Sustainable transformation and overall net climate impact are in focus for Rainer Sternfeld, managing partner at a 100 million euro fund Japanese investment Nordic Ninja when he seeks investment opportunities among Nordic and Baltic startups.
Sternfeld was the founder of climate data startup PlanetOS, bought by Intertrust in 2017.
A few key takeaways from Rainer Sternfeld:
"I am still very optimistic that Europe is still the best place for cleantech, Europe is still the best place to talk about clean energy, and we can figure it out rather easily. We don't have that many disagreements as maybe in other sectors, and we can afford it."
"You have a massive amount of energy going towards moving atoms, as we say, at Nordic Ninja. That 'moving atoms' means moving people, moving goods. And so when you move atoms, we have, by the way, I think about 40% of the capital allocated in our fund so far into reducing the amount of energy that is spent moving atoms or, or getting rid of moving atoms altogether, like in the case of Veriff, which is an exception."
"I don't eat meat, but I know that obviously, a lot of people eat meat, and they will be eating meat in the next decades to come, even though that is going to be reduced, reducing in terms of percentage share, they still will do that. So if we are going to have people eating meat, it should be done as efficiently as possible. Like, what if there was a way to reduce methane emission of cows, like 80%?
Of course, I would support doing that even though I don't eat meat, right? It's still a net impact."
Tarmo Virki 0:08
Welcome to NatureBacked podcast of Single.Earth. In this podcast, we are talking with investors about their vision of the new green world. My name is Tarmo Virki. And in this episode, I'm talking with Rainer Sternfeld, founder of planetOS, and now managing partner at Nordic Ninja. Enjoy the show. Thanks, Rainer, for finding time to speak with us today.
Rainer Sternfeld 0:33
Thanks for having me.
Tarmo Virki 0:34
Tell us a few words about the investment fund the Nordic Ninja. The name sounds cool, but how was the fund founded?
Rainer Sternfeld 0:50
Nordic Ninja is currently the most active Japanese VC in Europe. And the story goes back to 2018, when the idea in Japan was flooded, and the idea is that Japan has a very strong kind of history when it comes to innovation. But that's now been kind of stagnant for 30 years or so. And particularly when we think about the digital economy, and to invigorate that, they started a fund called World Innovation Lab in Palo Alto, which is run by my good friend Gen Isayama, and that's the bridge between Japan and Silicon Valley. But they obviously make investments elsewhere, including TransferWise are Wise today. And then they were looking to create a similar fund elsewhere. And that elsewhere, that focus became the Nordics and the Baltic, or the Baltic rim, as kind of a hotbed for innovation. And since I was traveling to Japan, at the time, I lived in California, I lived, I founded a company called PlanetOS, which I'll tell you later a little bit about, and that I was, I was in California and was traveling to Japan every month or so. And I got a call just to ask for some advice. And kind of that simple advisory in terms of what to do in the Nordics in the Baltics, and why this is a great area, of course, you should invest that turned into an offer. And since we had been there for eight years in California and my family and my kids had never lived in Estonia, then we decided to take on this opportunity and landed here on this planet a few months before COVID. So great timing. So the fund today is a 100 million fund. All backed by Japanese capital. We have investors like JVC, Panasonic, Honda, and Omron. Despite the names, we are a super fast financial VC focused on New Nordic startups, which are building the digital infrastructure for sustainable transformation. That's how you put it in a nutshell; we do focus on the stages of series A Series B; we're predominantly all of our stuff is in series A; that's when we feel comfortable to get in. And that's when we feel that we can provide the most value to scale globally. So the idea there is that we look for number one teams in the world who just happened to be here in the New Nordics because all these eight countries where we can invest in the total population of those countries is about 33 and a half million, so about a third of Japan or 10% of the US. And so if you're in that type of situation, you don't look at countries or very specialized markets, like I don't know products for left-handed fishermen, you're looking for the absolute best teams, management teams in the world, in their segments which just are originated from here or are here or a version of that. So that's Nordic Ninja. And today, we have 18 companies in our portfolio. And four of them are unicorns today, and more to come. And so that's kind of the fund in a nutshell. And maybe it's important to say that our team consists of half of them are Japanese and half of them are non-Japanese, different Nordic people in on the team.
