Question: What does a start-up really need? Answer: It needs customers that are willing to experiment, a global network and partners to grow together with. This is what Wärtsilä has been able to provide to Soletair Power Oy, an innovative Power-to-X
start-up to which the company provided seed funding in 2019.
For large global companies such as Wärtsilä, working with start-ups is of course always about making good investments that will help the business grow in the future. However, the benefits reach much further. Start-ups can inspire new ways of
working and even support the larger partner in reinventing its own business – or entire market.
"One of the great advantages of start-ups is that they are able to experiment and innovate much more radically than established companies that need to focus their resources on their current business," says Matti Rautkivi, Director, New business, Wärtsilä
Energy. "This can be a great inspiration for larger companies that work with start-ups, as you really get to drill into the specific challenge you are solving."
Rautkivi is a board member at Soletair Power Oy, a Finland-based direct air capture technology and Power-to-X company that has developed a unique concept to improve air quality in buildings by capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) and converting it to synthetic renewable fuel. Power-to-X refers to technology in which renewable energy is used to create raw materials or fuels for other processes. In April 2019, Wärtsilä provided Soletair Power with EUR 500,000 in seed funding to help support the
development and commercialisation of their technology. Soletair Power’s concept represents an important step towards carbon neutral societies and supports Wärtsilä’s strategy in leading the energy sector towards a 100% renewable future.
Many corporations talk about working with start-ups. Innovation contests, accelerator programs and start-up speed dating events are common, but how many companies really get the desired benefits from these initiatives?
"You shouldn't work with start-ups if you don't actually believe in the idea," says Rautkivi. "Don't try to do it just because it's the trendy thing to do. And it's not just about marketing either. You really need to commit to the partnership."
In working with Soletair Power, Wärtsilä's team has learned a great deal about innovation, rapid technology development and new possibilities for carbon-neutral renewable energy. However, ultimately the goal is to create new business for both parties. Rautkivi notes that the collaboration has also energised Wärtsilä's own organisation. "It's amazing to see how much a small, innovative team can accomplish in just a year and a half. It's a great motivation for bringing some of these lessons into our business and everyday work."
Wärtsilä is exploring the direct air carbon capture sphere together with Soletair Power, and has supported the company in developing its pilot equipment, which Wärtsilä also purchased. "We are helping them build a global presence," says Matti Rautkivi. "Carbon capture integrates perfectly with our strategic goal of a carbon-neutral renewable energy future."
Soletair Power's concept of extracting CO2 from building ventilation and converting it to fuel is a truly ground-breaking invention that also opens up some interesting new business models. Elevated CO2 levels have been shown to have an adverse effect on cognitive performance, so the solution could have a huge potential market once companies understand the benefits of carbon capture equipment fitted to workplace ventilation systems. "If you could offer your employees a better, more productive working environment for less than the cost of a cup of coffee per day, could you afford not to?" asks Rautkivi.
However, beyond enabling better air quality in offices, the greatest promise of the innovation may be in the energy transition of the coming years. "Decarbonisation is absolutely the future," says Rautkivi. "With technology that is becoming available right now, we can not only capture CO2 to reduce its levels in the atmosphere, but also convert it to many products that normally originate from fossil materials. When the process is powered by renewable energy, we can literally create diesel, plastics or many other products from air. It's a completely new world and we are moving ahead into it together with our start-up partners."
Wärtsilä has also connected Soletair Power with Q Power Oy, another innovative Finnish start-up with which the company conducts strategic development projects. Q Power's patented biomethanisation process creates biomethane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Q Power´s technology is used in the demonstration unit that Soletair Power, Wärtsilä and Q Power designed and built in 2020.
Kimmo Rauma, Vice President at Danfoss Power Solutions, is the Chairman of the Board at Soletair Power. With entrepreneurial and board experience at dozens of start-ups, he has seen many large companies engage with smaller partners.
"I have been really impressed how boldly and openly Wärtsilä's team has approached this collaboration," Rauma says. "For a major industrial company, this is something quite exceptional. Typically, the enthusiasm starts to wane after the first phase of working together, but Wärtsilä has provided fantastic ongoing support in developing Soletair Power's solution and helping us reach new markets."
Rauma notes that for established companies, working with start-ups holds risks along with opportunities. "There is always this uncertainty at some level. What if their processes fail or they make a mistake somewhere? Wärtsilä has shown extraordinary faith in its start-up partners and has really gone the extra mile to work together with them. Finnish business funding organisations would do well to take note of what they are doing in this field."
What, then does the future hold for Soletair Power and Wärtsilä? Kimmo Rauma says the partners are looking not only to create exciting new business opportunities, but also change the world for the better. "The technology we are working on still sounds somewhat exotic, but as a start-up, this is exactly where we want to be. If it were easy or obvious, it would have been done a long time ago. And Wärtsilä is right there with us, every step of the way."
"Great start-ups don't need competitions to attract funding," adds Wärtsilä's Matti Rautkivi. "They need customers that are willing to experiment together with them. Wärtsilä Energy is ready to explore new opportunities and tackle shared challenges, and together with Soletair Power and Q Power, we have done just this."