For this 24th episode of our Ellie.Talks podcast, we had the honor of welcoming Alexandra Vanhuyse, co-founder and managing director of Snowball, a cutting-edge cleantech hub in Harelbeke.
Clean technology is at the forefront of addressing environmental and sustainability challenges. In this podcast episode, Alexandra shares insights into her clean tech journey and discusses the importance of entrepreneurship, innovation, and collaboration in this rapidly evolving field.
Key takeaways of the episode:
- Green entrepreneurship is about considering the entire life cycle of products and solutions, a shift in the business world.
- Snowball, as a hub for clean entrepreneurs, serves as a testing ground for real-scale prototypes.
- There is an urgent need for innovative solutions in the evolving energy landscape in Belgium, Europe, and globally.
- We need to think big and long term to meet the challenge of the energy transition.
- Alexandra’s journey teaches us the value of understanding, the fearless pursuit of change, and the power of collaboration in the clean technology industry.
Meet Alexandra: A Curious Optimist
Alexandra’s story begins with her insatiable curiosity and a heart full of optimism. Growing up in a bustling family as the youngest of four children, she was nurtured in an environment that fueled her curiosity. Her parents always encouraged her to explore and learn.
‘When I was young, my parents always stimulated that as well. So, when I was seven, I got the novel of Dr. Albert Schweitzer as a birthday present, which seems very odd, but I loved it. And then I was doing a dissertation when I was 10 on Marie Curie, the inventor.
Hailing from Harelbeke in West Flanders, Alexandra shares a common trait with her community – a strong inclination toward action. She’s a hands-on individual who believes in making things happen. Alexandra values qualities like generosity and ownership, and she firmly believes that anyone can contribute to making a difference. Her passion extends to climate and environmental issues, and she’s committed to preserving our planet. But for her, it’s not just about safeguarding the environment at any cost; it’s about creating a world where nature and humanity coexist harmoniously.
The birth of Snowball
About five years ago, Alexandra, in partnership with Stefan Grosjean, a serial entrepreneur with a rich background in clean energy and energy management, embarked on the journey of creating Snowball. This dynamic hub for environmentally conscious entrepreneurs serves as a testing ground for real-scale prototypes. These prototypes are developed in collaboration with universities and industrial partners, have progressed beyond the laboratory phase, and are ready for practical implementation.
One of Snowball’s key focuses is the integration of these prototypes into real-world scenarios, ensuring they harmonize with existing solutions. They’ve worked on innovative projects like compact vertical wind axis turbines for residential and small commercial use, exploring their compatibility with other energy sources like solar panels and HVAC systems.
Furthermore, Alexandra emphasizes the urgent need for innovative solutions to address the challenges of the evolving energy landscape in Belgium, Europe, and globally. With the European Commission’s ambitious goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and the intermediate target of a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030, there’s a growing demand for significant investments.
Snowball, much like Ellie.Connect, shares the aspiration of challenging the status quo in long-established industries and seeks to improve their entire value cycle and life cycle. Today, as a start-up specializing in technology and sustainability, Ellie is proud to be part of the Snowball community, alongside many other green entrepreneurs.
Green Entrepreneurship: The Future of Business
For Alexandra, green entrepreneurship represents a fundamental shift in the business world. Whereas ten years ago it was all about digital entrepreneurship, today she believes that the future will be based on sustainable development. Alexandra is passionate about the idea that all companies, from startups to established giants, will need to consider the entire lifecycle of their products and solutions and adopt a circular and sustainable approach to entrepreneurship.
She points out that we are in what is known as the Anthropocene, where humanity is at the center of our society. However, an Australian professor has proposed a visionary concept: the Sustainocene. This concept envisions a future where humans act as stewards of the planet. It’s a bit like renting an apartment: “When you receive it, you recognize its condition, and when you leave it, it’s assessed again”.
‘I think in the future, I’d love humans to be like that in society, that we appreciate what we get, take care of what we get, and give it back in x years at least in the same condition we got it.’
The transition from the Anthropocene to the Sustainocene is a change worth observing and pondering.
Discover more here.
