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Nuclear Startups

Viral Growth of Swedish Startup Is Making Nuclear Energy Cool

Kärnfull plans to do for nuclear power what Spotify did for music.

John Ahlberg launched a 100% nuclear electricity startup in August 2019 with co-founder Christian Sjolander. Growing almost entirely by word-of-mouth, they are now Sweden’s fastest organically growing utility, with plans to expand to other countries. Ahlberg tells me how they did it, and I search for lessons for the broader nuclear industry.

Marty Neumeier is a legend in Silicon Valley. He cut his teeth helping companies like Apple, Netscape, HP, Adobe, and Google build their brands, and now runs his own design firm. The best thing about him is he shares his secrets and encourages you to steal his ideas.

To help visualise how controversial ideas are adopted, Neumeier talks about the Four stages of buy-in:

Whenever someone presents a game-changing idea, the first reaction of colleagues is to call it “worthless nonsense.” As it begins to slowly take hold, the same colleagues label it “interesting, but perverse.” Later, when the idea is all but proven, they concede that it’s “true, but unimportant.” Finally, after success is assured, it passes the acceptance threshold and colleagues are quick to brag: “I always said so.” This pattern is so common that you can almost use it as a test for promising ideas. Extreme resistance is a leading indicator of extreme success.

Nuclear power’s journey the last twenty years has seen it move from “worthless nonsense” to “interesting, but perverse”. Can it break through to “I always said so”?

There is no better description of how public acceptance of nuclear power has changed over the last twenty years.

The world has woken up to the problems of climate change and habitat destruction. The scientific community tells us we need nuclear power. The public senses that renewables alone won’t save us. Yet something is stopping us from embracing nuclear power — we’re stuck just below Neumeier’s “threshold of acceptance”.

The threshold can feel like an impregnable ceiling. The harder you push, the harder it pushes back, until one day, when you least expect it, you break through. And when it happens, it happens quickly and it happens dramatically. You no longer need to sell your idea — other people start to sell it for you. In the startup world, we would call it “viral, organic growth”.

Christian Sjolander and John Ahlberg, founders of Kärnfull Energi.

A gap in the market

Christian Sjolander and John Ahlberg aren’t nuclear engineers, but they are proud that their home country, Sweden, is the poster-child for decarbonisation using nuclear power. After both being out of the country for some years, they returned to find nuclear lacking the political support needed to keep today’s plants running and to ensure a new generation replaces them.

“We saw neighbouring Germany failing miserably with Energiewende,” Ahlberg tells me, “locking in fossil gas and coal for the foreseeable future. We didn’t want to let that happen here in Sweden.”

Ahlberg supports an “all-of-the-above” approach to clean energy — both renewables and nuclear: “We need to be rational, not emotional or dogmatic, about how to scale up our stable, cost-efficient and clean power grid.”

Sjolander and Ahlberg knew that, in Sweden at least, there was significant public support for nuclear power (with 71% of people positive about it). They wondered whether they could take that passive support and turn it into something more substantial.

Even though it is low-carbon, nuclear was hidden away like an embarrasing relative. The idea of basing your whole brand around nuclear seemed insane.

In terms of Neumeier’s Four stages of buy-in, Sjolander and Ahlberg perceived support for nuclear in Sweden as sitting just below the threshold of acceptance; with the right nudge, it would burst through to other side. They could make supporting nuclear power go viral.

There was a gap in the market. Though exisiting utilities implictly sold nuclear electricity, all the hype was around 100% renewables products. No one was offering a 100% nuclear electricity tariff. Even though it is low-carbon, nuclear was hidden away like an embarrasing relative.

The idea of basing your offering around nuclear seemed insane. Sjolander and Ahlberg’s insight was to recognise that, while there is a vocal anti-nuclear minority, there is also a critical mass (pun intended) of people who are in favour of the technology and would be willing to support it financially — given the chance.

And so Kärnfull Energi was born: a pure-play, 100% nuclear electricity supplier. The word “Kärnfull” itself is wordplay. It means “vigorous, direct, earnest”, but “kärn” is also the Swedish word for “nucleus”.

