Climate innovator: We can turn CO2 into the soles on your shoes

Bertrand Van Ee is CEO of Climate-KIC. [Climate-KIC]

Europe must focus on research and innovation in climate technology to remain competitive in the global village, says Bertrand Van Ee, who described an innovation project that can suck Co2 out of the air and use it to make rubber. 

Bertrand Van Ee is CEO of Climate-KIC, a public-private climate innovation initiative.  With a background in engineering and sustainability, he took over at Climate-KIC nine weeks ago. Van Ee spoke to EURACTIV deputy news editor James Crisp.

What does Climate-KIC do?

Our responsibility is to get the educational sector and the market together and get great innovative ideas onto the market. That in turn can help jobs and growth, as well as the climate. We reach out to the education sector and find out which ones want to become entrepreneurs and help them.

We take the brightest and best and take them through their first financing round.  71 entrepreneurs in 45 European clean tech start-ups have raised collectively €59 million since 2010. There are those who have come straight from university, and also people who are in their sixties.

We have 32 partners in big academic institutions, big business, SMEs and research institutions. These partners help provide a strategic direction to our work.

Where did the financing come from?

Most of it is venture capital and regional funding.  We are looking very specifically at what we are doing in the regions. We work in Valencia, Spain, central Hungary, Slovenia and the West Midlands in the UK, for example.  

Are the decisions about which ideas to take forward more market or climate-driven?

It is very much impact-driven with Climate-KIC. We are obviously about where we can get the impact on the shorter term, but also on the longer term.  We are also part of DG Education and Culture, so there is also an education aspect.

Access to finance is a real issue in Europe. Is investor appetite, or ability to finance, a problem?

It is very important to us that the quality of the start ups is sufficiently high. There are some gaps in the market.  In general, if you have the right company, you will get funding.

Tell me about some of these start ups…

There is a UK start up called Naked Energy. This is (about) hybrid solar panel(s). It not only generates electricity but also heat. That is for both homes and businesses.

Another start up, Tado, in Germany sells smart home energy management systems and is expanding.

We are also involved in some larger innovation projects, one called enCO2re, that used C02 as feedstock for chemical value chains.

It is actually possible to suck CO2 out of the air and use it as polymer feedstock. That, ultimately, could be turned into the rubber on the soles of a farmer’s boots.

An example of the Circular Economy?

The Circular Economy is obviously an extremely important subject. It’s something we incorporate into our projects when we look at these start ups and innovation projects. It’s part of the plan.

The Circular Economy package is being looked at again by the European Commission as part of its drive for better regulation. Trade association BusinessEurope has called for it to be withdrawn and re-tabled as an economic piece of legislation. Presumably you oppose that?

Our focus is very much on the action on the ground rather than policy details. What is happening is that we are at the start of a big transformation. What we are getting into is a long-term and short-term discussion. We believe that moving towards a low carbon and circular economy is essential for the future of Europe.

How seriously does European business take climate issues?

There are the leaders, the so-sos and the laggers. But there are a large number of businesses that have already seen the light. Business, at least the bigger business, understands it.  There are those businesses who are thinking about it and very important for us to focus on them.  But if you bring companies within these value chains, they become a convert.

And we’re interested in SMEs. 98% of businesses in Europe are SMEs. So they are extremely important.

SMEs are precisely the businesses who are struggling the most at the moment. How do you convince them to take the leap and invest in new technology, especially at a time when banks aren’t lending?

A big part of our work is to influence and communicate with the public, on social media for example. The consumer has a choice and voice, so influencing the consumer to ask for example an energy efficient product will influence businesses as well.

Has the financial crisis hurt efforts to curb climate change?

It did have a short term impact, especially in terms of the focus of some political leaders. But I am very encouraged by what has happened recently.

The 2030 Climate and Energy package was a good deal and I have high hopes for it and for what happens next year in Paris [when nations will meet to try to set global warming levels].

Climate issues are regaining their place on the political agenda and the bigger businesses has started rethinking its position on these issues as well.  

What is the best route for business to take in terms of climate action?

In the short term, the biggest bang for your buck is in energy efficiency. For every unit that you save, you save 3 units of generation. So if you have a shorter shower, you will save three times that amount at the generation end.

What must Europe do in the face of competition from countries such as China?

It’s a global village; there is competition from China, India, and Iraq. It’s a global competition for talent. For Europe, we have to continue investing in innovation and education especially as the EU is a net importer of energy.

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