Stepping up the pace: the Smart Green Accelerator

It all started with a simple idea, recalls Martina Knittel: "We needed somewhere where we can network with others." The sociologist teamed up with Hagen Krohn to establish Grünhof (only in German) in 2013, "to provide a home for creative makers, sustainability-oriented innovators and start-up enthusiasts", as the website claims.

Rethinking environmental activism

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Successful green tech entrepreneurs: Jakob Bitner, Michael Peither and Felix Kiefl from VoltStorage (from left to right)

Grünhof is to be found in Freiburg, in the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg. As one of the places where the environmental movement began in the 1970s, the town still attracts eco-activists to this day. "We are attempting a new approach", says Knittel, meaning that this time the environment and business are to be linked: "Successful companies can be a powerful lever when it comes to designing a sustainable economy."

Grünhof rolled out its first funding programme in 2015. Participants in the Die Ökonauten (only in German) programme were not only given a job, they also learnt how to set up an organisation. After Grünhof had won a number of awards, the city of Freiburg came on board in 2017 and the state of Baden-Württemberg also contributed some funding.

Accompanying start-ups step by step

Together, they established the Smart Green Accelerator (only in German) – a new funding system for start-ups. Anyone wishing to develop technologies, business models and products for the green economy is accompanied throughout each phase of the start-up process. "Seed" is the name given to the early-stage programme during which entrepreneurs attend workshops to learn how to develop a business model. In the "Camp" phase, individual marketing concepts or websites are created. Finally, "Grow" is all about finding companies to partner. When a company agrees to cooperate, it is in Knittel's experience not only the start-up that benefits. "Such cooperative ventures enable firms to tap into new areas of business or kick-start innovations in-house", comments the sociologist.

Developing technology takes time

174 people with around 80 projects have taken part in Grünhof's programmes since 2014. They include the founders of alternative mobile telecom provider WeTell (only in German), which promises transparent payment plans, high data protection standards and a good carbon footprint. The entrepreneurs behind Leaftec, which supplies software for optimising energy efficiency in buildings, also took part. The founders of Variokan (only in German) are also Grünhof alumni – they have invented and placed on the market a hydraulic solution for adapting sewage systems to fluctuating waste water levels. "From the time an entrepreneur applies to the programme, it takes on average two to three years before their product will be ready for the market", reports Martina Knittel. And the more technological development a product requires, the longer it will take.

From idea to product: a solar energy storage system

While studying electrical engineering at Technical University of Munich in 2014, Michael Peither was already working on putting his idea into practice: a storage system for solar energy that would do without the toxic and explosive materials that are found in conventional lithium or lead batteries. He built the first prototype of his vanadium flow battery in the basement of his parents' house. Then everything happened very quickly: Peither joined forces with fellow students Jakob Bitner and Felix Kiefl, they moved into an office at the university, and set off to find investors. "We founded VoltStorage in the summer of 2016, and in the autumn received an investment of over a million euros", recalls Peither.

Finding sales partners – a powerful ally

The three entrepreneurs only applied to the "Grow" programme in 2018. By then, the first alternative solar energy storage systems had already been installed in a pilot series and the firm had 20 employees. "We were searching for sales partners", reports Peither. The start-up found the ally it was looking for in the Elektrizitätswerke Schönau (EWS), a partner of the Accelerator programme. This energy provider, which had originally been launched as an action group against nuclear power, is a cooperative that supplies its customers with power from solely renewable sources. Many run their own solar energy plants. Now EWS is trialling the sustainable energy storage system, and Peither hopes that it will soon be offering it to its 200,000 customers.

The first thing start-ups have to do when they take part in a Smart Green Accelerator programme is to answer a question: What is your motivation: money, prestige or a sustainable economy? Michael Peither was in no doubt about the answer: "I was always interested first and foremost in doing my bit for sustainability. This is something all three of us agree on", says Peither. And this, he adds, is precisely what their customers appreciate.