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The innovation ecosystem of the Rotterdam Metropolitan Area came alive on September 22 and 23, as startups from around the world converged virtually for Unlocked 2020. All with the goal of solving circular challenges and earning business opportunities with local businesses and governments including Municipality of Rotterdam, KPN and Stadshaven Brouwerij/Bierfabriek. The two day event was organized by Unknown Group as a part of the city-wide Upstream Festival. The new virtual setup of Unlocked allowed the participation of international startups – from Canada to Singapore and Norway to the United States. After two intense days of dealmaking meetings, deep dive sessions and at least four committed pilot projects, it can definitively be said that Unlocked 2020 was a resounding success for Rotterdam’s innovation ecosystem.

The theme for this year’s edition of Unlocked was “Future Circular Cities”. Over 160 startups applied to various innovation challenges, with the ambition of landing tangible business opportunities and supporting the City of Rotterdam’s vision of circular being the standard in 2030. True to Rotterdam’s slogan of “Make It Happen”, these challenges tackled several areas, including maximizing the re-use of natural resources, repurposing waste, enhancing IoT connectivity and improving digital security. 


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Day 1 kicked off with a warm welcome to the startups from Jurgen Nieuwenhuijsen, Partner at Unknown Group. This was followed by dealmaking meetings attended by 21 startups from 9 countries in 5 different time zones where startups pitched their solutions to the challenge owners, exploring potential collaborations. After extensive deliberation, the representatives from the companies used their combined insights to rank the solutions that were pitched to them.

On Day 2, challenge owners had the opportunity to have a follow-up session with startups before making their final decision on which startup would earn a pilot project with them. Participating startups also had the opportunity – next to these innovation challenges – to be introduced to local ecosystem partners like Province of South Holland, Rotterdam Partners, Innovation Lighthouse, Eneco, and Leidmotiv for valuable connections. The event reached its final end of the day in the Daily Talkshow of Upstream Festival, where Hendrik Halbe (CEO & Co-Founder of Unknown Group) joined the Challenge owners to announce the pilot winners.


Pilot Projects

The final pilot announced was with Stadshaven Brouwerij/Bierfabriek. Their aim – to optimize and circularize their beer brewing processes. After meeting with numerous startups from around the world, they decided to award a pilot project to a local; StoredEnergy, a Schiedam-based startup that develops sustainable energy storage projects that use battery and hydrogen technology. Their innovation helps extend battery life significantly and facilitates the transition to a world that runs solely on solar and wind energy.

The Municipality of Rotterdam aimed to create a more circular economy by upcycling waste streams from the city. After numerous startup pitches and extensive deep-dive sessions on Day 2, they decided to award pilot projects to UK-based Deep Branch Biotechnology and Norway-based Bergen Carbon Solutions. Deep Branch Biotechnology developed a CO2-to-protein process that converts industrial emissions into animal feed. The CO2-negative technology of Bergen Carbon Solutions captures carbon dioxide directly from industrial chimneys to produce 100% environmentally friendly carbon nanofibers.

The last pilot announced was by KPN, which challenged startups to provide innovative, proven, and scalable 5G security solutions in the area of “Identity of Things”. After a rigorous selection process, they chose to award a pilot project to Cologne-based, Ubirch who has developed a blockchain-based trust infrastructure for (IoT) data. Ubirch recently launched the world`s first blockchain-on-a-sim solution, which empowers a tiny SIM card to blockchain-enable a whole vehicle and secure even the data from cars.

Hendrik Halbe, CEO of Unknown Group said: “If the region of Rotterdam wants to retain its competitive advantage and be a frontrunner in the world, we have to collaborate – involving the brightest and boldest startup solutions from around the world, and bringing them in to partner up with local ecosystem players”. He concluded: “It’s been fascinating to see challenge owners have intense deliberations about which startup solution is best suited for them – indeed, the Municipality of Rotterdam were pitched so many high quality startup solutions that they ended up picking two winners instead of one. This goes to show that innovation is intangible and that a game changing circular solution can come from anywhere.”


All relevant information on Unlocked can be found at