The 100% nuclear tariff works in the same way as a 100% renewables tariff: Kärnfull buys certificates that guarantee the nuclear origin of electricty being supplied. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s currently the main way consumers can signal their preference for a given (or group of) energy sources.

Kärnfull’s branding is on point and appeals strongly to their core market: science-savvy, young, and predominantly urban Swedes. These are the people most concerned about climate change and, being young, they don’t have the visceral fear of nuclear held by those who grew up in the shadow of a potential nuclear war between the USSR and the West.

Kärnfull puts nuclear’s benefits front and centre.

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly how, but Sjolander and Ahlberg have managed to infuse some of that “Scandi cool” into their product. You know what I mean. In fact, they cite two of Sweden’s biggest startup successes, Spotify and Klarna, alongside Netflix, Uber and Airbnb, as key branding influences.

So have Kärnfull pushed nuclear through the threshold of acceptance and into “I always said so” in Sweden? Although they don’t share signup numbers, they say “100% nuclear” is now the second most popular choice of origin-guaranteed electricity in Sweden.

Interestingly, Kärnfull’s growth has been almost entirely organic; people are enjoying the product and sharing it with their friends and family. They have garnered a significant social media following and have been invited onto national radio in Sweden.

And if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the rise of copycat 100% nuclear products in recent months shows Kärnfull are onto something.

Simple is better

If electricity in Sweden is anything like in other countries, the array of products on offer can be overwhelming. “Electricity suppliers have never been of any interest to the public,” says Ahlberg, “and when mentioned it’s always been for the wrong reasons: lacklustre customer service, non-transparent contracts and overpriced add-ons. When we appeared, they saw something different.”

Kärnfull’s approach is similar to that of Bulb, a green energy supplier in the UK: keep things simple, offer a single, low-cost tariff and rely on the strength of your company’s story, as well as quality customer service, to attract and retain customers.

Choose your friends wisely

Another key strategy has been to sign up high-profile supporters of nuclear power to the Kärnfull advisory board. The board is pro-bono and includes well-known authors like Steven Pinker, renowned scientists and even famous musicians like Jose Gonzalez. This board affords Kärnfull trust and credibility through association. More than that, it sets an example: supporting nuclear is the right thing to do. It might even be the cool thing to do.

“There have always been influential people who believe in nuclear,” says Ahlberg, “but what they’ve never had before was something to point to and say, ‘If you believe what I believe, then buy this product or service’. That’s been a strong motivator for our advisors.”

Taking the long view

The image below is typical of the branding Kärnfull uses. It reads “Long-term electricity from 100% nuclear”, but the word “long-term” (långsiktig) is also “long sight” in Swedish, suggesting nuclear power allows for unspoilt views of nature. Unlike low-carbon alternatives such as solar and wind, nuclear delivers huge amounts of energy from a tiny footprint, leaving plenty of space for nature.

Kärnfull is also “långsiktig” in other ways. Although barely a year old, there are rumours the company is planning expansions into other countries. “Was this true?”, I asked Ahlberg.

“It’s humbling, and not something we would have expected a year ago,” he replied, “but, yes, it looks like a handful of countries may need to learn how to say ‘Kärnfull’ in a not too distant future.”

Setting an example

It’s hard to look at Kärnfull’s success and not wonder what it means for the broader nuclear sector. In countries with nuclear power, I’m sure this has made electricity utilities sit up, if for nothing else then out of fear that Kärnfull might appear in their country and start eating their market share.

At least in Sweden, building an entire brand around nuclear power has worked. Being bold about nuclear’s benefits has worked. Not talking about safety all the time has worked (of course they are safe).

Can Kärnfull’s success be repeated in France, the UK, the US? There’s at least a chance. Who knows? Maybe in five years’ time there’ll be millions of us saying: “I always said so.”

Generation Atomic is in no way affiliated with Kärnfull Energi (we just think they’re cool and that their business model is helping the planet), but if you are interested and live in Sweden you can sign up here (not a paid link).

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David de Caires Watson

David de Caires Watson

Nuclear futurist, chartered physicist, safety engineer, amateur birder and pedal power enthusiast. Writer for The Kernel mag. Founder of Atomic Trends.