Danish startup program sends off the entrepreneurs of tomorrow

Startups from all over the world gathered in Lolland-Falster for the seven-week Danish startup accelerator Growth Train: some of their products might just change our lives

First on stage we have a company I like to tease a little bit because one of their competitors was sold recently for 3 hundred million dollars. But I’m hoping that they will exceed that by the end of this year.” At this point, Eythor Jónsson, the Icelandic startup guru, began to raise his voice at a steady pace, boiling over into a shout: “So please welcome, the founder of Kray Technologiiiiieees, Maxim Surdu!”

There was a clap, but the clap was short. These entrepreneurs are not superstars … yet. Though, Maxim Surdu was kind of a business superstar back in Russia. He used to be a top executive at the country’s largest IT company, Merlion, which has a turnover of 6.5 billion US dollars annually. But he left the company and began to invest in startups.

The climax of Growth Train
“At Kray, we are developing drone crop protection technology that could be the start of a new agricultural revolution. Let me tell you why, how and what we do” Surdu said and he was off to the races, presenting in front of investors as well as his fellow entrepreneurs. His pitch along with those of eight other entrepreneurs were the culmination of the 7-week accelerator program Growth Train. For those unfamiliar with the concept, an accelerator program helps entrepreneurs develop their startups to new heights – it’s a gym for your company.

Growth Train, based in Lolland-Falster, is focused on businesses in food and agriculture technology. During the course of the program, participating companies get to learn about a range of topics including business modelling, design thinking, customer development, growth hacking and strategic communication. “We’ve taken all the elements and disciplines you’d normally do for a 6-month or 8-month program and compacted it into seven weeks,” explained Christiane Paaske-Sørensen, the head of the program.

The agriculture drone
But back to Surdu, whose pitch continued on Demo Day with “as you know, the world population is growing fast and by 2050, food production will increase by 50 percent. So famers need to be more productive.” Surdu’s startup offers a tool to achieve just that: a drone. An agriculture spraying drone. It flies one metre above crops at 100 km/h and cuts operational costs of current spraying methods by 90 percent.

For Surdu, the journey that brought him to Denmark started in Ukraine with his cousin, Dmytro Surdu the co-founding CEO and CTO of the company: “He and his team are crazy about drones. They started with the idea of delivery drones. But I told them: ‘Guys, competitors will be too far ahead. You better figure out something new, something unique.’” Then, in 2015, Dmytro went to London for the WEB Summit – a technology conference – with a drone that was able to fly for four hours. There, they met farmers from Canada and the US: “They explained the pain of obsolete and expansive spraying technologies to Dmytro and were like: ‘So, if you guys can fly for four hours, couldn’t you do spraying for us?’ And, you know, my cousin accepts every challenge you propose to him: if you tell him ‘You can’t do that,’ he’ll respond ‘Why?’ and then go ‘No, no, no, I’m doing it.’ So he came back with the idea of making a drone for spraying.”

Investor origins
But who is Maxim Surdu, this balding, bearded and friendly Russian guy with good posture who invests in his engineer cousin’s drone start-up and moves to Denmark for seven weeks to participate in an accelerator program? His origins story is one of a skilled young programmer from Moldova: he moved to Moscow at the age of 16 and studied at the Moscow University of Electronics and Technology. After realising that he couldn’t meet all of his basic physical needs with the money that a PhD made back then, he began working on the Russian version of GPS – Glonass – as a programmer. But he soon quit. It hit him, like it hits so many of us at one point or another – it was time to impress women: “I wanted to have a girlfriend, I wanted to be able to take her to a fancy restaurant, you know, all these things. That’s a man’s story.” So he became a sales manager for an IT company: “At that time, in the USSR, you could only earn money by selling something. Since we were professional in computers, we decided to sell computers and systems.” He kept climbing the business ladder and didn’t stop until he reached the highest peaks of Merlion.

The show
The pitches were preceded by presentations from Eric Alan-Rapp (partner at Vækstfonden), Steve Kim (Growth Train alumni and partner at the South Korean company Livecare Technologies, which has recently opened an office in Denmark, using it as an entry point to the EU market) and Sissel Hansen (CEO and founder of Startup Guide). The final speech was given by Kim Rahbek, founder of Sticks’n’Sushi and chairman of Business Lolland-Falster.