Tarmo Virki 4:43
How do you define this sustainable transformation?
Rainer Sternfeld 4:48
The way we look at it - since I have built and been involved in sustainable technology or technologies that are driving sustainability or sustainable transformation, I have a pretty strong filter for BS. So what we look at is, is actual net impact. So that doesn't mean that when we look at a company that doesn't look or smell or act like a climate tech company, we don't look at it from the point of view of what kind of an impact this has had; we still look at it. So, for example, one of the best, one of the best examples, is an Estonian company called Veriff, which, even themselves they when I talk to Kaarel, which is in our portfolio, they don't think about themselves as a climate tech company in any way. But they rank the highest in our system when it comes to digital infrastructure and sustainable transformation because they are building digital infrastructure; you don't see they can be used by every human on the planet, or at least have the potential without themselves knowing about it. Because, you know, ID verification is important. And by providing that system, they're not just making ID verification, like 10% 20%, whatever, more efficient, just, they're getting rid of all the travel, all the crap that you have to go through just to get yourself verified. Like if you're an Estonian living in Columbus, Ohio, you need to get yourself verified, you need to go to, you know, you used to go to New York, or DC or San Francisco or LA, and take, you know, take a plane, and so that, that that's something you can completely forgo with Veriff. And so that's obviously why it's ranking super high. And people will obviously understand this; it doesn't have to be marketed like some sort of a climate check company. But it clearly has a massive net impact. And that's how we look at all companies from that sense. But we obviously have companies that are head-on tackling this type of problem-set; for instance, one of our portfolio companies is ClimateView. It's a Stockholm-based company that grew out of a collaboration with this Swedish climate board by an applied mathematician founded by an applied mathematician or one of the founders and Tomer, who is the driving force behind the company. They created a climate action toolkit for cities. And if you think about cities, cities are a massive kind of stability stack, if you think about it, and when cities are creating their environmental policies, if you want to go through with that, you need money, you know, you need, you need to invest, whether you want to improve public transportation, get cars off the road, get more bikes and build more parks, go towards renewable energy, all of that stuff needs money. And banks are ready to issue these green bonds. But then they need accountability tools like where's that accountability tool, and of course, that's where ClimateView comes in. So cities can use ClimateView to plan their policies to see what one or the other policy measure will have the most impact. And then also, when they enforce those policies or roll out those policies, then they can also measure and track their progress. And then the lenders of green bond issuers can see what's going on. So it's, on the one hand, a cloud action toolkit. And on the other hand, it's also an accountability tool. And to me, it's really like a tool for democracy. And it's engaging politicians and actually doing better it's incentivizing them to do better. So it's a win-win for everybody. So we have companies like that that are head-on, you know, focusing on environmental policies, using technologies and embedded into all the data collection and modeling and all that stuff, as well. And as the same with Veriff. With each policy that is being run in the climate system, the system learns and gets better because it looks at the results on the other side of the equation. So the more cities they have currently, they have 120 cities that are using ClimateView around the world, the more cities and grow the better that tool becomes.
Tarmo Virki 9:36
You referred already to PlanetOS story. I think it was probably one of the first, at least definable, as a climate tech company in the region.
