Interview

Conscious Capitalism

The hunt for sustainable startups that see opportunity in the deep

The hunt for sustainable startups that see opportunity in the deep

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Adrian Nielsen

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Innovators are turning their eyes to the sea. As CEO of accelerator fund Katapult Ocean, Jonas Skattum Svegaarden is seeking entrepreneurs that can find value in the ocean – while making a positive environmental impact.

In the Thames estuary in England, a team is testing barriers that filter out plastic waste. Off the coast of Morocco, drones are helping stop illegal fishing from depleting stocks. In the North Sea, sunlight falling on the water is being converted into electricity. And In Israel, scientists are making fibres for clothes out of algae.

These diverse projects are all being pursued by startups who’ve benefited from investment and expertise from Katapult Ocean, a fund founded in 2018 in Oslo, Norway. And Katapult Ocean is on the hunt for more businesses that can provide a financial return – as well as a positive impact on the environment.

If you think ocean-focused businesses like these are niche, think again. After all, the oceans contain 97% of the world’s water, and provide 99% of the living space available to nature. They absorb 30% of our CO2. Whether we know it or not, what’s going on in the oceans is vital to us all.

“We were stuck on debating plastic straws. I’m excited that we’re now lifting our eyes”

Jonas Skattum Svegaarden

Katapult Ocean’s CEO Jonas Skattum Svegaarden, who joined last year, has been banging the sustainability drum his whole career. He began at the Swedish bank Handelsbanken, where he says he sometimes felt like “the only one that was pushing ESG and sustainability”, then co-founded Carn Capital, a hedge fund focusing on socially responsible investment (even though many clients “would rather see you driving a fast car than talking about climate change”). Carn’s green credentials helped make it Norway’s best performing fund last year, but Svegaarden, craving the excitement of working with early-stage startups, left to take the reins of Katapult Ocean.

He’s joined at a time when it feels the world is beginning to take sustainability more seriously. The experience of Covid-19, although terrible in so many ways, has “shaken things up”, says Svegaarden. “We’ve talked about the UN Sustainable Development Goals for so long. I was feeling like we were stuck on debating plastic straws or not, and I’m excited that we’re now shifting towards more global solutions to problems and lifting our eyes.”

Since its launch, Katapult Ocean has invested in 32 startups from 17 countries, all of which bring technology to bear on challenges relating to the seas. Some draw valuable resources from the ocean that can help us live more sustainably. Some help make marine activities such as fishing get more return for less environmental impact. Others protect the ocean from harm by humans, or provide innovative alternatives to products that would otherwise deplete the ocean’s resources.

“There’s an awareness that we need to protect the ocean. That’s been put on the agenda in the past five years or so”

Jonas Skattum Svegaarden

As well as receiving up to half a million US dollars in funding, the companies get to take part in a three-month accelerator programme in Oslo (or in current circumstances, virtually), to maximise their potential and help “cement their mission and vision”. And they can tap into Katapult’s network of mentors and partners – a benefit which has been even more valuable during the pandemic.

Katapult Ocean’s investees are achieving big things. Electric motor maker Evoy, which aspires to be “the Tesla of the seas”, claims it can already beat the world speed record for electric boats. The maker of the reusable Ocean Bottle, which helps fund the removal of ocean plastic, has won numerous accolades, including a Red Dot Design Award. Seaweed farming business Ocean Rainforest has won the backing of WWF – the first time the environmental charity has made such an investment. And Desolenator, from the Netherlands, is working with brewing giant Carlsberg to set up a solar-powered water purification plant in India.

Svegaarden says there’s a mood of “excitement and curiosity” which means the time is right for ocean-focused startups. “I see a lot of consciousness around ocean health, coral reefs, wildlife, plastic, the meltdown of the poles… We can’t fish the same way we have done, we can’t transport the same way we have done. There’s an awareness that we need to protect the ocean, and I think that’s really been put on the agenda the past five years or so,” says Svegaarden. “We see that more and more bright heads are putting efforts into growing new companies and solutions for the future.”

Being based in Norway, ocean industries are a natural focus for Katapult. “We see a lot of families, corporate ventures and endowments that evolved from ocean industries, says Svegaarden. “It’s really important to be focused – investors want to understand and relate to what they invest in.”

Svegaarden says one reason people are excited about the ocean is that “it’s so unknown”, and indeed, many of the businesses Katapult Ocean supports are exploring new frontiers – often by deploying smart sensing and ‘internet of things’ (IOT) technology in the ocean. One Portuguese startup, Undersee, has designed devices for gathering data from the ocean, to help map its vast expanses. Meanwhile a Norwegian outfit called Fishency uses cameras and AI to monitor sea lice infection in salmon farms.

“I challenge people to get engaged in some way”

Jonas Skattum Svegaarden

For those who aren’t launching a new startup or investing in one, there are many ways to play a role in protecting our oceans, Svegaarden says: “I challenge people to get engaged in some way with the oceans or with any kind of societal or environmental agenda, whether that’s through their organisation or something else. I think everyone should be more aware. If you look at water scarcity, for instance, water is scarce, but we don’t necessarily have that in our head in terms of what we put down the drain, or when we’re filling a bowl with cold water. I think we’re getting there in terms of being more aware and more respectful, and not taking things for granted.”

Katapult Ocean’s efforts are showing that another way of living and working with the oceans is possible. “We have a responsibility,” he says. “If the tools are there, the innovations and solutions are there, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be used.”

DIVE IN

  • Get yourself an Ocean Bottle and help get 11kg of plastic out of the ocean
  • Check out the vegan shredded salmon and tuna from Hooked
  • Got an ocean startup? Apply for support from Katapult Ocean here
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