Discovery: What next?

The Danish startup scene has reached a level of maturity that, a decade ago, few could even dream of. But what are the next steps for Denmark’s entrepreneurs? Which technology will be the next big growth accelerator, and who will be the next unicorn?

When a group of Danish physicists and engineers set out to reinvent the nuclear reactor, it seemed more like a futuristic fantasy. A fantasy that, if it succeeded, would require a series of breakthroughs in physics and the development of new materials. Not to mention a series of breakthroughs in the regulations surrounding nuclear energy, in order to reach world markets. But the potential—that is, to be able to supply the world with environmentally-friendly electricity on an enormous scale—was so promising that the idea found its feet as a startup.

»In hindsight, it was vital that we were very inexperienced when we started out. If I knew then what I know today, I’m not sure I would have started Seaborg. There are so many areas in which we have to innovate—from the regulations to the technology itself, to how the supply chain works—but that’s not to say that success is out of reach, it’s just hard to reach,« says Troels Schønfeldt, CEO and co-founder of Seaborg Technologies.

Since the beginning, Seaborg has raised a total of €13m. Today, their 100+ employees are exploring unknown territories in their mission to discover the solution to our planet’s most pressing problem.

Seaborg is currently developing a standardised molten salt reactor that can be installed in standard 40-foot containers. The containers are then installed on specially designed ships as floating power plants so that the entire package can be safety-approved and provide power anywhere in the world.

A trend machine

Go back 20 years and “startup” wasn’t a word common to the Danish language. Sure, there were entrepreneurs and some of them dabbled in technology, but in just two decades, an independent Danish startup industry has emerged, boasting scaleable tech companies across sectors. 10 such companies have earnt themselves so-called “unicorn status” with a valuation of over $1 billion and startups from the seven largest sectors alone employ over 15,000 people in Denmark.

With such an explosive two decades behind us, it’s risky to predict what the future might hold. But one person who dares to do so is serial entrepreneur and investor Lars Tvede. For Tvede, it’s not a question of whether there will be technological breakthroughs, but of which technologies will break through, and when. That’s precisely what he’s attempting to discover with his company, Supertrends.

»When you trade on the stock exchange, your dashboard displays trading news, all the latest price developments and the current trading volume in real-time. That’s what we’re creating with Supertrends, just with everything. Supertrends Labs is a trend machine that filters out noise and picks out the central trends from billions of data points,« Tvede explains.

The trend machine gets its knowledge from a multitude of databases, uses artificial intelligence to read articles and then combines all the data, assisted by subject-specific experts, creating an automatic overview of the companies, individuals or technologies that are trending within any given industry or technology.

»I’m constantly hearing about new technologies that seem like they’re sure to be the next big thing, but when there are so many, it can be difficult to keep an overview if you don’t have a system for it. Supertrends enables us to follow these developments—generally speaking, first something will be hot amongst investors, and then it’ll be hot commercially,« says Tvede.

It’s usually startups who take the first steps into new technologies and make them commercially attractive. They also use technologies together in innovative ways and create new business models—much faster than larger, established companies are able to. This is why Lars Tvede believes it’s particularly wise to keep track of when investors seem to flock to one particular kind of startup, even if the companies haven’t yet developed a finished, market-ready product.

»What you often see is that around 6 – 7 years after the smart money has been invested, the startup will start changing the world with its solution. If you’re an angel investor or a VC, it’s your job to keep an eye on these things, but if you work in a larger company, it’s also useful to know what smart people and smart money are getting up to, because if you notice it for the first time when it hits the market, it’s already too late to do anything about it,« Tvede concludes.

7 snapshots of future technological breakthroughs, as predicted by Supertrends:

  • 2023: Commercialisation of laboratory-grown caviar
  • 2024: Electric cars can be charged while driving
  • 2027: A previously-extinct species is reintroduced into the wild
  • 2030: First flight of a 100+ passenger zero-emission aircraft with fuel cells
  • 2030: Commercialisation of a sodium reactor with a molten salt storage system
  • 2034: First smartphone powered by self-charging batteries
  • 2042: A dinosaur that isn’t also a bird is brought back to life

An expanding ecosystem

One intersection where new technologies are being adopted and commercialised is where university research, startups and established companies meet. An intersection that has been in rapid development in Denmark during the past decade. In 20 years, 2,500 new companies have spun out just from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), not to mention all the other universities. However, the aim is not merely to link the research world and the commercial world, as Anne Malberg Horsager, Partner Director for DTU Entrepreneurship and DTU Board Education.

Anne Malberg Horsager, Partner Director for DTU Entrepreneurship and DTU Board Education

»If we’re going to discover the new and innovative solutions of the future and bring them to market, then we also need to tear down some of the barriers between stakeholders: research, startups and corporates. We’re uniquely placed to do this in the Nordics, partly because we have such a trust-based society which is crucial for a triple helix ecosystem to thrive,« she says.

Horsager believes that startups and scale-ups as well as established companies can become even more integrated into education and research, so that new knowledge has a better chance of becoming reality, faster. However, this must be done with respect for the research itself which, compared to the usual startup mindset, can seem very slow.

»Thorough, unbiased research is valuable, the fail-fast startup approach is valuable, and experienced corporations that scale new ideas fast is valuable. The challenge is for the three to work together and acknowledge each other’s strengths. Because when investors, startups and corporations dare to venture into research environments and researchers dare to share their knowledge in a commercial context, that’s when we can really innovate. We need to create new ecosystems, as well as developing the ones we already have in place,« Horsager explains, highlighting the universities’ entrepreneurship collaboration Open Entrepreneurship as an example.

Great discoveries and risky business

Seaborg’s founders have a background in physics from DTU. They started out with public funding and have since received large, private venture investments from, amongst others, Anders Holch Povlsen. Recently, the startup/scale-up announced a partnership with the South Korean shipping company Samsung Heavy Industries.

Although there is still a long way to go for Seaborg, they serve as a good example of how far a startup idea can go when connections are made across ecosystems. Their current goal is to be ready with the first power barge in 2028, which can be centrally approved for safety and go on to supply power to energy-deficient Southeast Asia.

»It’s the same goal as when we started out, but our way of getting there has changed. That’s why it can pay off to be a bit stupid and inexperienced at the beginning and just throw yourself into it. Our business case, business model and go-to-market strategy are also evolving alongside our core technology,« says Schønfeldt.

Despite the many obstacles on the way to Seaborg’s liquid salt reactor becoming a reality, he still believes in the potential:

»Taking risks won’t necessarily lead to creating value, but great value is rarely created without taking risks,« he concludes.

Seaborg doesn’t yet have a finished prototype of their reactor, but their eight years of development have created measurable value in multiple ways. For example, they have made discoveries concerning energy storage in molten hydroxides, which became the spinout company Hyme.

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