The Ecosystem: accelerators build local links for start-ups joining NATO programme

12 Dec 2023 | News

The first 44 companies have been selected for NATO’s acceleration scheme for start-ups with dual-use technologies. In parallel, the programme is promoting the development of ecosystems around the host accelerators in Tallin, Copenhagen and Turin

NATO's headquarters in Brussels. Photo: NATO / Flickr

NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (Diana) has announced its first intake, with 44 start-ups assigned to five accelerators, three of which are in Europe. As these hosts prepare to receive the start-ups in January, it is now becoming clear there will also be a boost for the surrounding ecosystems.

“We’ve already planned a lot of engagement activities with the local ecosystem regarding potential end-users, other start-ups and the investor community,” said Kadri Tammai, head of the Tehnopol Startup Incubator in Tallinn, and lead for the Diana Estonian accelerator, which will welcome nine companies.

It’s a similar picture in Copenhagen, where Deep Tech Lab - Quantum will welcome six start-ups applying quantum technologies. “We have already identified several opportunities for direct collaborations between the start-ups and the Danish quantum research community, and with test and measurement centres in Denmark,” said Cathal Mahon, the accelerator’s chief business officer.

“We’ve also identified other quantum start-ups in Denmark that are working on similar technologies, where we think there could be some synergies, companies that could assist them with enabling technologies, and finally potential investors,” he said.

These links will not be limited to Denmark, and connections are foreseen with other relevant test and measurement facilities or investors. But the potential local benefits are clearly substantial. “It’s a win-win situation for both the countries hosting the accelerators, and for Diana,” said Mahon.

Diana is intended to foster transatlantic cooperation on critical technologies, promote interoperability among allied forces, and harness civilian innovation by engaging with academia and the private sector.

In June this year, it launched a set of pilot challenges, covering energy resilience, secure information sharing, and sensing and surveillance. When the deadline passed in August, more than 1,300 applications had been received.

From this, the 44 start-ups were selected to join one of the five participating accelerators: the Diana Estonian Accelerator, lead by Tehnopol Startup Incubator in Tallinn; Deep Tech Lab – Quantum in Copenhagen; the Pacific Northwest Mission Acceleration Centre in Seattle; MassChallenge in Boston; and the Takeoff Diana Accelerator in Turin.

In addition to coaching, the 44 start-ups will receive grants of €100,000, with NATO having no intellectual property rights. A second phase of Diana will single out 3 - 6 companies to scale-up and demonstrate their technologies, unlocking a further €300,000.

Geopolitical balance

There are seven start-ups each from  the UK and Canada, six from the US, three each from Netherlands and Italy, and two apiece from Turkey, Norway and Lithuania.

Given the size of their start-up ecosystems and defence industries, it surprising that only one company from France and one from Germany made the cut.

Alain De Neve, a specialist in defence innovation at Belgium’s Royal Military Academy, said while relations between the US and France are somewhat cool at present, this is not a reflection of that but “an indication that innovative start-ups are also present throughout the territory of the Atlantic alliance,” he said.

The same can be seen in the relatively strong representation of start-ups from central and eastern Europe. In addition to the two Lithuanian companies selected, there are one each from Estonia, Poland, Czechia, and Bulgaria. “This is not so much a political signal in favour of this region, as it is a recognition of the high scientific and technological potential of its companies in terms of breakthrough innovation,” De Neve said.

While Diana’s offer is generous as far as individual start-ups are concerned, its overall funding is relatively modest compared to mainstream defence R&D programmes. “Diana primarily aims to stimulate a nascent ecosystem, where only some companies will manage to differentiate themselves, or possibly merge their projects according to the needs of the Atlantic Alliance,” said De Neve. “Therefore, even if a ‘political’ criterion cannot be excluded in the choice of companies, it most likely results from a thorough examination of each candidate's innovation potential.”

The Tallinn contingent

Applications to Diana were evaluated centrally, and the start-ups assigned to individual accelerators according to local skills and resources. So far, only two of the accelerators have made public the names of the companies they will be receiving.

The Diana Estonian Accelerator will welcome nine start-ups from across the three challenge areas. In energy resilience there will be GaltTec from Estonia, IceWind from Iceland, and Goldilock from the UK. In sensing and surveillance there will be Lobster Robotics from the Netherlands. And in secure information sharing AVoptics and Anzen Technology from the UK, GIM Robotics from Finland, REVOBEAM from Poland, and Dronetag from Czechia.

