, that Murphy and Hofstadter are on the same team, and that team unfortunately isn’t your team.

Then multiply that estimate with a factor of pi every time. Now, maybe, you have something realistic. And the good news is that every time Murphy and Hofstadter happen to be busy elsewhere, you come with a positive surprise. If you have something as great as you say, i.e. 10x superior, the time required will probably be worthwhile for you and your stakeholders, anyway. Now coming from an underdog position you can start underselling and overperform.

  • Remember that good enough is actually good enough

Yes, the potential of your technology perhaps allows for something even 50x superior. However, once you get to 10x or perhaps even 2x your offer may be good enough to make your first customers happy anyway. “Best” is often the enemy of good, and there are few things that steal more time than perfectionism.

Also, reality is too complex to just optimize in one dimension only. Very often 10x in one dimension means too late in a market context.

When a market is ready for a technology shift, it will not wait for the best technology, it will go for the one that is available and then shift again only once that technology is obviously obsolete.

  • Stick to the plan…and don’t

Some say that the fastest learner is the one that wins in the end. This is true but only half the truth. Unless you transform your learnings into revisions of plans and actions accordingly, you will neither increase your speed nor shorten the time to success. So, what about your carefully devised plan. Should we just throw it in the bin every time we learn something? Yes, and no! There is an important balance to strike here.

Teams and organizations need plans with goals, milestones, KPIs, and so on. Not only because they perform better but also because most people feel safer when they know what’s expected from them. Many will leave the company if you change plans every week. Hence, you need a leadership and a process that puts every learning into context and determines if the learning really mandates a change of plans. Sometimes it’s many small changes, but once in a while it’s a pivotal change. Most of the time the conclusion will be to stick to the plan.

  • Create a culture of taskforce operations

As I mentioned above, things never go completely according to plan. This is especially true when working with deeptech. Sometimes you even run into adversity so severe that it threatens to send your startup right into the graveyard of great ideas.

If this happens, you need all hands on deck! As a founder or leader you need to embrace the adversity as an opportunity and remind everyone that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In the startup world this is in fact true.

Brainstorm possible solutions or workarounds and design an appropriate taskforce to execute on the best ideas. When you are through the crises, you’ll have a much tighter team and a higher valuation too. Setting up taskforces create the necessary sense-of-urgency and also a feeling that the company acts adamantly whenever hardships arise.

Also, at times, your creative and superbright team comes up with an even better solution than the one you are working on. At least it looks like it at first glance. This is a very dangerous situation that can easily create conflict and divide your team. Again, the solution here is to create a taskforce. Let a handful people prove that the new idea is in fact so much better and easier and faster to implement and that you should replace the old with the new. Otherwise stick to the plan.

Finally, find and engage with champions, EARLY. What we mean by a champion is a person, usually working at your favorite (ideal) customer who’s gladly willing to try out new solutions and, if the trial is reasonably successful, willing to push (yes, they have to push a lot) your solution, product, platform, or service further into the customer’s internal evaluation process.

Unfortunately, deep tech startups often refrain from meeting with potential customers early, either because they are not yet happy themselves with the performance of their product (perfectionism) or because they are afraid of being dismissed as naïve and immature.

This bad strategy (or rather lack of strategy) puts everything back to front. Unless you’ve been the customer yourself, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to suss out all the intricacies of the problem, what the problem costs, who owns the problem, what the implications are for the customer’s customer, what the budget is, etc. from the outside.

The devil is really in the details here. Instead, you should hook up with potential customers as early as possible. Try to identify a problem owner that can act as your champion on the inside. Make them your partner in crime. Give them chance to become heroes in their own organization. By having a champion on the inside, you can fine tune your understanding of the problem you’re solving. You’ll get incredibly valuable feedback about what’s missing and what things really matter to the customer. More often than not, you’ll be surprised how much faster you may reach a value proposition that is good enough to make your customer happy.

Imagine just how much time it will save to skip all the features that you where planning to include that turned out to be just nice-to-haves! Not to mention how much time it would have taken to fix it if you missed a must-have.

Should I always work closely with my future customers? There is one exception, but that we’ll dive into that in the next chapter of this series.

In summary: Building a deep tech-based startup takes time, period. By being focused, customer-centric, efficient, happy with good enough, and managing expectations, you can, however, make the journey faster and more likely to end successfully. Bon voyage!

Raoul Stubbe

Raoul coaches deeptech companies.

raoul.stubbe@sting.co
070-655 27 74

Do you have an early-stage deeptech idea?

Book a free individual coaching session with Raoul now to get feedback on your business idea, test your pitch, or discuss how to solve a challenge that’s keeping you up at night.

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Deeptech November 20, 2020

Mendi breaks crowdfunding record

Mendi has raised SEK 31 million in crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. This is a record for a Swedish company. More than over 10,000 people have ordered their brain exercise equipment for home use.

Mendi is a neurofeedback headset and app that is designed to improve brain function by exercising the brain for 5 to 15 minutes three times a week.

– We want to lead the way in brain health and bring the latest knowledge to more people by combining cutting-edge technology with close collaboration with the research community. The initial interest in Mendi was overwhelming and we have a long waiting list with thousands of people from all over the world. We will be sending the first units to consumers in a few weeks, says Moha Bensofia, CEO of Mendi.

Mendis hedaset uses neurofeedback, a technique that measures activity in the brain via the flow of oxygen and blood in the prefrontal cortex. With the headset and app, it should be possible to measure, control and improve the brain function of the users, says Mendi.

A headset from Mendi costs a little over SEK 2,600 if you order it from time to time through IndieGoGo. Delivery will take place in April next year. Some of the customers who ordered Mendi’s headsets quickly when the campaign launched in May may have their headsets soon as Mendi plans to start shipping its first products as early as next month.