Technical University of Denmark: Climate crisis could create tremendous business opportunities

Investors and entrepreneurs are key players in developing technology for people at DTU. In order for technology to make a difference in the world it needs to made accessible for the greater society.

In the coming years, it is absolutely vital that green research is applied, if we want to reach 70 per cent CO2 reduction in 2030 and CO2 neutrality in 2050. Therefore, it is crucial that we prioritize creating the best conditions for future tech entrepreneurs and motivate private investors to invest in so-called green deep tech in Denmark or research-based technology.

Tommy Ahlers is amongst those who wants to build bridges between universities, investors and business. He is an investor, entrepreneur and former minister. Together with director Jes Broeng from DTU Entrepreneurship and associate professor Thomas Howard, who is the leader of the DTU course DTU X-Tech Entrepreneurship, he has developed a three-day masterclass, that is open for enrolment during the spring.

The goal is to get more investors to invest in green deep-tech start-ups and thus influence the world. This must be done by creating fascination for science, and getting investors to adopt a broader perspective and understand that research-based technology plays a key role in the green transition.

“We need to invest much more in deep tech and establish even more new companies based on the slightly heavier knowledge that the universities and other players possess. We have to, because this is how we can save the planet while also creating new business adventures,” says Tommy Ahlers.

“The past six months have shown me that it’s harder to invest in deep tech than in—for example—software or sales of goods to private consumers, like I’ve done in the past. Not impossible, but more difficult, and it frightens off some investors. We need to change that. That’s why we all need to go back to school.”

Fascinated by science
Tommy Ahlers has helped set up three companies: Online SMS, ZYB, and Podio. He started the first in 2004. Since then, he has been an investor in a large number of companies. He has invested in several of them through the DR TV programme for entrepreneurs ‘Løvens Hule’ (Lion’s Den).

In 2018, Tommy Ahlers was appointed Minister for Higher Education and Science. After 13 months in office—and a period as first spokesman on trade and industry and then climate spokesman for the Liberal Party of Denmark (Venstre)—he stepped down as a member of Parliament. Today, he wants to help bridge the gap between universities, investors, and the business sector. The masterclass is one of his initiatives.

“As a minister, I was given a unique opportunity to get completely under the skin of academia. I’ve also built up a large network among investors and in trade and industry. I want to utilize this now that I don’t have a platform in politics,” says Tommy Ahlers.

Where—as a minister—he had a completely full calendar that was difficult to manage, he feels that—as an investor—he can move more quickly from idea to action. And he has a passion for science.

“I find it fascinating that there is always someone who keeps asking questions about the world. And that’s really what science does. To be in this world with a fundamental belief that you can change the food we eat, the materials we use, and the energy we consume—that’s a source of inspiration,” says Tommy Ahlers.

Today, he wants to link the academic world with investors so that they can see the benefits of investing in green-tech companies and show which technologies they need to invest in to build companies that can contribute to solving the climate crisis. And this is what we need. But there are a number of barriers.

“In Denmark, we have some of the world’s most creative and innovative start-ups. But Danish deep-tech start-ups struggle due to a lack of available funding and venture capital. There is a lack of understanding of the opportunities for investing in new technologies,” says Tommy Ahlers.

He also encounters a barrier of understanding. Many investors who have made their money from creation of software have a basic view that you should stay away from research-based technology because it takes a long time to gain a foothold on the market, and it requires heavy investments. But that is not always the case in Tommy Ahlers’ opinion.

He points out that—in recent years—Danish universities have done a lot to break down the barriers between researchers, investors, and business people, for example at DTU, where, among other activities, events are organised at which researchers pitch their ideas to investors and match experienced contractors with researchers from Danish universities to establish new companies.

Quick out of the blocks
As an example of a deep-tech start-up that has been quick out of the blocks, he mentions the DTU start-up MASH Energy, which—using new technology—converts sludge from agricultural production into two useful products: a fertilizer product and oil. The oil can be used as a carbon-neutral biofuel in—for example—ships, while the residual product can be used as an effective fertilizer.

But what would he invest in if he were a participant on the ‘Løvens Hule’ programme today?

“I would look for start-ups that are trying to solve the climate and biodiversity crisis. And if I had to choose between investing in something that’s purely software-driven or powered by deep tech – I would simply have to go down the deep-tech path to achieve the big impact that really makes a difference in solving the climate crisis.”

“Firstly because it is necessary, and secondly because there are tremendous business opportunities. We’re facing a global future where it has been agreed that we need to change things fundamentally over the next 10-20 years to solve the climate crisis. You can’t get greater business opportunities than that. Entire value chains need to be changed, and new materials must be found. It’s mind-boggling. It means that those willing to invest differently and use science can move 100 times as fast.”

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