How to save our planet? No, not from COVID-19; we’re talking about the biggest opponent here – climate change. People at Skeleton Technologies represent cleantech, the tiny slice of the start-up sector that might just have what it takes.
Founded by a couple of course mates in a university town Tartu eleven years ago, Skeleton Technologies has grown from bootstrapping into a global cleantech player. With headquarters in Estonia and production lines in Germany, it closed a €41.3 million financing round and bagged the ‘Revenue Hack’ award at the Estonian Startup Awards. It has grown its turnover three times for the second year in a row while the ink is barely drying on contracts for €150 million worth in orders.
A unique solution
Why? For the widespread hope that technological progress will offset the negative impact of increasing population and the desire for economic growth, suitable energy storage constitutes the cornerstone. And Skeleton’s core product – ultracapacitor-based energy storage systems – provides a unique solution in terms of energy charge/discharge speed and the number of cycles.
“The rapid capture and release of energy by our ultracapacitors provides what other storage systems cannot. For example, in our cooperation with Wrightbus their hydrogen buses use fuel cells for longer energy storage and our ultracapacitors for recuperating breaking energy and re-using it for acceleration,” Oliver Ahlberg, co-founder, and chairman of the board, explains.
“This is why Wrightbus hopes to do with fuel cells what Elon Musk did with electric cars. With our help,” he outlines a future perspective.
Not an easy field to play
Compared to the Goliath of purely IT-based startups, the cleantech sector is David. The number of companies founded globally, for example, is on average 52 each year for cleantech and 988 for e-commerce; in total amount of investment it comes second from bottom. Yet, most analyists believe that cleantech investments will become the hottest investment in 2021.
There is a reason for this. Cleantech requires a much longer product development cycle than software development and knowledge transfer from pure science is much more crucial. Also, because energy storage is such an essential service, its safety and reliability are high.
“Our line of work takes patience,” Mr. Ahlberg affirms. “I can bring you an example of reliability testing. As ultracapacitors can run up to a million cycles compared to a couple of thousand for batteries, their use extends to 15-20 years. Of course, we don’t have 20 years for testing, so we rely on a sped-up testing solution. But this still takes 1500 hours. And in the worst case, you run into errors at hour 1450. Luckily, our bigger efforts are behind us,” he adds. “We are now engaged in taking our world-leading ultracapacitors and developing them even further.”
How could such a player sprout in Estonia, a country with considerably modest heavy industry which is often behind such tech-heavy success stories?
“For one, there is a good level of fundamental science done in Estonia. The curved graphene nanomaterial that we use in our products was developed here,” Mr. Ahlberg explains.
“But I think an important factor is a hunger for success,” he adds. “I already mentioned patience. Estonian mindset provides the latter: it took us three years of bootstrapping before we got our first investor. Estonians have a lot of drive.”
Accelerated by the green wave
A proof of the strategic importance of Skeleton’s product lies in the variety of sectors that uses Skeleton’s storage systems: from medical to space technologies, transportation to renewable energy production. This is also one of the reasons why the company has done well over the past year. Another reason is that governments around the globe are supporting and expecting technology change in the energy sector.
“We knew already ten years ago when we started our company that energy storage has a place in the future society. As much as I would like to say we had a crystal ball, I could not predict, of course, the speed of change,” Mr. Ahlberg smiles. “I think in another, darker universe, this change would have taken 20-30 years. The support of governments makes companies more ready to take the risk and go green faster.”
Thus, there seems to be hope that the race between technological remedies and environmental decay might just end with the good guys winning.