‘We don’t create a business to achieve an immediate result, but to build something lasting and viable for the generations to come, with a long-term vision. So, the founder is no longer really the owner, but the ‘steward’.’ – Julie
Thinking Big and Long-Term: Snowball’s Vision
When Snowball was launched, Alexandra and Stefan began by working behind the scenes, fine-tuning the prototypes submitted by their partners. In February 2020, they opened a physical testing location but faced an unforeseen challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
With limited office work, they had to adapt quickly to keep prototypes running and cope with the impact of delays caused by the pandemic on themselves and their partners.
Over the past five years, they have learned to think big. This means considering their place in the industry, potential partnerships, and the long-term lifecycle of their solutions. The energy transition is a major societal challenge, and everyone needs to envision a future without fossil fuels while retaining the comforts we enjoy today.
The Challenge in a New Sector
Alexandra emphasizes the importance of adaptability and flexibility in the energy sector. Dealing with well-established distribution and transmission companies requires a considered approach. It’s essential to assess how your solution fits into the overall landscape. This means focusing on specific use cases and identifying the optimal entry point for your solution.
A recent prototype that Snowball put to the test was a saltwater battery. Saltwater offers advantages like abundant availability and safety, but it may not match the power quality and energy density of traditional batteries. Working closely with partners, they embarked on a diligent journey to identify the sweet spot where this solution would be most effective.
In many ways, the challenges in this field are akin to those faced in the textile industry, as discussed on Ellie.Connect. The key takeaway is the need to assess how your solution complements or differentiates from existing alternatives and how to target the market with a specific focus, ensuring a seamless integration into the energy ecosystem.
STARTS Projects: Uniting Science, Tech, and Arts
In 2014, the European Commission introduced STARTS, an initiative that stands for Science, Tech, and Arts. Its goal is to boost European industry competitiveness, foster innovation, and address societal challenges by promoting collaboration among these three domains.
Over the past four years, Snowball has actively participated in three STARTS projects, tackling a range of challenges, including the European Green Deal, the New European Bauhaus, and biodiversity. These projects involve diverse stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, universities, students, and even artists, who bring unique perspectives to society and the industry. The collaborative effort is evident in their ability to co-create solutions for these challenges.
While Snowball primarily collaborates with partners who are already committed to the energy transition within the cleantech industry, STARTS provides a platform to engage with a broader audience. It opens doors to communities and individuals who might not typically interact with a cleantech hub, sparking new ideas, fresh mindsets, and behavioral changes.
These STARTS projects are about expanding horizons, challenging the status quo, and encouraging innovative solutions to societal challenges, ultimately leading to increased impact.
The balance between functionality and aesthetics is crucial when launching a new product in the cleantech industry. For instance, if we consider solar panels and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, solar panels are primarily functional and may not always harmonize with their environment while EV charging stations are a better example of a fusion between utility and aesthetics.
Alexandra points out that Snowball is fortunate to welcome Smappee, a company known for launching aesthetically pleasing electric vehicle charging stations, which have won several design awards. The success of these solutions lies in combining the “must-have” aspect (the functional need for a charging station) with the “nice-to-have” element.
The parallels between the cleantech industry and the textile industry are evident, as both emphasize design, technicality, and sustainability.
Alexandra’s Valuable Lessons:
As Alexandra reflects on her journey and Snowball’s, including the trials during the COVID-19 pandemic, valuable lessons emerge. Fearlessness, not to be confused with foolishness, is about tackling challenges head-on. It’s about understanding that nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood, as Marie Curie once said.
Another vital lesson is embracing individuality. No one else can walk your path. Each journey is unique, driven by your traits, values, and strengths. For Alexandra, enthusiasm and a high-level approach are her strengths, complemented by detail-oriented team members.
‘I think for an entrepreneur, it’s really important to just look at yourself. What are your traits? What are your values? Where do you excel what gives you energy?’
In addition, Snowball’s experience has taught them that their real opportunity lies in systems integration. They rely on their team of data scientists to explore how different systems work together. Their strength and passion lie in partnerships, connecting people and value chains.
‘As entrepreneurs, we hope to create a ‘snowball effect’. So that many entrepreneurs also become sustainable entrepreneurs. It’s intrinsic to the setup of a startup.’
So, to move forward, it’s essential not to underestimate the importance of being yourself, seeking out complementary partners, and taking small but purposeful steps in the right direction.
If this episode story has inspired you to take your sustainability journey further, you can connect on Ellie.Connect.