Startup Autobahn and the quest for the "Next Green Thing"

Startups are important partners on the road to the automotive future. They speed up the development of new technologies with their visionary ideas. In the "Startup Autobahn" initiative, Daimler has been offering startups a platform since 2016 for jointly sounding out whether and how their visions are suitable for series production.

At present, the theme of the initiative's scouting is "The Next Green Thing". Daimler is looking for startups that focus on sustainable solutions to reduce the ecological footprint. The ideas in question are supposed to be a win for everyone involved: for the startup, for Daimler and for the environment as well. Daimler has set itself ambitious goals in terms of sustainability by 2039: Over the course of the next 20 years, the new vehicle fleet is to become entirely carbon-neutral. In addition, Daimler is planning to make the production of vehicles in Europe carbon-neutral by the year 2022. Here the startups are asked to accompany the way with their ideas.

Climeworks: CO₂ reduction reinvented

For example, Zürich-based young company Climeworks has developed a technology that makes it possible to filter CO₂ from the air and use it for new purposes. "In our first commercial plant near Zürich, the CO₂ reclaimed in this way is used as fertilizer in a greenhouse and additionally to produce a climate-neutral sparkling water," explains Steven Goodman, Business Development Manager at Climeworks. The Zürich-based company already operates fourteen plants in all. The commercial plants invariably rely on renewable energy sources. In a pilot plant in Iceland, 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide are filtered from the air and mineralized each year. In addition, the technology developed by Climeworks allows producing eco fuels, which are primarily used in aviation as an additive for kerosene.

Opus 12: CO₂ transformation into valuable products

While Climeworks filters CO₂ from the surrounding air, the startup Opus 12 in 2016 founded at Stanford, the Californian elite university, "harvests" CO₂ directly at the source and transforms it into a "green resource" in a reactor. The history of the company's origins is typical of Silicon Valley. During her time as a Ph.D. candidate in Stanford, chemist Kendra Kuhl together with Etosha Cave researched how CO₂ can be transformed into useful products. The two women founded Opus 12 together with Nicholas Flanders, who today is CEO of the company and pushes the marketing of the technology.

Opus 12 started with the vision of "operating motor vehicles on fuels produced from previously emitted CO₂". Using water and electricity, preferably from renewable sources, CO₂ is broken down into chemical products and fuels, which in the past could only be produced from fossil energy sources. "With our technology," explains Nicholas Flanders, "the carbon footprint of the biggest emitters can be reduced significantly and at the same time a new source of income can be generated with a material that was previously treated as a pollutant. The transformation of CO₂ currently enables us to produce sixteen different products that we use every day“. The spectrum ranges from eco fuels to plastics. The technology developed by Opus 12 has a modular design and can thus be custom-tailored to the various areas of application. In future, so the vision, the reactors will be sitting next to factories to produce the resources for the adjacent production operations in this way. This will enable companies to be self-sufficient, save on transports and start "The Next Green Thing." In a first pilot plant, Opus 12 together with an energy company from Southern California has already demonstrated how CO₂ can be transformed into methane.

Startup Autobahn: the link between Daimler and the startup scene

Since the start of the initiative in 2016, more than 5,000 startups were scouted and 150 pilot projects were launched. Startup Autobahn gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to get together with research and development experts of Daimler in order to present their innovations. While the founders thus get an insight into the way a corporation works, the developers at the same time benefit from the exciting approaches and working methods of the startups.

The process of the meet is always the same, regardless of whether it involves sustainability or another focal topic: Following a worldwide scouting, the most innovative startups are invited to "match-making events". That is where they meet experts from the corporate group, who are able to evaluate and use their technologies. This is followed by a 100-day pilot phase for selected projects and subsequent cooperation when the technology is an appropriate match. One example of how this works in an ideal case is the startup what3words, which was matched with Daimler via Startup Autobahn. Its speech recognition technology was successfully integrated into MBUX – the speech recognition system in Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

The next deep dive on the subject of "Sustainable Production and Supply Chains" will take place on June 4, 2019.

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