Koen Burgers: on SolarDuck leading the charge in offshore floating solar

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    • Innovation

Koen is the co-founder and CEO of SolarDuck, the Dutch leader in offshore floating solar plants. He started his career as a management consultant before he joined Damen Shipyards, where he was the Director of Strategy and Business Transformation.

It was while working at Damen Shipyards that Koen came up with the idea for SolarDuck, deploying large-scale solar power to energy-intensive areas in which space is increasingly scarce. “In taking solar out to sea, we open up space for a whole new frontier of solar development.”

The benefits of offshore floating solar plants

The advantages of remote solar plants are numerous. From being able to share infrastructure with complimentary offshore wind projects, receiving higher radiation and sunlight over the ocean, a slightly increased cooling effect, and the ability to deploy panels on such a large scale.

“The solution that we’ve developed consists of triangular-shaped platforms. The challenge is that they have to survive in wave, current and wind conditions.” The benefit of a triangular structure is its ability to rotate over three axes. When connected to hundreds of similar structures, it starts behaving like a carpet and becomes a simple solution to the complexities of handling wave capabilities.

Relevance of strategic partnership and early investments

Pitching the initial idea within Damen Shipyards, Koen does not underplay the benefits of having a strategic partner of this magnitude along for the ride. Whilst they couldn’t back the idea personally, Damen is a shareholder, on the cap table, a partner, and assists in producing their offshore plant components.

Whilst still at Damen, the team attended BlueInvest in Brussels, a European Union-organised meeting for entrepreneurs and investors. It was there that they found their first investor, a Norwegian accelerator, Katapult VC. Their one condition to give financial backing was a commitment from the team that they would be full-time employees and that their loyalties lay with SolarDuck.

“We thought about this for all of two seconds before jumping in. It was proof that we had something tangible from an investor’s point of view.” Since their investment, Katapault has been instrumental in supporting SolarDuck, not only financially but through their accelerator program.

From there, the company has gone from strength to strength, landing a number of impressive projects since its founding in just 2019. Currently, SolarDuck has joined forces with RWE to build the world’s largest offshore floating solar power plant right here in the Netherlands.

Game-changing projects and access to global markets

They are also involved with TNO’s Offshore Solar Platform in the North Sea and are building Japan’s first offshore floating solar demonstrator in Tokyo Bay alongside Tokyu Land Corporation and Everblue.

In landing these large-scale projects, Koen highlights the importance of having three experienced co-founders, coupled with the benefits associated with starting his entrepreneurial journey later than most in life, at age 40.

“Having some flying time already, you tend to have a bit of a larger network and access to people that you probably wouldn’t have if you were just coming out of school, so that helps.”

Overcoming the challenges of raising capital and building a team

From the very beginning, SolarDuck invested in business development parallel to technology development, which meant that they were exposed to developers like RWE very early on. In addition, their expertise meant making fewer rookie mistakes and therefore limiting the number of iterations in order to match the development pace required of a quickly maturing market.

They also made the strategic decision early on to focus on Southeast Asia as a large potential market by physically locating one of the founders in Tokyo. It was this choice that ultimately led to securing their beachhead project in Tokyo Bay.

After receiving seed funding, the team made the decision to hire a corporate finance boutique, finding the task of raising capital an entire job in and of itself. “We don’t have a full-time CFO, so preparing the materials, making sure that you come prepared for investor meetings is something that requires proper attention.”

Being helped by Impuls Corporate Finance in Utrecht, SolarDuck has grown the company to 20 employees and raised multiple rounds of funding. Because of the large amount of money required for reinvestment in demonstrators or technology development, finding the right support was crucial to their success.

Environmental impact and energy storage solutions

In looking to the future, SolarDuck is investigating some of the impacts that floating solar panels can have on the environment, including removing light from sensitive marine areas and hampering the growth of corals and sea grasses.

On the other hand, there looks to be positive benefits associated with creating an artificial reef, allowing mussels and clams to attach to the buoyant floating platforms. “It’s something we’re actively conducting research into. We want to have fact-based answers to these questions.”

As the network becomes more and more of an inhibiting factor in that solar panels can’t be connected to the grid anymore, offshore wind developments have an advantage in that they create their own grid, put in the substations, and then connect them back to shore.

“They’re already relatively closely located to the points where energy is used in the Netherlands. In the meantime we are looking into storage applications within the structure that we have that also allows for a much smoother offtake.”

Advice for fellow entrepreneurs

On advising others looking to take the entrepreneurial leap, Koen says to go for it. Seeking international collaboration has been a key part of their success, and should be part of any startup’s strategy. “Go internationally. The Netherlands could be called a province of Europe in many respects, and Europe is a province of the world.”

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