The “Carport Schindler”, which BE Netz AG was involved in, won a Solar Prize in 2020. Photo: Swiss Solar Prize 2020
More sustainability: these four SMEs and organizations are making progress
Each of them has sustainability in their DNA: we present two start-ups, one SME and an organization that are working towards improving sustainability in completely different ways.
BE Netz: Harnessing solar power for the climate
Year founded: 1994
Number of employees: 70
Head office: Lucerne
The business model
Whether in the F.C. Basel stadium, on Monte Generoso in Ticino, or on the factory roof of the Pilatus aircraft factory in Stans: to date, the employees at BE Netz, a general contractor for renewable energies in the field of building technology, has planned and installed over 2,700 renewable energy/energy efficiency solutions. It has mainly focused on photovoltaic installations for industrial and public buildings, but also on private housing and apartment buildings. This company, founded in 1994 under the name Kottmann Energie AG as a one-man pioneering business, has been trading on the market as BE Netz AG since 2004, and today employs around 70 staff.
The road to more sustainability
Adrian Kottmann founded his company with the philosophy that using renewable energies should be the norm. What was once just a vision has become reality. “There was a time when only a small minority wanted and could afford to use renewable energies. This has changed,” he explains. This is why BE Netz AG is currently fine-tuning its new vision. This covers things like the construction of EnergyPlus buildings, facade-integrated solar panels and the integral role of building maintenance engineers when it comes to new installations, he reveals. The one thing that must be retained, however, is consistent commitment to sustainability. This is also reflected by the staff in their private lives. “Many of them actually use renewable energies at home as well. Tenants have even set up a mini power plant, either in their garden or on their balcony.”
Adrian Kottman initially never expected his one-man business to one day turn into a company of 70 employees that is now active throughout Switzerland. “The idea of generating electricity and heat using solar power fascinated me back when I was studying,” says the electrical and energy engineer. A project he worked on during his studies ultimately turned into his very first job. “I had the opportunity to plan my first installation for the town of Sursee, and in doing so threw myself in at the deep end.” His next projects naturally followed on from that initial one. These days, the company based in Central Switzerland operates throughout the country.
Pressure on margins and the fight for survival on the market are intense. “If we want to survive as one of the few companies that is still independent in our industry, we need to be more innovative than our competitors that are either very large or growing very rapidly,” explains the owner of BE Netz AG. BE Netz AG is helped here by its motivated staff and their enthusiasm for complex projects. “We also like to handle special projects, and have experience in doing so.” One example of this was a large building where BE Netz AG installed a specially-designed set of panels on the entire building facade, or a PlusEnergy house where it installed solar panels on both the roof and facade.
How Adrian Kottmann strives to be sustainable in his private life
Even in his private life, Adrian Kottmann is all about renewable energies. He bought a house built in the 1930s, which he completely refurbished to preserve it, and went on to turn it into a Minergie®Plus house.
SmartBreed: sustainable foodstuff for farming
Year founded: 2019
Number of employees: 7
Head office: Zufikon
The business idea
SmartBreed’s business concept is for chickens in coops in Switzerland to be increasingly fed with locally bred insects instead of imported soya. The Aargau-based agrotechnology start-up has come up with a technical innovation in the form of a smart “incubator”, where grasshoppers can be bred fully automatically without any farming workload using sensor technology. Once the insects are mature, they are fed to the egg-laying hens as a sustainable foodstuff that is rich in protein. Three brothers founded SmartBreed: Christoph, Patrik and Adrian Bertschi.
The road to greater sustainability
“Animal feed in the form of living insects saves resources,” explains Christoph, the man responsible for sales and strategy at the start-up. Firstly because it replaces imported soy, which often requires sections of rainforest to be cleared for its cultivation, not to mention the large quantities of CO2 emitted to transport it. It also promotes a sustainable circular economy where the insects are solely fed with the waste products of farming, for instance grape pulp. This type of animal feed also improves the well-being of the animals too: as hens – which are not vegetarians, contrary to popular belief – normally spend hours hunting for food, this method means chickens spend less time just pecking at their feet and feathers out of sheer boredom, something we commonly see.
But how did these siblings, who neither grew up on a farm or worked in farming, end up working on feed for hens? Christoph Bertschi explains: “All three of us come from completely different professional backgrounds: Adrian has a master’s degree in nanotechnology, Patrik has a bachelor’s in law, and I have a master’s in banking and finance. We ended up focusing on insects by sheer chance.” But they all soon realized the potential in this area as insects can convert waste products into important sources of nutrition, like proteins. And so, in 2018, they began building a prototype incubator in their garage, which they kept working on until, two years later, they decided to quit their jobs and devote themselves entirely to their business idea. In autumn 2021, the start-up SmartBreed, which is also endorsed by the Swiss Climate Foundation, rolled out their patent for incubators across Switzerland.
The trio are already working on fine-tuning their invention, for instance by integrating cameras and artificial intelligence. They’re even looking at developing incubators for other species of insect. Cristoph Bertschi sees one of the key tasks as being able to convince potential customers that a) the solution is low-maintenance and b) it actually works. He also feels it’s important to convey the message that this idea was not their own original invention per se, but rather one inspired by the natural world. “In nature, too, grasshoppers are an important source of food,” he explains. For the time being, SmartBreed is focusing on the Swiss market. They are still aiming to expand into the German-speaking DACH region (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and other countries as well with their sustainable range.