Rainer Sternfeld 9:58
Yeah, maybe I didn't think about it at the time like that. But yeah, PlanetOS was originally founded as MarineExplore. It grew out of a data buoy company, funny, which we built as a side project for TalTech. That helped TalTech marine systems in situ to measure phytoplankton concentration and the finish gulf, super academic, super important too, because it allowed them to understand how the herring moves. And that's important as well because the Finnish Bay is filled with heavy dissolved metals. The entire Baltic Sea is not just the Finnish Gulf. And, so we created marineExplore to build the world's first Big Data platform for ocean data. And it became massively popular among the entire marine community around the world, not just academics, whatever data scientists, maritime companies, energy companies will have you insurance companies, but then it grew into PlanetOS, because there was a big demand, and how do you even deal with large scale disparate data sets that are either satellite data or some climate models, or some separate time series, sensor data, or whatever. And so we created a, what we would call a virtual database on top of all the other databases that didn't really interoperate together. And then, that will allow you to really quickly find and create datasets and then a set of APIs so that you can attach your analytics to it. So it was a kind of middleware if you will, and we patented it, and it's today being used by WHO IS WHO of this world, from private to public, like NASA, and so forth. But then private, you know, from oil companies to renewables to whoever. So, so the way we found our kind of growth was through renewable energy, particularly offshore wind farms. We had a bunch of different projects, which obviously initially created some revenue, but none of them really grew. And so, with offshore wind farms, we found our perfect product-market fit. And the problem there was that, you know, in any given bigger wind farm, you have a dozen systems that feed data into the control rooms, and all that data comes in different systems. And so, we had to integrate all that together in a Bloomberg-style view. So that people in the control room would have the same understanding as people in the boardroom, that's the way the pitch went. And that worked. And so, in short two years, we had over 160 wind farms integrated into the system. And 2017, in August, we got acquired by a company called InterTrust, which was also an investor. InterTrust is the inventor of digital rights management. And, of course, since that had become commoditized in the world of music and movies and all that. We are in a world today, which is not surprising at all five years later that you know, data is a property and we have GDPR and if data becomes property needs to be managed, but what about our rights, you know, like, are our citizens equitable in there. Still, when their data is used for some other business purpose, normally we don't get paid; we are the product. You know, if the product is free, if the service is free, you're the product. That, of course, was something that was okay, maybe navtech or whatever, but not certainly okay in energy. And when you think about European countries, which are super sensitive about it, then we found a lot of traction there. So the next two years after the acquisition, I lived on airplanes, traveling the world, meeting power companies around the world who would be building smart kind of home systems or grid management systems or trying to understand the visibility of solar wind farms or, or electric car charging networks or whatever. And back in the day, actually, before planning, I said, I design I helped ABB to design the nationwide, fast-charging network for electric cars in Estonia, which became again, the first in the world in 2011. And so I took all these experiences, and we sold the planetOS kind of system to power companies for various different projects. And then from there on natural next step was insurance companies, insurance companies that have premiums, and then you need to use data to create more precise parameter control policies.
Tarmo Virki 14:56
I was speaking recently with somebody from our region who was kind of saying that not much is happening or very little is starting to happen only in the climate-related startup field in the whole of Eastern Europe. PlanetOS was probably one of the first, you know, related companies. But are you seeing no more traction in this whole sector? I think probably defining the sector is one of the challenges, right?
Rainer Sternfeld 15:26
Well, yeah, I mean, that there are really two questions that you're asking is, is this a sector on its own or is like, in my view, digital infrastructure and sustainable transformation, as we like to look at it here are kind of like filters. You know, like, good practice, like, sustainability equals profitability, from our point of view, digital infrastructure is the only way you can become competitive. Right? So like, Bolt is a transportation company that's leveraging technology, right? Or Wise is a financial company that's leveraging technology.
So we have, you know, self-driving algorithm car companies that in Sweden and Finland, both that rank quite high on sustainable transformation, because when you look at how much can their technology help to decrease the carbon footprint compared to the status quo -- it's pretty high, but it doesn't look like a climate tech company. So but in general, if you look at companies like, you know, Single.Earth, of course, your company and ClimateView that I described, that our head on looking at the bigger picture, like, you know, let's say, you know, carbon capture or green energy or environmental policies, that as a sector, obviously, it's still it's in infancy and not only here in the North eastern part of Europe, it's still in its infancy everywhere, because many of them are good as a I don't know, a slow-growing business, family business consultancy, but very few of them have become really category-defining companies is that are changing everything, the way we look at it. So but I'm, to answer the first part of your question, yes, I'm seeing definitely an upwelling of those types of companies. And, and it's, it's clear that younger, the younger generation, they want to work on something that's more meaningful, and you can induce change when the incentives are right. As we see with many companies in our portfolio as well, like a company we have in our portfolios called logMAR, out of Jyväskylä originally, and now it's in Helsinki and San Francisco, super exciting company because they have invented a very small, postmark size data logger that you can put on airplanes because it doesn't have any radio or Bluetooth in it. And so, when you attach those data loggers to sensitive goods, like pharmaceuticals or food, or electronics, you can reduce dramatically the amount of waste that happens during the supply chain when the supply chain is not insured. Like COVID vaccines or, or electronics if they get, you know, too much humidity or whatever. So, so there's a lot of food, electronics, and pharmaceuticals that get thrown away. And when I say a lot, we're talking about 30 to 40% of all the food, pharmaceuticals, electronics is a little bit lower, gets thrown away because you can't be safe. If, you know, if you don't have the data, then you know, obviously COVID vaccines were a very, very clear case of that, you know, there you had a matter of life and death, not just like some rotten bananas or whatever. So that's a company that's not necessarily their climate tech company. But if you can prevent 30 to 40% of the stuff from being thrown away. That's still energy that's been used to create new stuff. And so why would you throw it away?
