Startups and technology


For European startups, the US is still the land of opportunity

With under 2 million people, a landmass that’s half the size of Greece, and a recent history of communist rule, Latvia doesn’t have textbook foundations for building world-leading businesses. But building a world-leading business is exactly what Latvia’s Printful did. In 2021, the on-demand printing startup was valued at over $1 billion, making it the country’s first-ever unicorn.

To reach the local landmark, Printful took an international route. But rather than focus on its home continent of Europe, the company set its sights on the US.

“We wanted to make something big — and to this day, there is no bigger market than the United States for technology companies,” Davis Siksnans, the co-founder and former CEO of Printful, told TNW at the TechChill conference in Riga, Latvia, earlier this year. 

“We’re glad that we had some people from Latvia who were willing to uproot themselves and move to the United States and work there on the ground.”

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It’s a move that Hussein Kanji wants more European entrepreneurs to make. As a partner at Hoxton Ventures, a VC investor based in London, Kanji has backed some of the continent’s most successful startups, including the unicorns Deliveroo and Darktrace. 

His firm selects these businesses because it believes they can become category-defining companies. To reach this level, Kanji wants more founders to look stateside.

“Once you’ve built something and validated that it’s actually good relative to its peers, you should be focused on the US market as early as possible — you’re going to build a bigger company,” Kanji told TNW.

As a Stanford University graduate who’s worked for both startups and tech giants in the United States, Kanji has extensive experience with the rewards on offer in the country. He also has the data to substantiate his views. In new research, Hoxton Ventures found that nearly all European startups with over $500mn in revenue have succeeded by winning the US market. 

Slide showing European startups that achieved success in the US
Companies from across the continent have found success in the US. Credit: Hoxton Ventures

For European startups, the US market has numerous attractions. It’s got more customers, more capital, and more talent. There’s also the powerful network effects that fizzle across Silicon Valley.

The allure was irresistible for Printful. In classic startup style, the company’s founders built their early business from a garage in California. 

“We leveraged a physical presence in the United States, which gave us immediate credibility with the customers there,” Siksnans said.

The move soon paid off. After four years of focusing on the US, Printful reached $46mn in revenue.

Still, not everyone is willing to migrate. Many European founders prefer to stay closer to home for familial, social, or patriotic reasons. Others are concerned about the risks of relocating.

The US is way more expensive, way more competitive, and you’re way more likely to fail… but if you win, you win so much bigger,” Kanji said. “And we don’t care so much about the failure side — we care about the winning side.”

Risk and reward

Companies from larger countries are often reluctant to cross the Atlantic because they’re confident that their home market is already big enough. Startups from smaller countries, meanwhile, may prefer to target another European nation for its early European expansion. Geographical proximity, cultural connections, and personal relationships can make the local moves more alluring.

When these arguments are made to Kanji, he advises them to start in the US and then return to Europe when they’re on a winning streak. To his chagrin, they don’t always agree.

“The majority of the time, we probably fail to convince them because a lot of people are minimizing risk, and they have more close relationships in Europe,” he said. “But our view is we can help plug in some of the relationships.”

Black and white photo of Hussein Kanji
Kanji holds an MBA from London Business School and an undergraduate degree in Symbolic Systems from Stanford. Credit: Hoxton Ventures

He also reassures the doubters that Silicon Valley is very accommodating towards expats and new faces. The majority of tech workers in the region are foreign-born, and around half of its ‘unicorn’ startups were founded by immigrants. 

It’s also a place that’s accustomed to power players suddenly emerging from out of nowhere. When Mark Zuckerberg was creating a creepy hot or not clone at Harvard, who could have predicted that he would soon transform the online world? 

Such developments are hard to predict, which has encouraged the Valley to welcome new people and ideas. The cofounder of Stripe, for instance, moved there when he was still a teenager after his company had failed to draw financial support in his home country of Ireland. Nine years later, he was the youngest self-made billionaire in the world.

“The Valley is very accommodating towards new stuff — and the new stuff doesn’t have to just be American,” Kanji said. “It could be Swedish, it could be Estonian — but you have to be physically there, building those networks and relationships. If you’re far away, it’s a little less accommodating, because there’s still this bias in the Bay Area that the good stuff gravitates to the Bay Area.”

Taking the first steps

Kanji doesn’t advise leaving Europe as soon as an idea emerges. Startups first need to establish their initial product market fit, determine its worth, and get feedback. Once the value has been established, the founder can move to the US. The rest of the team, however, is often better built at home.

