Founder’s Story: Candela
From relieving the boredom of a desk job to a transport revolution, Candela could change your commute
Most people’s mid-life crises involve flashy cars or haircuts. They don’t involve quitting your job and setting up a revolutionary new company that could overhaul the future of transport. But then few people are like Gustav Hasselskog, the founder of electric boat company Candela.
Hasselskog had spent most of his career in management, but in 2014 he turned 40 and wanted to do something different with his working life. “I wanted to get back to product development in technology,” he says. He sought an intellectual challenge from his life. And so he left his job.
“I didn’t have anything to do,” he says. “I decided to give myself one year to figure out what I should become when I become a grown-up.”
At the time, Hasselskog and his family used to take holidays at a summer house in a nearby archipelago. He and his children would go out onto the nearby waters and go boating. But Hasselskog was uncomfortable at the impact that pastime had on the environment. The 25-foot day cruiser consumed 15 times more than a car per kilometre.
Hasselskog believed there had to be a better way to power boats than the gas-guzzling, polluting engines that had long typified the industry. The issue was that electric-powered drive trains weren’t the norm back in the mid-2010s, and they decidedly weren’t cool. “The coolest electric car before Tesla was a Prius, which wasn’t very cool at all,” he says. “Nothing was really done in boating.” So Hasselskog decided to devote the 12 months of freedom he had managed to obtain by saving his salary to finding an alternative.
He began researching the world of boats and seeing how he could turn them electric. He looked into different hull shapes for traditional vessels and quickly realised they weren’t feasible. Conventional slow boats can be electrified, but fast planing boats can’t: they consume too much energy and simply just don’t work. Hydrofoils, however, were feasible, and do work. Hasselskog began researching the early development of this technology, and found that those inventing the earliest aeroplanes would often test their wing designs in the water for safety’s sake — “they didn’t want to risk their life testing these things in the air,” he says. That inspired him to think about how to make a low-energy, environmentally-friendly seaborne vessel that would eventually become Candela’s vessels. “Those equations that I put up, I thought, this should work,” he says. “The physics was here. I just had to do it. Nobody had done it.”
Back of the envelope calculations convinced Hasselskog that he could cut the energy use by 80% through a hydrofoil-type design — enough to produce an electric boat with the range and speed to match fossil-fuelled powerboats. The design Hasselskog proposed would also generate no noise, and no wake — both boons that create a smoother ride. “I had burned some of those 12 months I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “I had like, half a year left. I thought, ‘Okay, let’s try to find somebody who can put some money into this,’ because I didn’t have the funds to do it.” Most of the doors to VC firms remained shut, but what became Candela managed to gain some initial seed funding at the start of 2015.
That was enough to kickstart development of the first prototype, which arrived 18 months later, in August 2016. The limits of the company because of the small amount of funding quickly became apparent. “We were pretty strong in control theory, and electronics and software, in carbon composite lightweight design, but not very strong in hydrodynamics. I basically thought: ‘It’s a wing that works on the water, how hard can it be?’ We had a lot of problems in that area.”
Hasselskog went back to the drawing board and entirely rethought the concept. It took until 2017 before Candela’s waterborne vessel was able to fly for the first time — a key part of any hydrofoil. That successfully worked, a second prototype followed and in August 2018, the firm began production of its first serial vessel, the Candela C-7, an open sports boat. “We were working day and night,” he says. The first of around 30 Candela C-7 vessels was shipped to customers in 2019, and are now found moored all over the world, from San Francisco to the Caribbean and Europe.
But Candela didn’t stand still: the team began development on a new generation of vessel, the mass-market C-8, and its own proprietary propulsion system, the C-Pod. They also began investigating the potential of expanding beyond small vessels for personal use to larger passenger ferries. “The market is bigger than leisure boats, and our technology can really lower the costs for operation,” Hasselskog says. Candela began negotiations with the city of Stockholm to work on ferrying passengers around the city’s waters in an environmentally-friendly manner. “We can see we can increase the speed a lot, and in some stretches we can half the commuting time for people, whether they go on bus or subway,” he explains. The hydrofoil technology not only allows the P-30 to cover even the longest routes today served by diesel ferries, but its low energy usage will also allow the city to cut operational costs by almost half, according to the city’s calculations. “I think we’re going to see a movement of passengers into this type of transportation.”
It was Candela’s connection with Stockholm that first got EQT Ventures interested in the company. In the summer of 2021, they announced a pilot plan to launch electric ferries around the city. “For us, that is an extremely interesting step on the start-up journey,” says Lars Jörnow, founding partner at EQT Ventures.
Today, urban waterways are unused for public transport. City planners regard them as obstacles that must be overcome by building bridges or digging tunnels. Candela’s vision was to use these waters — mankind’s oldest infrastructure — for fast cross-connections, making use of high-speed electric hydrofoil shuttles that could reduce commuting times, at a very low cost for taxpayers.
Despite this, leading a €24 million Series A round in the company in December 2021 was a risk some VC firms wouldn’t have taken. “We aspire to do some contrarian bets,” says Jörnow. “We can’t all just back fintech or B2B software.”
But contrarian bets are what got Candela to where it is today. “Gustav saw, way before everyone else, this visionary perspective and started with this crazy project eight years ago even before electric cars were beginning to become a thing,” says Jörnow.
Today, Candela is a 80-strong company that’s on track to employ 200 by the end of 2022. It’s moving into new facilities in Sweden that will allow it to expand further faster. The new C-8 has more than 100 orders, outselling some established traditional powerboat brands, while the first Candela hydrofoil ferry will enter the water in late 2022. There are still choppy waters ahead — “it’s a shitstorm of technical problems, supply chain problems and production problems,” admits Hasselskog. But what keeps him going is the passion to keep on building. “Our first investor, who was kind of the only one who believed at the time in what we’re doing, has a saying when I’m down,” says Hasselskog. “He says: ‘What so damn special with this problem? Of all the problems you have tried to solve so far, how many have you not solved?’”
The answer, of course, is zero.