The start-ups will make the first visit to Tallinn in January for an assessment of their specific needs. “Based on that, we will produce a tailored roadmap for each of the companies that will precisely highlight the goals,” said Tammai. “This will also define the test centres they would like to use throughout the programme, and the experts they would like to engage with.”

These centres are spread across the NATO Alliance, and range from universities and corporate research centres to military bases and civil government installations.

Detail on the likely connections with the Estonian ecosystem will also emerge during this first discussion, but Tammai can already see the potential for local connections. Cybersecurity and artificial intelligence are local strengths, and energy resilience is a priority for the whole eastern European region. Meanwhile, the focus on underwater applications in sensing and surveillance is relevant to current concerns about security in the Baltic Sea.

While not required to relocate to Tallinn for the accelerator programme, the teams from the selected start-ups are expected to visit several times over the six months. “Deep tech start-ups tend not to move around in their early stages, so this will be a useful way for us to see how others are working on high-tech developments,” Tammai said. “That goes both for Estonian start-ups, and for the test centres that will be working with these companies.”

Vaido Mikheim, deep tech project lead at Startup Estonia, is also positive about the selection. “Even not knowing the teams personally, I think they will be a good addition to our ecosystem,” he said. “Especially in smaller ecosystems such as ours, diversification and internationalisation are both extremely relevant components of a vibrant and exciting start-up landscape.“

Copenhagen’s quantum focus

Deep Tech Lab - Quantum in Copenhagen is a new initiative supporting early-stage companies based on quantum and quantum-enabling technologies. The six start-ups selected to come to Copenhagen are Astrolight from Lithuania, g2-Zero from Spain, SECQAI from the UK and Qubitrium from Turkey, which are  working secure information sharing, and Aquark Technologies from the UK and Phantom Photonics from Canada will work on sensing and surveillance.

The group has some technologies overlaps. For example, g2-Zero and Qubitrium are using single photon sources for quantum key cryptography, while others overlap in photonics.

“I think there will be a lot of synergies there,” said Mahon. “We carefully consider the composition of the cohort, from the coachability of the teams to how they interact, both on a personal and on a technological level, and what they can learn from each other.”

Developing a dual use business model is no more or less challenging for a quantum technology. More important is their relative immaturity. “There are additional challenges in terms of the technology readiness level of many of these applications,” Mahon said. “Many of them are at a relatively early stage.”

Discussions have already taken place with the start-ups on their technologies and civilian market applications. Then the programme begins in earnest in January, with an on-boarding meeting in Copenhagen and a bootcamp. The companies will fly in once a month for a three-day programme on site.

Or now there is no requirement to relocate but this may change when Diana opens the possibility of receiving up to €300,000. “If it’s a small company, it may make more sense to move to Denmark, particularly if they have established good collaborative relationships with mentors, test centres and/or researchers,” Mahon said.

The Diana accelerator will also have a catalytic effect on Deep Tech Lab – Quantum itself, which is currently in the process of setting up its own acceleration programme for quantum tech start-ups with life science applications.

“Initially we will focus on Denmark, but in the longer term we will need to source start-ups globally, in order to get the deal-flow we need,” Mahon said. The experience with Diana’s international participants will help develop this approach. “We see a lot of synergies in the way that we will be running the Diana programme, and the way that we expect to run our own programmes in future.”

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem…

  • A declaration urging EU states to collaborate on quantum technologies issued by the Spanish presidency of the EU and endorsed by 11 member states, calls on signatories to develop all areas of the European quantum ecosystem, especially support for start-ups and scale-ups.
  • Danish start-up Seasony has raised €1.5 million to advance its work on mobile robots for vertical farming. The round, led by North Ventures and the Export and Investment Fund of Denmark, will allow the company to accelerate product development and expand in key markets.
  • Amsterdam-based accelerator Rockstart has launched its second agri-food venture fund, aiming to raise €50 million and if successful, to invest in up to 50 start-ups within the next five years. Priorities include companies with technologies for restoring soils and oceans and capturing carbon in the process and innovations that create value from waste food or reduce food loss.

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