Tarmo Virki 19:31
Exactly. Kind of any kind of climate impact could be massive. It also if the companies are growing. If you look at the kind of startup field across this region, you mentioned you're seeing an uptick of companies working on climate-related topics. You kind of, you know, go a bit deeper with that. Is it something more specific, something in specific sectors or specific countries?
Rainer Sternfeld 20:06
Well, maybe to answer that there, there are two ways investors look at it, depending on what your focus is, as an investor, so there's a way to look at it from a holistic ESG perspective, which, which means you know, looking at the whole society and knowledge and health and the environment, which is often stuff that happens inside those companies are these companies run in a sustainable fashion, from all the aspects of ESG. And then the other side of that coin is that is the stuff that they're making, whether it's digital, or physical, or both, is the stuff that they're making, what is their impact on the society. And we look at both at Nordic Ninja, because we are partners for a system called upright, upright project in Finland, which has a googlesque approach to benchmarking all funds or companies, whatever you're doing from an ESG perspective, and then internally, we are using our own methodology to measure the company's products impact on the domain. And so, there are clearly companies that are looking at this in the same way. Whether they are investors or just, you know, startups. So you have companies that are looking at sustainable investing, like Grünfin and you have
Rainer Sternfeld 21:42
a massive amount of kind of energy is going towards moving atoms, as we say, at Nordic Ninja. That 'moving atoms' means moving people moving goods. And so when you move atoms, we have, by the way, I think about 40% of the capital allocated in our fund so far is into reducing the amount of energy that is spent moving atoms or, or getting rid of moving atoms altogether, like in the case of Veriff, which is an exception. So that's one area, the other one, obviously, is related to health and food. These are two separate things normally when you look at people talking about food tech and digital health, but since we are in this smaller market of eight countries, we look at it in the same way of, like, who are those teams? So there's a very large portion of companies trying to tackle that. Some companies are doing traditional stuff, like one of my kind ways to think about things is that I don't eat meat, right. But I, I know that obviously, a lot of people eat meat, and they will be eating meat in the next, you know, decades to come, even though that is going to be reduced, reducing in terms of percentage share, they still will do that. So if we are going to have people eating meat, it should be done as efficiently as possible. Like, what if there was a way to reduce methane emission of cows, like 80%? So you get like one kilo of beef with 20% of the energy that is compared to what is it today? Of course, I would support doing that even though I don't eat meat, right? It's still a net impact. Or like forestry, there's like a lot of energy being spent. Like, if you think about it, we're still using wood, right, for whatever reasons, if we reduce the amount of wood being used, that's important. And that's obviously what Single.Earth is doing. Like let's keep the forest where it is; that's biodiversity. It's everything. You know, we obviously understand that, but then you still need to take down trees. Okay, what is the efficiency of taking down trees? It's super low, it leaves massive marks, and it destroys; there are those tracks. And what if there was a way to make that efficient? And so you know, you'll see companies trying to do that, and we're not obviously experts in that but we are interested in stuff like that. And at least I am not an expert in forestry, but I'm just saying that if you look at the whole value chain, you look at the different steps needed. So Single.Earth is in that portion of the forestry; well let's keep them where it is. But then, for the trees that are still being cut down, we should do that as efficiently and as good as small footprint as possible, right? So it's the whole thing; you have to look at the whole thing. And in the mobility sector, moving atom sector, so to speak, we are doing the same looking at the value chain. So we have a company like Einride in Sweden, which is making autonomous electric trucks that were the first company in Europe to be allowed on public roads. So that's an incredible company. And then, on the other side, you have the last mile with Starship, which is also a portfolio company. So which is just kind of like mini Einride, small robot deliveries, autonomous deliveries, last-mile on sidewalks, or pavements, as British English would say. So that's, that's how you would look at it. And I think there's still a lot to do in digital health. But we haven't seen unicorn cases there.