A new type of sweet
There was also a break before the pitches began and some extra time after the last speech – for networking and eating. Pastries, drinks and even ice cream – a new kind of ice cream. It tasted delicious, though it wasn’t made with regular sugar: it contained sugar derived from the nectar of the palmyra tree. I was encouraged to try it by Kristina Locke, the half-British, half-Danish founder and CEO of SugaVida.

“I had a series of chronic issues: bronchitis, then another chest infection, and I eventually ended up with chronic fatigue. This led to my journey to India. I started with yoga and got into Ayurvedic medicine. I got to know India extremely well – I actually ended up writing a travel book, and I kept hearing about this wonderful, amazing sugar from the palmyra tree. I started consuming it and I felt better. I thought I had to get this product out to the west so everybody here can benefit,” Locke told the crowd in her pitch on Demo Day.

Ancient medicine
After trying the SugaVida ice cream, I sat down with her to discuss this new ingredient. “It’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 5,000 years. We harvest from the trees that grow in southeast India. It’s a highly sustainable production: no trees are ever cut down. Also, palmyra trees are very drought resistant. They don’t need a lot of water and are self-sufficient. As we become hotter climates and have less water, it can survive.”

She continued, laying out the health benefits of the product: “It has a low GI (glycemic index) and keeps your blood sugar very stable. It’s also very rich in vitamins – including all B vitamins – and minerals.” The SugaVida website elaborates on these claims, asserting that it is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, supports digestive health, helps you sleep better, increases energy and even increases lung capacity. If all of these claims are true, this ancient medicine might just make us healthier – just by switching sugars.

Customer journey
When I asked her about participating in Growth Train, Locke highlighted the customer journey exercise as one of the most memorable assignments of the program. “Looking at who your customer is and fine-tuning them and how they arrive at your product – what you want them to think, experience and feel. My customer is female, typically between 40 and 60, getting to that stage in life when she’s feeling a bit more tired, getting a few aches and pains. So she’s going ‘Okay, now I need to take proactive steps for my health and wellbeing.’” Locke told me that this imaginary customer guides the way they market everything. “We have to start somewhere. We build one successful customer journey, and then we can start looking at another one.”

SugaVida is already on the market in the UK.

Though you might think so, Demo Day wasn’t really the time when investments cropped up for Growth Train participants. Meeting with Christiane Paaske-Sørensen almost a week after the final event, she revealed “There haven’t been any investments at this point.” Fortunately for our heroes, the same cannot be said about the weeks preceding Demo Day, when investments and collaborations did, in fact, materialise as networking was an integral part of the program – with local and global companies alike.

Mapping the weeds
One such collaboration was between Maxim Surdu’s Kray Technology and the Danish agriculture technology company Agrointelli. According to Surdu, “Agrointelli is developing weed maps that would allow you to spray only the areas that have more weed. Their plan was to employ a drone, take a lot of pictures of the field, analyse them and detect the weeds. But the problem was that when the drone approached the crops at a distance of one metre, it produced a downstream that made the leaves tremble. So the pictures were not clear enough to detect what type of weeds those were. Then they switched to using a quadricycle with a camera at the back. But that needs you to go through the fields, which not every farmer will allow, since you’ll be hitting the crops.”

“Then, a mentor at Growth Train introduced us to the people at Agrointelli. We fly above the crops and our downstream is significantly smaller than that produced by regular drones because often we only use the propellers to lift 20 percent of the weight of the drone.”

According to Paaske-Sørensen, participants also met with universities and scientists. “We know that half the companies have products or services that require documentation, so it’s important for us that they also get introduced to research centres that can help them get that stamp of approval saying ‘this is legit, this thing works.’”

The history of Growth Train
So, why make such an accelerator program in southern Zealand? Growth Train began in 2017 with the aim of increasing the international outreach of Business Lolland-Falster, which exists mainly to support local businesses. “We also thought: could there be innovations within food production that we could use in our local companies? That’s another motivator – to find inspiration,” explained Paaske-Sørensen.