One drawback of the US is the high salaries of tech workers. There are also always bigger companies who want to poach the top talent. In Europe, these costs and risks are lower. 

At Printful, the best balance was dividing roles across regions. While the startup’s founders established a presence in the US, they built their team of developers, designers, and marketers in their home region.

“Very quickly, we learned that even though the target market was the United States, we didn’t necessarily need all the teams on the grounds in the US, because we have a good selection of talent here in Latvia,” Siksnans said.

A Printful founder, however, remained in the US. It’s an approach that has often yielded impressive results.

Phill Robinson, a former Salesforce CMO and CEO of Dutch software giant Exact, has also experienced the benefits. Robinson recently returned to his home country of the UK to found the startup platform Boardwave, which aims to replicate Silicon Valley’s network effects in Europe. Yet he acknowledges that startups targeting the US still need a leader on the ground.

“You’ve got to have your founder move to the States, or a significant part of your management team,” Robinson told TNW. “You’ve got to understand the product market fit, because it might be slightly different. You can’t just rock up with a bunch of salespeople and keep selling more products.”

Phil Robinson, the founder of Boardwave, speaking on a stage
Robinson shared his ideas on building European tech leaders at TNW Conference. Credit: Boardwave

At the same time, Robinson insists that moving to the US isn’t the only option. He notes that access to capital is improving and that startups are now scaling more quickly. A recent report from Dealroom made similar observations. 

The study found that Europe now attracts 20% of global VC funding — compared to under 5% two decades ago — and more than a third of the global investments at early-stage. The continent’s flock of unicorns, meanwhile, has grown by 88% since 2014. In the US, they’ve only increased by 56%. 

Overall, however, the biggest opportunities to scale remain in the US. For Kanji, European founders with ambitions to be global leaders will often face a tricky choice: Stay home and minimise the risk of failure, or move to the US and maximise the chance of success.

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AI can copy human social learning skills in real time, DeepMind finds

Human intelligence heavily depends on acquiring knowledge from other humans — accumulated through time as part of our cultural evolution. This type of social learning, known in literature as cultural transmission, enables us to imitate actions and behaviours in real time. But can AI also develop social learning skills the same way?

Imitation learning has long been a training approach for artificial intelligence, instructing the algorithms to observe humans complete a task and then try to mimic them. But usually AI tools need multiple examples and exposure to vast amounts of data to successfully copy their trainer.

Now, a groundbreaking study by DeepMind researchers claims that AI agents can also demonstrate social learning skills in real time, by imitating a human in novel contexts “without using any pre-collected human data.”

Specifically, the team focused on a particular form of cultural transmission, known as observational learning or (few-shot) imitation, which refers to the copying of body movement.

DeepMind ran its experiment in a simulated environment called GoalCycle3D, a virtual world with uneven terrain, footpaths, and obstacles, which the AI agents had to navigate.

To help the AI learn, the researchers used reinforcement learning. For those unfamiliar with Pavlov’s work in the field, this method is based on offering rewards for every behaviour that facilitates learning and the desired result — in this case, finding the correct course.

At the following stage, the team added expert agents (either hard-coded or human-controlled) that already knew how to navigate the simulation. The AI agents understood quickly that the best way to reach their destination was to learn from the experts.

The researchers’ observations were twofold. Firstly, they found that the AI not only learned faster when mimicking the experts, but also that it applied the knowledge it had gained to other virtual paths. Secondly, DeepMind discovered that the AI agents could still use their new skills even in the absence of the experts, which, according to the study’s authors, constitutes an example of social learning.

While the authors note that more research is needed, they believe that their method can pave the way “for cultural evolution to play an algorithmic role in the development of artificial general intelligence.” They also look forward to further interdisciplinary cooperation between the fields of AI and cultural evolutionary psychology.

Despite its early stage, DeepMind’s breakthrough could have significant implications for the artificial intelligence industry. Such an advancement has the potential to reduce the traditional, resource-intensive training of algorithms, while increasing their problem-solving capabilities. It also raises the question of whether artificial intelligence could ever learn to acquire social and cultural elements of human thought.

The full study is published on the journal Nature Communications.


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7 most in-demand programming languages for 2024

As a new year approaches, you might be curious to see whether your programming skills are still in demand or whether you should consider up-skilling for the best opportunities.

Hundreds of coding languages have emerged over the years; no matter what you’re hoping to create, there is no doubt a programming language out there for it.