Tarmo Virki 25:55
There's this middle layer still missing, probably that the goods would be that you would get the goods from Einride to Starship without any humans involved in the process. Right.
Rainer Sternfeld 26:07
Yeah, I mean, that, that, that is still something that humans need to deal with. Obviously, there's too much complexity, right. So that's where, like, ClimateView helps. And, and, you know, like, one of my favorite things there is that there's this world-famous industrial designer Dieter Rams. And in his documentary, there's this bit where he's asked at some fireside chat in Munich a question from the audience is like, Hey, why, why haven't you designed any cars I would love to have. This is in Munich, right? So like car Mecca, and everybody has a BMW and whatever. And so why haven't we seen a Dieter Rams-designed car? And he's like, Yeah, but cars are stupid, like, you know, you, you have kind of overcompensated, over-dimensioned, vehicles that go too fast and, and instead, we should design better public transportation infrastructure, or if there were like, pods or whatever, they should be moving autonomously, or you know, all that kind of stuff. So it's definitely like the thing that we need to figure out. And one of the powers of digital infrastructure and all this data is that we can actually spend more time understanding and simulating, and making the right decisions. Instead of, oh, we just invented this stuff. It's cool. Let's do it. And then, you know, five years later, oh, shit, this is not going to work. So I obviously, and this is something that I say all the time is that there is there has to be this futurologist or futurist James Martin, in the UK, he's passed away now. But he had this cool quote that I liked, which was that in the 20th century, humans figured out a way how to invent stuff and bring stuff to life; we're very good at that. That's what separates us from other animals is creating tools. But in the 21st century, the main theme should be about control. This means that we can now control; we already know that we can come up with anything or build anything we come up with. But now the decision has to be made. It's like, we need to be very careful. What do we bring into this world? We can bring anything into this world. And whether we bring chaos or harmony, that's up to us. So that's why we like stuff that is helping us to make better decisions. So that's what ClimateView is. And then, of course, there's this big, big, big topic, which is measurable, but over a longer scale, which is health, like we are living in an era of aging societies. Right? Not exactly a climate tech thing, initiating from there on the face of it. But you know, if you're bedridden, if you're sick, let's say you live to 100 years old, and their last 30 years are kind of rubbish because you haven't been able to live normally. So one of our portfolio companies is called Combinostics. And this is the most complicated company; we have a deep tech company they're taking your brain MRI and are able to predict the risk of Alzheimer's. And they do that by analyzing your brain MRI scan against the whole world brain MRI database, anonymized database, and if you do that early enough, you can prevent or take steps to prevent Alzheimer's, and that type of stuff is still in its infancy. But if that becomes a thing, like men today take a PSA test. So right, women take a mammogram when they're 40 or earlier, even. We are not making these brain MRIs yet, but in an aging society, the percentage of people with Alzheimer's is increasing. And that's a massive amount of carbon. If you put it just all on paper, that's, it's, it's a bad way of life. And nobody wants to live like that and finish their life, obviously. But it is also a massive burden. And nobody wants to be a burden, of course. So if we can figure that out, that will be massive. And there are a host of all sorts of health issues that we need to deal with that are related to the aging society.
Tarmo Virki 30:38
Absolutely. Absolutely. You were talking about the ESG in relatively positive terms. And, and earlier, you were speaking about how you were born with a great bullshit filter. Don't the ESG topics often run into your bullshit filter?
