I’m currently writing to you from a cafe in Amsterdam, watching bike after bike roll by as I shelter in the shade from an unrelenting heatwave. But I’m not complaining. I recovered from jet lag and acclimated to my new time zone by wandering down picturesque canals, indulging in stroopwafel and gleefully observing the fascinating Dutch culture — a.k.a. a lot of tulips, fries and coffeeshops (if you know, you know).
OK, but why am I here? Did you know that in 2020, Amsterdam declared itself the first city in the world to commit to building an integrated circular economy? Yeah, me neither! The plan hinges on cutting waste from food, products used, and the built environment of the city.
My first thought when I learned all of this was that technical alternatives to business as usual would be integral to this transition. And, in my opinion, accelerators are excellent barometers for the trajectory of the marketplace. So, with my curiosity piqued and travel budget untapped, I booked a flight and a visit to Amsterdam Circular.
Amsterdam Circular (AC) is a two-month investor readiness program launched by venture capital accelerator Rockstart and AMS Institute, an organization that fosters fledgling climate tech companies and entrepreneurs tackling urban challenges and promoting an innovative urban ecosystem. AC is designed to support early stage startups (within seed to Series B funding stages) in the agrifood, biobased and circular construction, climate, digitization, energy and mobility sectors. Cohorts attend workshops, training and mentoring sessions during the program, which culminates in an Investors Day that connects the startups with key stakeholders in their sectors.
The program launched in February specifically to help Amsterdam reach its circularity goals by 2050, with over 120 applicants for just 10 spots.
In a press release celebrating AC’s launch, Rune Theill, CEO and co-founder of Rockstart, said the program will facilitate the required “collaboration across institutions — from local government actors to venture capital, startups, corporate executives, universities, research institutions and beyond.”
So, after a transit saga from my hotel that included my tram stopping mid-route due to a traffic incident and an altered walking path due to a burst pipeline, I finally made it to AMS Institute — which I was surprised to see was a militaristic concrete building behind a secure fence with barbed wire.
Oh, wait, no.
That actually IS a military defense building, into which I was most definitely not welcome. A kind soldier took pity on the clearly lost, incredibly sweaty American and pointed me to the building next door. It turns out, AMS Institute is housed in a repurposed military complex, embracing the idea of circularity to its literal foundations.
Sitting in a room awash with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows, I spoke with Guy Vincent, program lead of AC. Vincent explained that AC exists because circularity tech startups were “the hardest companies to fund … you’re often dealing with hardware [and] really high capital-intensive requirements.”
Venture capital firms, whether U.S. or Holland-based, are generally averse to investing in capital-heavy projects that may not pan out. So AC exists to fill that finance gap. In addition to providing startups the physical space needed to build, test and perfect their product at the Marineterrein Living Lab, Vincent explained, “[Amsterdam Circular has] managed to validate co-financing.”
To illustrate this concept, Vincent cited two companies (which he didn’t name) working with AC that were able to secure funding that ranged from $546,000 to $3.27 million from the Economic Development Agency of North Holland — all because of their placement within AC’s cohort. This initial influx of cash, according to Vincent, “de-risks [the startups] rounds, and then, yeah, VCs and other instruments … can fill in the rest of the round.”
Traditionally, Vincent elaborated, startups would have their sights set on funding in Silicon Valley. But that structure was pulling local European startups to the U.S. “I’d say Europe has quite a lot more public funding available [for circular economy] startups — subsidies, debt, convertible equity, all kinds of options.”
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is completely off the table. “Part of what we want to offer is once they kind of start getting their momentum and they’re attractive to traditional VCs, we can help them do their international expansion to North America.”
A glimpse at the cohort
So, what types of startups does Amsterdam Circular support?
- Tiler. Tiler is a B2B electric bike charging company that is developing a kickstand that doubles as a battery charger. Tiler focuses on expediting e-bike battery charging across the city by developing tiles that are installed into sidewalks and connected to the grid. Any bike outfitted with a Tiler charging kickstand simply parks at the tile and charges up while the rider goes about their business.
- Human Material Loop. Human Material Loop integrates human hair into textile production. Explaining that 62 million tons of human hair are incinerated annually in Europe, Vincent enthusiastically described how Human Material Loop intends to repurpose that waste by extracting keratin fibers from human hair to create industrial textiles and fibers and even a paste for bio 3D printing. Upcycling human hair would decrease our current reliance on sheep, cotton and synthetic fibers.
- Carbon Equity. Carbon Equity is a venture capital firm and private equity investment platform with a mission to unlock previously unattainable private funding for climate tech companies. Its portfolio includes South Pole, Boston Metal and Mainspring Energy.
Applicants based in Amsterdam, Delft and Wageningen with plans to expand internationally are preferred. Its last application period closed in March with no update yet on timing to apply for the next cohort.
The city of Amsterdam is committing to eliminating waste from its economy by 2050. The technologies invented, tested and deployed to make this commitment a reality will prove invaluable to not just Amsterdam, but also to cities across the world who can benefit from the innovation. And accelerators such as Amsterdam Circular, equipped with the pertinent resources, networks and capital, are vital to nurturing the inventive ideas of entrepreneurs.
Correction: The article previously stated Amsterdam Circular had $100 million in funding. Two startups in Amsterdam Circular’s cohort received funding from investment firm ROM InWest, which has $100 million in funding.
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