Cutting edge food tech in Stockholm

Stockholm has more tech companies per capita than anywhere outside Silicon Valley. The city’s technology prowess rests firmly on Sweden’s focus to be visionary when it comes to all things technology-related. Food tech and clean tech are two of the sectors that are on the cusp of impacting the world far beyond the Swedish capital.

  • Photo: Helén Pe / mediabank.visitstockholm.com
    Photo: Helén Pe / mediabank.visitstockholm.com

Johan Jörgensen is the founder of Sweden Foodtech, a platform that connects Nordic food tech entrepreneurs, researchers and companies with investors and food tech experts around the world. Running Sweden Foodtech puts Jörgensen right at the heart of Stockholm’s vibrant food tech sector. He has supported and incubated a number of companies that have gone on to impact markets in the Nordics and beyond. Simris makes Omega 3 capsules from seaweed. Karma is an app that lets users buy unsold food from restaurants, keeping it from going to waste. matspar.se buys products nearing their sell-by date and resells them at lower prices. Some of the largest supermarkets in Sweden order produce through Stockfiller, which analyses and optimises the food supply chain and offers a one-stop shop for grocers and restaurant owners – reducing food waste, streamlining transport, and saving time.

“Stockholm is one of the fastest growing cities on the planet. If we succeed in creating a food tech sector here that affects the way the entire city eats — and we think we will — then it can serve as a model for the food tech revolution worldwide.” 

Stockholm’s food tech startups are pushing the boundaries for what can be done with produce, whether that’s creating new plant proteins or finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cows. “It’s progressive cities like Stockholm that are key building blocks in disrupting the current food system,” says Jörgensen. “The city has all the right ingredients for development of forward-thinking food technology: a solid tech sector that’s rivaled only by Silicon Valley, a health-conscious population, a friendly investment environment and strong public support of food tech.”

Thinking small, acting big

Natalie de Brun Skantz, Robin Lee and Petter Olsson want to upend the way food is produced in Sweden. As the co-founders of Grönska, Sweden’s largest urban vertical farm, they’re aiming to showcase the possibilities behind urban farming of herbs and vegetables on a large scale. Not long ago, while de Brun Skantz was writing her Master’s thesis on the value of urban farming, Lee and Olsson were tinkering with a vertical farming system inspired by Japanese technology in a basement in a southern suburb of Stockholm. The three met in 2016, and it didn’t take long before they had embarked on their current journey: building and developing Grönska, which now supplies many Stockholm grocery stores with herbs and microgreens. Grown hydroponically under LED lights, the greens are produced all year round, fitting right in with the city’s goal to become ever greener and cleaner. The team has also developed an in-store mini-vertical farm product where greens are grown right in the shop, as close to the end consumer as it can get. The system has become enormously popular with the health and climate-conscious shoppers in Stockholm. It’s small solutions like this one together with innovations that reach outside the nation’s borders, that all play important roles in Sweden’s becoming carbon neutral by 2045. 

In June 2019 Sweden became the first country in the world to openly publish its detailed plan for getting there. It did so with the release of Panorama, an online resource and dashboard that contains a digital roadmap for the country’s current and future climate actions. This includes progress reports, freely available for anyone to access. Stockholm startup Climate View was tasked with building the tool by the Swedish Climate Policy Council, as part of its efforts to help the country reach net-zero emissions. 

Launched in 2017 and now employing 10 full-time staff, Climate View works with cities, governments, public interest groups and citizens to gather real-time data about climate change, which is then shared among members in climate action ‘situation rooms’ online. The data is used to propose actionable steps that can be taken to address climate issues, to encourage faster and more efficient change. Best practices and new ways of tackling climate change are shared and discussed. As the network grows, so does both the impact of the data and the range of metrics available – with the ultimate goal of speeding up the process of climate transition across the world.

Exporting Stockholm’s food tech ventures

Cows generate more than 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The founders of Volta Greentech have a solution for that: adding the seaweed Aspargopsis to cow feed. It blocks the production of methane in cows without affecting their health, and reduces their methane emissions by up to 80 percent.

At the other end of the food production spectrum is food waste, which happens on an astounding scale around the world, with an estimated 1.3 billon tonnes of food tossed every year. System Semafor, an expiration date management and analytics system from Whywaste, aims to tackle that. Hundreds of grocery stores across Sweden use the system to drastically reduce the amount of food that they throw away. Founders Kristoffer Hagstedt, Martin Grådal and Sebastian Höglin Thordén are now working on exporting the technology to other European markets as well as the US.

As climate change makes itself felt across the world, it becomes ever more urgent to develop tools that can help us navigate future weather. Start-up Ignitia has been fast at work over the past 20 years developing a weather prediction model that is now helping thousands of small-scale farmers in tropical countries in Africa. Forecasting weather in the tropics is famously difficult and most weather models are designed for the more predictable mid-latitudes. Ignitia provides accurate 48-hour weather forecasts via SMS. The forecasts also feature monthly and seasonal predictions of the likelihood, timing and intensity of the weather, making it possible for farmers to plan harvests accordingly or prepare for stormy weather in advance.

The technology underground

Look beneath the ground in Stockholm and you’ll find proof of how the city is prepping for population growth: by making sewage part of how Stockholm keeps green. No one gets as excited about the stuff we flash down the toilet as Mårten Frumerie. As the newly minted CEO of Stockholm Water and Waste (Vatten och Avfall), the authority responsible for both sewage and drinking water management, he thinks a lot about how to make sure his city continues to have clean water for the foreseeable future.

“In Stockholm we have a long tradition of living close to water. Ask any Stockholmer and they’ll say we have amazing swimming holes and wonderful drinking water. But it didn’t used to be that way. Just 30 years ago, we’d get sick swimming in the city because the water quality was so bad. We’ve turned that around completely,” he says.

Take a bird’s eye view of Stockholm on a warm summer’s day and you’ll see thousands of people out on the city’s beaches, basking in the sun and frolicking in Lake Mälaren, which is also where the city gets its drinking water. It’s an image made possible by what happens under the city, in the sewage tunnels. “For a city of one million people that’s expected to grow by 25 percent in the next 20 years, it’s crucial that we continue to have great water quality, and that we produce more of it,” says Frumerie. 

That’s why the city has earmarked 10 billion kroner (around 1 billion USD) to expand the city’s drinking water works. An equivalent amount has already been invested in a new sewage treatment facility in the southeastern area of Henriksdal. Once the facility is up and running in 2026 it will be the largest of its kind in the world, treating sewage from the entire city.

The facility operates on a French-developed technology that filters sewage sludge through membranes and a series of pools housed in a 14-kilometre long “technology tunnel.” While traditional sewage works remove unwanted particles like nitrogen and phosphorous by filtering the sludge through sediment, this system also removes things like pharmaceutical residue and microplastics. Sludge that has passed through the membranes’ tiny porous channels can then be safely turned into biogas or used as fertilizer.

“I think we’re fortunate in Stockholm to have all the pieces for this puzzle: we have a lot of smart, well-educated people who have been crucial in developing the sewage plant. We have a top water treatment research centre, the Hammarby Sjöstadsverk, that we’ve worked closely with to test what works best for us,” says Frumerie. “And in Sweden it’s natural to work on technology that benefits the climate. We’re focused on creating sustainable cities of the future.”