Ecosystems of Connectivity – UNIDO and Global Cleantech

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization supports commercialization of innovative cleantech solutions by working with developing country entrepreneurs and taking them to the world stage as part of the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme. 

Impact Hub Vienna is usually buzzing with start-ups, entrepreneurs, experts, and investors. These impact entrepreneurs have gathered from all over the city, the country, and throughout Europe to create a home for their companies and their networks. The start-up ecosystem in Vienna is vibrant and filled with support in the form of accelerator programs, a supportive community, and inspiring space for like-minded innovators.

However, in October, the usually busy entrepreneurial hotspot is full to bursting with global entrepreneurs and investors; with legislators from around the globe and subject matter experts supporting new start-ups. Impact Hub Vienna hosts their annual social and environmental innovation conference, Impact Days. The Impact Days event brings in more than three hundred entrepreneurs and investors together to celebrate social innovation and impact. In 2019, it became a truly global event. The Global Cleantech Innovation Programme (GCIP) of the United National International Development Organization (UNIDO), funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), have partnered with Impact Hub Vienna to highlight start-ups from around the world that specialize in cleantech.

The UNIDO-GEF Global Cleantech Innovation Programme is an initiative to promote affordable and scalable innovations for sustainable energy, enabling partner countries to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.

Strengthening Innovation Ecosystems

Partnerships and close collaboration with all national stakeholders are critical to maximize synergies and share knowledge and best practices that can help in enhancing the contribution of cleantech start-ups towards climate change mitigation, while increasing productivity and generating growth and wealth, is UNIDO’s primary claim. And nothing is a better example of this than the integration and partnership between UNIDO and government agencies in South Africa.

Senisha Moonsamy, Head of Innovation Skills Development at the Technology Innovation Agency, part of the Department of Science in South Africa, and Susanna Petronella from the UNIDO offices in South Africa sat down to discuss the partnership and the high level of integration between the government, UNIDO, and the GCIP Accelerator. “This is grounded in South Africa’s national development plan,” Moonsamy says.

One of GCIP’s highlights is the annual competition-based Accelerator, which identifies the most promising innovators and entrepreneurs in a country, and the selected number of start-ups benefit from a rigorous, competitive national acceleration programme that trains, mentors, promotes, and connects them to potential investors, customers, and partners.

“For us, these companies are de-risked and ready to be taken further. The GCIP provides a level of assurance and due diligence,” Moonsamy says of the partnership. The high level of governmental integration means further support can be given to these companies to help them enter global and national economies with a high degree of training and confidence.

An excellent example of companies and government working together comes out of South Africa. Simon Hazell is a young entrepreneur who founded Inseco with business partner, Jack Chennells. Their company received the Youth Entrepreneur Award and was the national winner in GCIP South Africa in 2019, as well as the winner of the GCIP Forum 2019. Simon Hazell explains that his company specializes in organic waste management. As is evident by the company name, they use insects in this process. They convert organic waste into sustainable animal feed using insects, specifically black soldier fly larvae.

“This provides an alternative to fish meal,” Hazell states. “One tonne of protein in our process means three tonnes of fish are left in the ocean.”

Considering the dire predictions of Sea Shepherd, that all oceans could be dead by 2048, this is good news for the global animal agriculture market.

The idea came about when Hazell and his business partner were working on a wine farm in South Africa. “They generated large volumes of organic waste,” Hazell says, referring to grape leaves and skins left behind in the wine making process. “We wanted to turn it into something beneficial.”

For Hazell and Channells the GCIP “provides them with a great opportunity to access other organization, which will enable them to find partners to assist in soft landing in new markets.”

The GCIP accelerator provides training and mentorship to companies, who are ready to take the next step; for some companies this is global investors and partnerships and for others it is taking the first steps on their own with an innovative product.

Not matter the stage of development of the product or stage of incorporation, there are experts working within the ecosystems strengthened by UNIDO and national institutions which can help these entrepreneurs achieve their goals.

Local Solutions with Global Impacts

This year the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme showcased several impact start-ups, which, while solving local issues, have created viable global solutions for some of our most difficult issues.

It is a sunny and warm day for October and Boonyarit Soonphonrai, CEO and Founder of Hybrid Aerator in Thailand, a quiet unassuming man sits outside Sophiensaal in Vienna to explain his technical innovation. He has created an energy service solution for waste water treatment. This is a very complicated way of saying he can save companies money with a simple and small solution, which creates an oxygen rich environment for bacteria to treat wastewater.

“During my lifetime you could swim in the rivers in Bangkok. You cannot swim there anymore because of the water quality. The poor quality is due primarily to waste water.  People do not want to spend the money to treat it properly,” and so it is flushed directly into the river.

Soonphonrai used his mechanical engineering background to create a prototype of his solution. He approached a pulp and paper mill to try his prototype and to measure the amount of savings they would achieve on oxygen cannisters, energy, and labour by employing his solution, which is like a distillation column and helps maintain an aerobic environment for bacteria by using the principles of fluid dynamics. This means no oxygen cannisters, which means less waste disposal, less money spent on expensive oxygen cannisters to create an aerobic environment in large vats of waste water, and less labour costs for people adding these cannisters in the process.