How Christoph Bertschi strives to be sustainable in private
“I’m not vegetarian, but I have drastically reduced my meat consumption for the sake of the climate.”
unfahrpackt: shop sustainably and with a clear conscience
Year founded: 2020
Number of employees: 3
Head office: Lucerne
The business idea
A shopping experience that is as sustainable and straightforward as possible: this is exactly what unfahrpackt wants to offer its customers in Lucerne with its “unfahrpackt” store and online shop. What this means in practice is that unfahrpackt consistently avoids using disposable packaging, and makes sure its products are as locally sourced as possible. This is pretty much where their “Ackerhack” product comes from, a plant-based alternative to mincemeat from the Lucerne hinterland. Their oat drink comes from a company outside of Lucerne, and is made by a couple that left the dairy industry. And the jars of tofu are supplied from Basel by a Korean lady who makes it in the traditional Korean way she knows best. Shopping is straightforward because the products are already in reusable containers. This means customers don’t have to bring their own containers, or weigh what they want to buy. All they have to do is grab the product they want, and then return the empty container when they’re done with it. Orders from the online shop are delivered to the customer’s house – by bike, of course.
The road to more sustainability
“We gave serious thought to the impact our food could have on our carbon footprint, and we looked for a solution to make shopping sustainable,” explains Basil Gürber, who founded the business together with Luana Betschen and Ramona Jäger. For Basil personally, dealing with this issue isn’t a chore, but a labour of love. “I get a real thrill out of reading studies and finding out what really is the most sustainable alternative.” What’s more, from a business point of view, we have now come to a point in time where there really is no other choice than to make sustainability the priority.
Luana and Ramona came up with the concept for their unfahrpackt store while studying at the Lucerne School of Business (Höhere Fachhochschule für Wirtschaft). The decision to actually put it into practice was very spur of the moment: “The three of us went looking for a centrally-located, affordable store in Lucerne, and we found one. We said to ourselves: it’s now or never. In the end, we decided to give it a go,” explains Basil Gürber, who studied business communications and, like the other two, also has a salaried job. “We felt the idea was important, and that it was right. Right now it looks like it could prove a successful business model.” The team’s objective is to have as many full-time positions as possible and, by providing a wide range of products, to offer as many people as possible a sustainable, low-packaging way to shop in Lucerne.
To reach its goals, the company faces a number of challenges. First of all, unfahrpackt is constantly working on its pricing with the firm belief that it should be possible to shop sustainably regardless of wealth. Secondly, it wants to reduce delivery times. And finally, it is consistently expanding its range. “We feel we should be able to access all the products we ourselves need from our own store.” This is why the three of them are always scouting, mainly using Instagram. “We knew from the outset that this would be a marathon, not a sprint.”
How Basil Gürber strives to be sustainable in private
Sustainability is becoming increasingly important for Basil Gürber. “I try not to fly and to keep my carbonfootprint to a minimum through what I eat.”
Pro Natura (central association): islands where nature can recover
Year founded: 1909
Number of employees: 100
Head office: Basel
The idea behind the organization
Pro Natura is committed to protecting the diversity of animals, plants and habitats in Switzerland. The organization looks after 700 nature reserves. “These are islands where nature can recover,” explains Dieter Ulrich, Head of Finance and Administration with the Pro Natura central association. 250 km2 of land in total is under the protection of Pro Natura. This equates to 35 football pitches. Pro Natura also runs species conservation projects, for instance for the tree frog and field hare, and it also educates people about the environment in its conservation centres and through the work it does with schools. What’s more, the organization is politically active to give the natural world a voice.
The road to more sustainability
“If humanity lived in harmony with nature, we wouldn’t need conservation areas. But we’re a long way from that,” says Dieter Ulrich. “If we want to function as a society in the long term, we need our biodiversity to be intact, and this is exactly what we’re committed to preserving.” The importance of the natural world is something that has been ingrained in Dieter Ulrich since his childhood and youth. “My mother was a biologist, so it’s something I became aware of at an early age,” he explains. When he was given the opportunity five years ago to become Head of Finance with Pro Natura, he snapped at the chance to make conservation and environmental protection his career.
Pro Natura was founded in 1909 to turn the idea of creating a Swiss National Park in Engadin into a reality. Representatives of the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences (today the Swiss Academy of Sciences) at the time wanted to make space for nature, which had come under pressure from industrialization and tourism. Pro Natura has since become one of the biggest private conservation organizations in Switzerland. 170,000 members and 25,000 backers support Pro Natura through donations that are used to deploy specialists in various areas, such as water protection, forestry, agriculture, politics, environmental awareness, and to purchase land. Then you have the around 3,000 people who work for Pro Natura on a voluntary basis.
“Climate and environmental awareness has become increasingly significant over the past few years. Yet it often takes a long time for the appropriate action to be taken. A third of all animal and plant species in Switzerland are still under threat. We are still a long way from reaching our objective,” stresses Dieter Ulrich. This is why the oldest conservation organization in Switzerland is needed now more than ever. Pro Natura is committed to raising awareness of these issues, and in particular to highlighting the link between climate and biodiversity. After all, climate and biodiversity are intertwined in many ways. You can’t protect one without protecting the other.
How Dieter Ulrich strives to be sustainable in private
“I try to be as sustainable as possible in my day-to-day life,” explains Dieter Ulrich. He attempts to keep waste to a minimum by recycling, or by using sustainably generated electricity.