Since BLF is funded by the government, Growth Train is non-profit. “Other accelerator programs are often heavily backed by investors and venture capitalists. They put the money in and they get their share. Ours is a little bit different. We don’t take equity,” explained Paaske-Sørensen.

The Growth Train initiative is part of an effort to make the entire region more appealing – especially with the upcoming tunnel that will connect Germany and Denmark through the Fehmarn Belt. “It’s only gonna be an hour to Hamburg and an hour to Copenhagen, which makes the area attractive to a lot of commuters – they don’t need to be paying a ton of money to live in one of those big cities, they can settle here. An easy halfway between all the different places.”

Two new programs
This year, Growth Train is launching two new programs on top of their seven-week accelerator: Go-2-Market and Scale-Up. Go-2-Market is the step to take after the seven-week accelerator. This program lasts for six months and, as its name indicates, it aims to help businesses enter the market. Some of the topics covered by the program are brand building, value proposition, market position and market entry strategy.

The Scale-Up is an accelerator aimed at small but already established businesses. It helps companies looking to scale up through consulting, global distribution, financing, operation scaling, buyer meetings and financial exit.

Both programs will start accepting applications in the first half of 2020. For more, see growth-train.dk.

The Danish startup scene

Locked in and delivering: Kristina Locke

If you’re wondering whether you should give it a try with your business in Denmark, you’re probably curious how the Danish market is for developing startups. Paaske-Sørensen has an answer: “It’s a perfect market to launch a startup – because it’s manageable to test out your product or your service in this type of market. It’s small and it’s also very critical – meaning, you actually get a lot of critical feedback, which is good when you’re trying to start out.”

“But I would like to see more places active in helping these entrepreneurs – mainly to navigate local rules. This is one of the things I want to make a little more noise about next year. So that they get to the right business developers or business support organisations. And so they know that those services are free. I get asked all the time what it’s gonna cost and I’m like, you know, it’s free. And I still see a lot of entrepreneurs, both Danes and foreigners, who pay for private consultants because they just don’t know.”

The Puerto Rican entrepreneur
There is one more person who needs highlighting. He’s the guy who introduced me to Maxim Surdu, Kristina Locke and the Growth Train program itself. Donald Goff Molina III – a young Puerto Rican expat. If you’re an avid reader of CPH POST, you probably saw him in our November 15 issue: I interviewed Donald in relation to the Greater Copenhagen Career Program – a course aimed at helping internationals enter the Danish labour market. That was the first time he told me about his startup: MadFind.

MadFind (a play on the Danish word for ‘food’) is essentially an app in which you’ll be able to share and reserve discounted or free items – including food, clothing, electronics and anything else that eventually goes to waste – allowing you to save both money and the planet. It’s a sustainability marketplace in your pocket that doubles as a barometer, tracking your contribution to CO2 emission reductions.

A little different
MadFind was an exception among the rest of the Growth Train companies. This was the least developed startup of them all: “They were really at the beginning stage when we started. Everyone else was in-market or at least had a prototype. But we accepted them because they are located in Denmark so it’s easy for us to continue working with them,” Paaske-Sørensen told me. “Also, Donald knew the theories behind entrepreneurship and running a business, because he has an MBA from CBS, where he studied under Eythor Jónsson, the managing director of Growth Train. But, excluding MadFind, we did have a common denominator for the companies we chose. The minimum limit was that they needed to have some kind of a proven business.”

A Polish food sustainability consultant (also Donald’s girlfriend), an Indian business guy, a Namibian programmer, a Portuguese programmer and a Venezuelan advisor – himself a Growth Train alumnus with the catering business CaterUs – are some of the people who make up the MadFind team. CPH POST will be following their journey, exploring the lives of these young internationals who came together here, in Denmark, at Growth Train, out to change the world. The MadFind series kicks off in February at cphpost.dk.

A total of nine entrepreneurs pitched their startups on Demo Day, the final event of the Growth Train accelerator program, on 6 December 2019. We zoom in on Kray Technologies, Sugavida and MadFind but the others are worth checking out too: Agrynex, CaterUs, Hindsholm Grisen, Ponko, SEAT, and Wellcrop Europe.