The Pioneers-interview series is here! We start the series with an interview with Fredrik Åkerman, CEO and Co-Founder of Volta Greentech. Volta Greentechis a Swedish greentech company on a mission to reduce methane emissions from the world’s cows.
We chatted about Volta’s origins, hiring, forces of market adoption, and growing seaweed on land versus the sea, to mention a few. I am excited to share the learnings with you!
Introducing Volta Greentech
Cows burp a lot of methane. As we learnt earlier, a process called methanogenesis happens in the guts of ruminants (like cows and sheep). A ruminant eats and starts breaking down its food into smaller molecules. The last step in this process is methanogenesis.
Scale of the problem
5 Gt of CO2e per year!
Volta Greentech’s solution
Feed supplement for cows from algae called asparagopsis taxiformis. Only 100 grams per day reduces a cow’s methane emissions up to 80%.
Volta Greentechis a Swedish greentech company on a mission to reduce methane emissions from the world’s cows. Their multi-national team is developing a cultivation method for asparagopsis taxiformis on land and a novel business model to feed the world’s cows with seaweed. Volta Greentech just recently announced a funding round of €1.7 millions. Massive congrats!
Wisdom from Fredrik
What are the origins of Volta Greentech?
I was reading about this research on Reddit when I was still in high school. Me and my friend were like, “this is really really cool. We should feed every single cow on this planet with seaweed to reduce emissions.” We didn’t do much about this idea back then, but I always kept it in my mind.
The research [on reducing methane emissions of cows with seaweed] was only at a research stage. It was clear something needed to happen to commercialize it.
Then a few years later, I was an exchange student in the USA. I was taking an entrepreneurship class in Berkeley and took this topic as a case study. I wanted to see how we can commercialize this research.
When I had taken that class and analyzed this opportunity for a few months, I decided that it’s time not to study anymore but come back to Sweden and start this as a company. So then, I joined forces with my co-founders to start Volta.
How did you approach building the team?
The members of our founding team just found each other. None of us had a background in seaweed research or production.
When we have been looking for people to join our team, we have mostly looked for people who really want to solve climate change and are really excited about this type of solution for reducing emissions. That means that we naturally have something in common, even when people join from all over the world from different backgrounds.
Being active in networks and communities has been a great approach when hiring scientists. My co-founder Angelo, our Chief of Science, is very good at this. He’s been involved in many academic groups and non-profit organizations, such as Seaweed for Europe-coalition. That’s how he has created a lot of relationships with very smart people. These relationships help us to find people in one way or another.
What are the best ways of learning for you?
It is a combination of reading a lot and calling a lot of smart people who have worked on this for a long time. We learn a lot by contacting our customers even a long time before we had any idea what we would sell to them.
In the entrepreneurship class [in Berkeley], it was a criterion to contact 100 people even to pass this class. That meant I had to contact every person in the world involved in this research. That helped a lot and was a good learning in an entrepreneurship class. To work on something, you need to be on the phone and learn from the people who know a lot about what you are working on.
Experimenting plays a big role in both our business and research. Even if the research exists that seaweed can reduce methane emissions, we still need to do a lot of research to improve the product and scale up the production.
One of the biggest challenges is creating economic incentives to the whole food industry to use this feed supplement. Since this has never been done before, we need to come up with a business model that works for everyone. And that business model has changed at least 10 times. We learn a lot by talking to people.
How do you create economic incentives to get your product adopted?
Consumers are pushing towards emission reductions. In some cases, consumers are even willing to pay more money for more sustainable products. So, one approach is that consumers pay a little bit more to reduce the emissions.
The other approach is implementing government policies, such as subsidies and taxes. There are carbon taxes already. For example, in Sweden, we have a carbon tax for fossil fuels, but there is no carbon tax for methane.
Do you think that the adoption will happen from bottom-up (by consumers) or top-down (by governments)?
Politicians and policymakers don’t know that this seaweed solution exists. Even if they knew and said that “you have to reduce all emissions”, we’d have a supply problem. There’s currently not enough supply of this solution.
The good thing with the consumer side is that we can scale up steadily at the same speed as consumers are buying it. However, there’s going to be a limit with consumers. Not all consumers are going to pay for this, but only a segment.
Political regulations have to be placed to make feeding seaweed to cows an industry standard. Alternatively, the whole food industry needs to come together and decide that this is the industry standard. I hope that the beef and dairy companies will decide that this is something that we need to implement to stay alive as companies and to be competitive in the food industry. That way, we wouldn’t need to wait for politicians.
Who are your customers?
We see the brands as our customers like McDonald’s, Ben and Jerry’s and those types of brands. We see the farmers as our partners and work together with the farmers to reduce the emissions.
Farmers are our partners, and brands are our customers.
What’s your experience with financing a science-based hardware startup?
Working with hardware is obviously different from digital products. We have a lot of costs and need to buy, for example, very expensive sensors.
We have a few different ways to finance our production. When we are building the next factory, not all financing is going to be equity, but a combination of equity, bank loans, subsidies, and prepayment from customers. We can use some financing sources that digital companies may not be able to.
I feel like a lot of investors are focusing on climate and interested in climate issues. That means that we get a lot of interest from investors. There’s also so much push from the political side that more money needs to go on climate solutions. This means that there’s a lot of available soft funding from the governments to build solutions that reduce emissions.
We are lucky to have a lot of possible funding sources.
How did you approach building the factory?
First, we had to realize that our founding team didn’t have any experience at all in growing seaweed. So we very early started to recruit seaweed experts from around the world. We don’t really have any seaweed experts in Sweden, so our seaweed experts come from Australia, Spain and Greece.
Growing seaweed has a lot to do with biology and understanding that biology. We’ve spent the past two years in the lab understanding how growing seaweed works. Now, we are producing it in a pilot factory.
Seaweed is usually grown on ropes in the ocean, but we are growing it on land. Since there are very few people who have this before, we need to invent a lot of solutions. We have done most of the work by ourselves and with consultants so far.
Why are you growing seaweed on land and not in the sea?
We grow seaweed on land for different reasons, mostly product quality. When we grow the seaweed on land, we can control most parameters. This makes the product higher in quality. High product quality, on the other hand, means that it can have a higher methane reduction, and that the product is safer.
It’s more costly to produce seaweed on land, as we need more equipment. However, the downside of growing seaweed in the ocean is that you are affected by nature. For example, if the weather is unstable, and there are a lot of storms, you might lose your whole seaweed farm and all the seaweed for that season. Also, the pH of the water may change and harm the production.
Growing the seaweed on land is also much cooler and much more exciting!
What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
Before, I was an intern at Northvolt. It was very inspiring to be there and see how a company could be created out of nothing and make such a big difference in electrification. I wanted to do the same for something else, so I thought, let’s do this for agriculture and cows.
In the beginning, the biggest motivation was to start and grow something, but now it’s more about that all of us are so obsessed with this problem and want to solve it. We want to get it done, make it work. And we are going to make it work.
I hope you learnt as much as I did when chatting with Fredrik! See you this Thursday in The Expedition newsletter.
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