The Global Cleantech Innovation Programme has provided Soonphonrai the opportunity to speak to other local governments through France, Austria, and other countries in South East Asia about his innovation. Several companies worldwide have adopted his technology to save money and the environment. On the horizon for Soonphonrai and Hybrid Aerator are expansions into vertical farming, as the technology can allow for greater heights in irrigation.

Finding a quiet spot in Vienna’s Sophiensaal can be a bit difficult. And in a quiet seating area on the second floor Salma Bougarrani explains what drives her and her company forward. She is the founder of Green WATECH. The confident entrepreneur loved hiking and exploring and while trekking one day was shocked to see children swimming in wastewater in a mountain river.

“Cholera is still a pathogen which causes many childhood deaths,” Bougarrani states. “I spend my holidays in rural areas,” where this is still a problem.

“I was looking for a way to help my community,” she says of pursuing studies to a PhD level to find a local and efficient solution for wastewater treatment specifically adapted to Morocco. This is quite an accomplishment for a young woman, as there are a dearth of women innovators in the STEM fields and with women holding fewer than 4% of patents, as a US patent office report finds.

Her solution is a multi-soil layering technology, which filters waste water through a series of gradient levels ending with the patented brick. The technology has already been installed in two villages and she says the GCIP accelerator supported her through the certification and prototyping process, and helped to develop the company’s readiness.

Her technology can be implemented the world over, wherever there are waste water filtration issues which cause disease. Wherever there are water shortages. This technology is an important step forward for the future of the world.

The start-up ecosystem for impact entrepreneurs in South Africa, supported by the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme and national institutions has enabled entrepreneurs with big ideas and global impacts to take huge leaps forward with their innovation and global presence. Two further companies working in the impact sphere were at Impact Days, AfroBodies and Trash Cane Burner.

Peter Duncan is one of the scientists behind AfroBodies, along with wife and CEO Benedicta Mahlangu. Their company has created a synthetic biological product called an antibody – specifically, a recombinant alpaca antibody, which is also known as a nanobody. Duncan shares a table with Moonsamy and Petronella, and is discussing some of the benefits of his technology. The initial plan was for health care applications but stresses on fruit farmer income and drought in South Africa drove farmers and exporters to look for innovative solutions to create better income security within their industry.

Fruit for transport is bathed in chemicals to help in preservation on the long route from South Africa to European tables. However, there is no precise timing for the chemical bath and no specific ratios for the mixture. As a result, “ten to fifteen percent of the fruit is over exposed to these chemicals making them unmarketable. This means farmers plant the equivalent extra in their fields to make up for the loss,” Duncan says. And in an already water stressed environment, this means more fields to irrigate.

AfroBodies developed their nanobody and detectors to determine the concentration of chemicals used in these preservative baths to prevent over exposure. “It binds to a specific chemical and makes it detectable and measurable,” Duncan says. “This means more fruit gets to market, and farmers will use less water.” South Africa is currently a water stressed country. However, this also means less food is wasted and there is greater income security for farmers.

The detector is the size of a credit card, making it an inexpensive, reliable, and easy solution to several problems. The applications in the medical field are also immense as it could reduce time to diagnosis for fatal long-term illnesses, like cancer, in rural areas by putting testing directly in the hands of local health care practitioners.

Food and income security are not just a problem for fruit farmers in South Africa; the sugar industry is subject to extraordinary fluctuations in operating costs due to changing prices in the energy and coals markets. Wolfgang Bernhardt is an older, soft spoken gentleman with an important solution to tonnes of carbon emissions in sugar processing. The engineer, turned management professor, offers a truly unique system which creates a closed economy in sugar processing. He has developed the Trash Cane Burner, which is also the name of his company.

“Right now, companies burn coal in the process of making sugar and the leaves are left in the field,” Bernhardt says. “But the sugar cane leaves are rich in energy and are left on the field.”

The Cane Trash Burner is a huge piece of industrial machinery, easily filling the airy front entrance of the Hub, according to the dimensions Bernhardt gives. The cost of the machine and its installation means a $12 Million USD investment on the part of a company but it can increase revenue by 50% as it eliminates the need to purchase coal. This decreases the CO2 emissions of processing by almost half as processing plants can now burn the leaves for energy.

The sugar and fruit industries are massive and global, and are export income sources for many in developing countries. The South African ecosystem offers a well-connected and well-supported environment for innovation to thrive, as exemplified by these impact entrepreneurs and their projects.

Innovative Futures

Many of the ventures discussed their next steps and what they hope to see in their future. The Global Cleantech Innovation Program will continue to offer entrepreneurs the benefits of a well-connected and global innovation ecosystem.

South Africa is expanding the reach of the program, according to Moonsamy. The program now includes two-week placements at Oxford University and outreach programs to historically black universities in South Africa to redress the imbalances of the past and help move innovation forward. Moonsamy said they were working with UNIDO partners to implement new parts of the program elsewhere in the world.

The global future of cleantech is bright because of the partnerships UNIDO has fostered with the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme.

Photo (c) Lea Fabienne

Jennifer Cornick - Impact Hub Vienna
Jennifer Cornick Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even […]