Rainer Sternfeld 30:54
Yeah, yeah, we see a lot of I mean, we have a great deal-flow at Nordic Ninja. And we see, we see. How do I say? I mean, the fact that it's in the society's consciousnesses is good, but they sometimes feel like people, well, maybe some people are using to greenwash and all that. But generally, startups are just trying to show that they care. But sometimes, when you have a company, like the brain scanning company that I just explained, you don't have to, you don't have to explain that every slide, you know, that you're like, climate tech company, or like how you're reducing carbon footprint, that's obviously important. But I think everybody understands that if you're doing something worth doing, like brain scanning for predicting Alzheimer's, nobody's going to, you know, so we see this increase in, in, in marketing copy. And that's, that's doesn't bother me, because I see through all that stuff, because of my experience. But there's, well, I'd say this way. As humans, we have not still figured out how to do this properly. We've seen all sorts of ways to measure this, you know, there, there are tools like, you know, world's favorite that are kind of mostly kind of manual entry tools, which are very good. But then there are companies like upright, which are more googlesque approach to measure this, and we don't even know how to measure it. And clearly, we need to, you know, reduce, reuse, recycle as the saying goes. But we all have to make changes, and so some of these changes can be started on a grassroots level, and some of these changes can be started in the policy level. So there are only so many things an individual can do. But smart policies are also needed. And, and if they are made in a, in a very good way, in a concise way, then you can engage with people, sometimes I feel that where we're stuck with the kind of like labels that we need. Like you can see this polarisation or certain topics, like when you say climate change in some political circles, it will immediately get a red flag because it's sort of like the enemy. Right. And, and, like the funniest example, and I'm sorry, like, I'm digressing. But the funniest example is that after Trump's victory in 2016, when he came into office, in January 2017, I was on a bus tour in West Virginia with the Atlantic Council, and I went to Richmond, Virginia University. I think it was one of the stops later when we met with a group that was doing community solar in coal country. And you have people that are voting for coal jobs, but they have solar panels on their rooftop. So with their wallets and with their brains, they're voting. Obviously, this is normal because the Levelized cost of energy of solar panels is way lower than anything else that they had available. But they're still, you know, voting for coal jobs and politicians that are promising, giving false promises. So you have that issue, and I think we need to figure out a language and an empathic understanding of how to do that better. Otherwise, we're gonna drown in all this BS.
Tarmo Virki 34:54
That's a sad, sad future in some future picture for many Probably, you were talking about politics. And I know we're soon running out of time. I wanted to ask you about the European energy transformation in the light of the current war and the pressure on the kind of fossil fuels across Central Europe. Do you know how you see the kind of interest may be in the alternative energy startups?
Rainer Sternfeld 35:36
Yeah, so this is, again, a lesson in strategic thinking, you know, this, this Russian war in Ukraine. Obviously, people on the eastern flank of Europe, bordering Russia don't need to be reminded of this; we are the ones that were kind of "boy who called shark and nobody listened." And now it's like we told you so. But there are hard choices, you know, it's not black and white, obviously. So for some northern countries, I mean, you can't say that everybody should go over solar and, and wind, then we are happy mean, we need to solve the energy storage question. That means we need to use rare earth metals. You know, we need to make some hard choices when it comes to nuclear versus coal. Germany obviously backfired in that sense and many other things related to geopolitical choices with gas and Nord Stream, which is a horrible, horrible way to run stuff. So but I think, in general, I'm still an optimist. I generally think that technology is the only technology is a way of doing things. And so technology is the only thing that will actually change the world. And politically, you can incentivize that, as we have done this in Estonia, or you can be against it, right. But generally, politics is reactionary in its nature. But I am still very optimistic that Europe is still the best place for cleantech, Europe is still the best place to talk about clean energy, and we can figure it out. Rather, easily. We don't have that many disagreements as maybe in other sectors, and we can afford it. Right? Because it is expensive to adopt new technologies, and then the cost of those technologies will come down over time. That's the whole essence of it. So but that doesn't mean that we have to say no to nuclear, especially when we think about modular nuclear, which can be made safer. You know, the, like the old nuclear reminded of like, the old waterfall way of like developing software, innovation iterations were too slow. And now we have to do something different. But I think if the choice is between coal or gas and nuclear, then we have to do small modular nuclear, and then maybe down the road, we can figure out to go full solar or something; there's going to be an energy mix, there's not going to be one single source of energy, obviously, and then the storage portion of it is super important, obviously.
Rainer Sternfeld 38:28
Cool. That's a somewhat more positive note to wrap up this podcast recording. Thanks, Rainer for your time today.
Rainer Sternfeld 38:57
Thanks. Thanks, Tarmo. And let's, let's keep the conversation going.
Tarmo Virki 39:02
Absolutely. Have a good day. Bye. Bye. Bye. Join us again for the next episode. Thank you for listening. If you liked the show, please give us a good review and leave the feedback in your podcast player so others will find it too. We will be back next week. Turn on to nature backup podcast.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai