Unicorns in green: Sustainable start-ups in Germany

Traceless Materials packaging

The rotting outer packaging can end up in the compost.

(Photo: Traceless Materials)

Dusseldorf Green is trendy, including among German start-ups. According to the Green Start-up Monitor of the Borderstep Institute think tank, three out of ten start-ups already had a green orientation in 2021, and in the energy sector it was even seven out of ten. In concrete terms, green means: you make a contribution to the ecological goals of the green economy. With their products and services, they ensure, for example, that people use fewer resources, generate more renewable energy or consume more sustainably.

In its World Energy Investment Report, the International Energy Agency IEA calculates that around 1.7 trillion US dollars will flow into renewable energies, e-vehicles, heat pumps and low-emission fuels worldwide this year – almost a quarter more than in the past year 2021.

German founders have also taken up the issue. Representing the large number of start-ups, the following four companies have made it their task to make industry and the economy more sustainable.

Greenlyte: CO2 vacuum cleaner from the Ruhr area

The start-up Greenlyte has developed a method to filter CO2 from the ambient air. The technology works like a big vacuum cleaner. The Greenlyte facility extracts CO2 from the air and converts it into pure hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide in a complex chemical process. Industry can then use these substances, for example to refine oil or produce ammonia. Direct Air Capture is the name of the method for filtering CO2 from the air.

Florian Hildebrand, Niklas Friederichsen and Peter Matthias Behr founded the company as a result of their research work. The scientist for environmental process engineering Behr, for example, has been researching how CO2 can be filtered out of the ambient air at the University of Duisburg-Essen for 15 years. The start-up has already bought the patents for the idea from the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Investor Janna Ensthaler invested in Greenlyte with her Green Generation Fund. “If a start-up managed to get a gigatonne of CO2 out of the air, then we would only need 52 start-ups to solve our climate problem,” says Ensthaler. Greenlyte is planning the first demonstration plant in September in Essen. The system can filter 100 tons of CO2 out of the air per year.

1Point5 Degree: Green Unicorn Candidate

There are 28 unicorns in this country, i.e. companies that are valued at more than one billion euros. Experts are treating the three-year-old Hamburg start-up 1Komma5 Grad as a potential unicorn. CEO and co-founder Philipp Schröder, who managed Tesla Germany for two years, has already raised 300 million euros from investors. 1Komma5 Grad relies on its own Heartbeat Internet of Things technology. The energy management system allows the heat pump, power storage unit, PV system and wall box to communicate with one another and thus work more efficiently and save energy.

The goal: Everyone should be able to live climate-neutrally in order to achieve the 1.5-degree climate target of the United Nations. The young company expects sales of 550 to 600 million euros in 2023. Almost two-thirds of new business is to be generated on its own initiative, the remaining third through company takeovers.

Traceless Materials: The Plastic Liberators

In 2020 Johanna Baare and Anne Lamp founded the company Traceless Materials, which produces plastic-free packaging. Plastic is still the cheapest packaging for products of all kinds. However, a large part of the global packaging waste ends up in nature and is only broken down there very slowly. The Hamburg company wants to change that. The start-up uses plant residues from the agricultural and food industry that are produced when brewing beer or in the production of starch. Packaging waste from Traceless Materials can end up in the garden compost. The entrepreneurs call her

“Circular Bioeconomy” concept. During the decomposition process, the packaging breaks down into carbon dioxide and water.

Traceless Materials produces the plastic-free plastic in the form of granules. This can then be further processed using standard processes in the packaging industry. The company advertises its product as an alternative to bioplastics, which often cannot be biodegraded.

The mail order company Otto was their first customer – since then, Traceless Materials has been growing rapidly and has started further pilot projects. The start-up is working with the airline Lufthansa on biodegradable food bowls.

Biochar Ladbergen: Green coal from the Tecklenburger Land

The company Biokohle Ladbergen also relies on plant waste. Wood, green waste, food waste and sewage sludge go into an autoclave, a kind of pressure vessel that presses a substance out of it that can be used just like the fossil fuel lignite to fire incinerators.

The advantage: Thanks to the 16 bar pressure and 200 degrees Celsius in the pressure vessel, the process only takes ten to twelve hours instead of several million years, as in the case of coal. “We need about one tonne of biomass to produce 700 kilograms of biochar,” says Max Brinkhege, one of the company’s managing directors. Combustion produces only about as much CO2 as the burned plants previously absorbed from the atmosphere.

If the plants were to decompose in nature instead of being processed into biochar in a pressure vessel, they would release a similar amount of CO2 as when they are burned. The company gets the biomass from composting plants and food manufacturers. Dead wood that the bark beetle has eaten can also become biochar. The pilot plant with two autoclaves is located in Ladbergen between Münster and Osnabrück and is already producing 50 tons of biochar per week. The largest customer so far is a steel manufacturer who uses the coal to produce green steel.

More: Bucking the trend – climate start-ups collect record sums

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