EIT Award winners - Building sustainable businesses

Last winter, nine start-up companies were named finalists for the EIT's first entrepreneurship awards. Now they're raising money, launching products and growing. One moved to Silicon Valley. A progress report: So far, so good.

Michael Kenward, Science|Business

Rosa Vilarasau has been busy since she was a winner in this year's EIT Entrepreneurship Awards for Think CO2, the company that she set up with Pol Guiu to design 'the perfect 21st century house'. When the news reached Spain that the company had won the Sustainable Energy Entrepreneurship Award, all of the major newspapers covered the story. Since then hardly a week has gone by without more media interest in Noem, their 'no emissions' approach to house design. But there has been more substantive action, as well. Vilarasau has also been "dealing with inquiries from companies and private owners who want to understand how our construction system works and making offers for them". At the same time, her company, nominated for the award by the EIT's InnoEnergyKIC, has been working on its Noem technology, with the help of a new team member. One task has been to adapt the company's concept of the energy-efficient, pre-fabricated, modular house so that its cooling and heating technology meets the Mediterranean passive house standard. Noem was one of nine finalists, and three winners, of the EIT awards – presented by EU Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou in Brussels Feb. 20. The awards underlined the EIT's commitment to supporting entrepreneurship in Europe; the finalists were all small companies that are working with the EIT's three "innovation factories", its Knowledge and Innovation Communities, or KICs. Here is an update on how some of those companies are doing:

Naked Energy

Busy also describes the past six months for Christophe Williams and Richard Boyle of Naked Energy, winners of the EIT Climate Change Entrepreneurship Award. The company is commercialising a hybrid product that combines photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies to generate both hot water and electricity. Since the awards, the company has kept working with the Climate Change KIC and Imperial College London on the technology behind its Virtu solar panels. "We are now in the final stages of our pre-production prototype and are achieving game-changing results with the performance," says Williams. The business has also lined up "a major UK manufacturing partner for our pilot products". Like other award winners, Naked Energy can't say too much about the businesses it is working with. But, says Williams, "we are on the cusp of securing a major UK brand for UK pilot launches," he adds. "We will be releasing this information very soon." Naked Energy was also picked as one of the 16 "most exciting UK cleantech businesses" invited to join a high-powered government backed delegation to San Francisco. Then there was all the media coverage, with a major profile in The Sunday Times.


The EIT's ICT Labs encompasses information and communications technologies (ICT), a third area of technology covered by the EIT Entrepreneurship Awards. Trifense, a spin-out from the Technical University of Berlin, won the award for Information and Communications Technology. The company tackles the growing threat of cyberattacks on IT systems. Protecting a company or organisation against known cyber-security threats is one thing; protecting them against unknown cyber-threats is another. Trifense's approach differs from conventional technology in this field by not relying on pre-written descriptions of an attack to spot trouble coming. Trifense achieves this with 'self-learning' technology. This studies incoming data, known as network packet payloads, and builds models of "normality". In this way, Trifense's security systems can spot deviations from the models and can recognise unknown cyber-threats that are, as the company puts it, "entangled with the payloads". Trifense has also been developing its business since winning the EIT award. It has moved to California, home of many of the major customers for IT security. "The company now operates more or less out of Silicon Valley," says Christian Gehl, one of the founders of Trifense and the company's chief technology officer. The move west benefited from a German government scheme that offered mentoring and advisory services, along with office space in Silicon Valley and introductions to American companies. "It's very important to be in Silicon Valley at this stage in the company's growth," says Gehl. "Large German companies are not used to talking to start-ups. US companies are more open to adopting new technologies. They have a different mentality." Moving to California has also influenced the company's business tactics. "We just scale our business model to fit the typical American way of thinking" – that is, thinking big, says Gehl. "The next step is to realise a seed funding round." Trifense hopes to raise €750,000.


Ennesys, another finalists nominated by the Climate Change KIC, has also been busy. The company, which takes its name from Environmental Energy Systems, has devised technology that combines wastewater clean-up and bioenergy production. The heavily patented technology involves cultivating phytoplankton in closed vessels, 'photobioreactors' on the roofs and walls of buildings. The output is bioenergy and cleaned up water. In June, Ennesys announced that its first full-scale industrial pilot will be at La Défense Seine Arche, a major development venture to the west of Paris. The company hopes that the demonstrator will "convince market players that its systems are economically profitable in actual climate conditions" and "versatile in terms of building integration". The pilot plant has signed up two architects, Manuelle Gautrand and Axel Schoenert, to integrate the photobioreactors into the building's structure. Ennesys has now grown to seven people and plans to start fund raising when it signs up its first customer, hopefully later this year. Heliocaminus Solar energy is also in the sights of Heliocaminus, another company nominated by KIC InnoEnergy. The company is developing a new solar thermal collector mostly for heating tap water. Erik Hindrikes, one of the company's founders, says that "we have been busy in the lab. We have placed most of our focus on completing the first version of our product."


Another business nominated by KIC InnoEnergy, ParkGreen, has developed a carport that generates electricity from solar panels and then uses that energy to recharge electric vehicles. Christian Knapp, one of the company's founders, says that ParkGreen has been concentrating on developing its business plan, with support from KIC-InnoEnergy. ParkGreen has also been adding to its product range, and has four different models. Like any new business, ParkGreen has to raise money to fund its development. "We are doing presentations for Spanish investors to find seed capital, and as well for investors from other countries," says Knapp. As a part of its plans to expand its markets, ParkGreen has also been building a global network of distributors. To support this activity, and generally spread the word, it has also exhibited its technology at several events in Spain and Germany.


Blaast, another business nominated for the awards by the ICT KIC, has also been developing its business in overseas markets. The Finnish company is bringing mobile-phone apps and a smartphone user experience to emerging markets where smartphones are too expensive. Blaast's service runs on any Java-enabled mobile device. It changes the shape of mobile computing by running mobile apps in the cloud, and not on the device. As the company likes to put it, "Blaast brings mobile apps to the next billion people." It is off to a good start in reaching that target. At the beginning of the year, the company launched "the world's first cloud-based mobile platform" in Jakarta, Indonesia, in cooperation with the mobile operator XL. Blaast also has deals in the works that it cannot talk about. "We are planning to launch in other Southeast Asian countries soon," says Heini Vesander. As well as opening new markets, Blaast has been developing new systems. "We launched a lighter version of Blaast together with XL Axiata. The version is specially designed to run on the very low-end phones and is super light for the network and data package." It helps that the company has attracted software writers who want to write apps for the Blaast system. "In Indonesia alone, we have a developer community with over 4,000 members," says Vesander.
More information on the ventures and the EIT entrepreneurship awards here: www.eitawards.eu