Norwegian-based Katapult Accelerator has a deep belief in exponential technologies, helping impact focused startups scale faster while solving global challenges. Earlier this year, we talked to Managing Partner & CEO, Haakon Brunell, about impact entrepreneurship and technology as a key driver for change. The interview was originally published in the 2019 SEIF Awards brochure.
The Tech for Impact startup community is growing and technology has a great potential to foster social change and contribute to solving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Where do you see the greatest opportunities?
Technology is a great tool, and it can basically be used to improve anything. We really do see impact startups across all sectors, tackling all SDGs. There are a lot of opportunities here. Looking at the most typical tech companies, we do see a lot of scalable software solutions and less hardware heavy solutions. We see a lot of interesting cases, and strong potential, in growth regions such as Africa and Latin America. There is a particularly strong focus on social issues in these regions, for example in agriculture, health, financial inclusion, education. Still, our portfolio spans across all sectors where areas as renewable energy, smart/green cities, health, education, and financial inclusion are just a few examples. However, I would like to have seen more solutions focusing on addressing pure climate change issues in this context.
Where do you see the main challenges, and how can we address these to make sure we foster the positive potential of technology?
Despite all the opportunities, I believe we face some challenges. One is perception, considering the widespread belief that having a positive impact is not correlated with a financial return for investors. I believe this perception is diminishing, but it is still there. In our view, there is no tradeoff between impact and return, rather, we see a positive correlation. We even see the potential to receive above market return by investing in solving the biggest problems out there, as these challenges could also be seen as the biggest opportunities. Considering that many solutions focus on developing regions, another challenge is that countries in these regions tend to have less developed capital markets and access to financing. In this context, we would like to see more resources being directed towards impactful solutions in growth regions.
What were the main reasons behind the decision to launch your Tech for Impact accelerator?
Two years ago, we launched Katapult Accelerator as a vehicle to structurally invest in the best entrepreneurs out there that are using tech to solve social and environmental challenges. Tackling the big social and environmental challenges we face today require new scalable solutions, which can be found in the tech space. With our global focus, we want to find the best solutions wherever they are in the world.
Personally, I felt a strong need to do something to help our planet. In the future, I want to be able to look my grandchildren in the eyes and say that I tried to do something about the current challenges we face. We also started noticing that many interesting tech developments out there are in emerging areas such as renewable energy. Having large, global, challenges also mean that there are large business opportunities. When you have founders passionate about solving something because they really want to solve the problem, not only because they want to make money, you get more motivated founders who work harder. In return, you get better companies. For me, it was an obvious choice to support a positive impact and tech solutions. We saw a great opportunity, both in terms of impact and financial return.
How do you perceive your role in the national and global ecosystem today?
When we started out, I believe most people thought we were crazy. There has been a significant development in the impact entrepreneurship field since then, but we had to push for our cause and have been recognized for our ambition. Today, we are being recognized more and more locally and internationally as an important force driving Tech for Impact. Bringing the international focus allows us to reach the best and most impactful players from the world, and we bring this dimension into the national ecosystem as well.
For our last program, we had 1800 candidates from more than 90 countries. It is a global program, and many of our candidates also get offers from well-known accelerators in other countries. Still, they choose to come to us. One of the reasons for this is that they believe in our mission and the clear focus on positive impact is highly appreciated. When founders come together during the program, even if they are working on completely different things – from microfinance in East Africa to electrical charging stations in Germany, renewable wind power in Brazil or health tech in the US – they all come together around the joint mission of really wanting to make the world a better place. This creates a great dynamic in the group, which makes for really strong community building. Once you have seen and experienced the power it brings working with something that really has a higher purpose, you cannot go back.
Overall, how would you describe the Tech for Impact development in Norway and the Nordic region? Is there a large local demand and interest?
We definitely see an increased interest in what we do and Tech for Impact solutions. Norway has a long tradition of sustainability-related projects. At the same time, we have a feeling that we have been lagging behind in the tech scene in comparison to other Nordic countries. Over the years, we have witnessed an increase in the number of applicants for our program, startups, and partners who want to work with us. We also see that discussions with investors are becoming easier. Not that it is ever easy to talk to investors, but more and more investors are curious about investing for impact.
Looking at your national ecosystem from an international perspective, do you see any differences in the development of a Tech for Impact ecosystem?
We see a shift and increased focus on Tech for Impact solutions happening all over the world, in different shapes and forms. To give you an example, there are quite a lot of entrepreneurs and investors proactively reaching out to us as they are not satisfied with the climate and culture in Silicon Valley. Founders start looking to parts of the world where there is an increased focus on positive impact, and the Nordics are one example of that. There are also a lot of interesting and good initiatives in Europe. For example, what you are doing at SEIF in Switzerland, but also in France and other parts of Europe. In addition, there is a lot happening in growth regions as Africa, Latin America, and India, where the impact focus is very prevalent.
What do we need in the future?
Looking at global emissions data, we are not acting fast enough on the climate side. We need to do much more and much quicker. It seems that the younger generation now understands this. It is a good shift, but we need both faster and bigger changes. Raising awareness about the fact that impact and finance go hand in hand is super important, but we also need to show examples proving that investing in impact is a good and attractive investment.
For everyone out there with great ideas, what would be your golden advice for early-stage startups interested in participating in your accelerator program?
First, don’t be afraid of applying! It is always good to reach out, always good to apply. Even if you don’t get accepted the first time you will still be on our radar and we have a lot of other institutions that we partner with and where we can direct interesting cases. Second, don’t give up. Try all things possible to move your business forward. If you want to get accepted somewhere or work with someone, don’t be shy. Maybe we need to teach our Nordic startups to be a bit more American in this context. We can be a bit too humble up here, which I think goes also for the Swiss.
Haakon Brunell is Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Katapult Accelerator, an investment and development program for impact-tech startups globally. Haakon was formerly Associate Partner in McKinsey & Company serving clients in Europe, Africa, and Asia, holding global leadership positions within energy, private equity and innovation. Other experience includes NBIM (Norw. Petroleum Fund), entrepreneurship, and angel investments. Haakon holds a Master of Sc. from Norwegian School of Economics, University of Melbourne and Fudan University.