So which are standing the test of time and which are worth boning up on? Here are seven that are set to emerge or remain in demand in 2024 and beyond.


Hailed for its versatility and dev velocity, Python has steadily climbed the programming language charts over the past few years. It’s considered a useful language for working with AI, and Statista reports it was the third most used language of 2023, behind JavaScript and HTML/CSS.

The TIOBE Index, which factors search volume popularity into its rankings, currently lists Python in the number one spot.

Its power lies in its ability to automate tasks and improve workflows. Skilled software engineers with strong Python skills are in demand right now and will continue to be.

Python developers are natural problem-solvers, always looking for ways to optimise and improve processes.

If Python is your language of choice, Tech for Good is hiring a senior Python engineer to help develop a healthcare product that enables users to better manage their patient experience. It’s a UK-based remote role, though you will collaborate with a small, globally distributed team across the US, New Zealand and, eventually, Europe. Curious? See the requirements here.


Since its creation in 1995, Java has been a solid and steady performer. A survey of 14 million developer jobs earlier this year put Java as the third most in-demand programming language.

Widely used in everything from web development to cloud computing, Internet of Things applications and large-scale enterprise tools, it’s commonly seen as a language that offers excellent job security.


Depending on who you ask, this 28-year-old programming language is either making a comeback – or never went away. Mainly used for web development, PHP skills continue to be sought after on the job market. Over 77% of websites still rely on it and one in every 10 dev jobs calls for it.

If you’re a PHP dev with a love of web culture, Belgian IT company Smals is looking for a PHP lead developer to help create websites for various Belgian federal and regional institutions. Working with a multidisciplinary team, you will work on project definition and design of open-source products and translate customer needs into cutting-edge digital solutions. Find out more about the role here.


C++ continues to be one of the most popular programming languages out there, thanks to its versatility and high performance.

Widely used in the gaming industry, as well as for system-level programming, where interactions with hardware are crucial, there is a constant demand for C++ developers across a wide range of industries, translating into strong job security.


Popular for both Android and cross-platform app development, Kotlin is supported by Google, which announced it as an official language for Android development in 2017. Since then, it has steadily grown in popularity.

Fintech company SumUp is currently seeking a senior backend Kotlin engineer to work with the product development team in Paris on an in-app point-of-sale solution. Used by millions of businesses around the world, you’ll use Kotlin daily to support a large-scale fintech product. You can learn more about the role here.


A key language in the Microsoft tech stack, C# is used for building web apps, Windows desktop apps and in-game development. Consistently in demand at small organisations and enterprise-level businesses, the C# syntax will look really familiar to you if you’ve spent time with a classic language like Java, so it can be a good one to upskill into.


Thanks to its adaptability, JavaScript will continue to be one of the most in-demand programming languages out there. Used primarily for front-end web development (over 98% of all websites use it in some way), every tech device you interact with, from your laptop to your phone to your smart TV, makes use of it to create dynamic, interactive content.

If you’re looking for a new opportunity, ConnectingTheDots is looking for a backend JavaScript developer. In this role, you would work with a team in Zwolle creating landing pages for global campaigns, festivals, and major product launches. As well as extensive JavaScript experience, a role like this also calls for experience with e-commerce tools like Salesforce Commerce Cloud and proficiency with UX/UI software. For more information, head here.

For hundreds more career opportunities featuring a wide range of programming languages, start browsing The House of Talent Job Board today

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‘Quantum-first’ microscope could solve chip inspection roadblock

Oh, the wonderful and mind-twisting world of quantum mechanics. However, in order to harness the magic-like potential of bending qubits to one’s will, there is a whole lot of nitty gritty engineering that needs to occur. 

The quantum revolution will not happen unless an entire ecosystem comes together, each part reaching the highest potential of its own expertise. 

And plenty of that development is happening in the Netherlands. Just today, Dutch startup QuantaMap announced it had secured €1.4mn in funding for its quality assurance tech for the production of quantum computer chips.

Quantum chips are not like regular computer chips, on many different levels (let’s set operating principles and data processing aside for now). One of these is that when they do not work like they should, there is not really any way of finding out why, and what has failed. This is to a great extent because it is so difficult to measure properties of the quantum chips without disturbing the qubits in the process. 

QuantaMap, based in Leiden, the Netherlands, has developed what it calls a “quantum-first” microscope that will allow both quantum researchers and chip manufacturers to closely inspect every chip and improve quality. 

What sets its technology apart, the startup says, is a combination of cryogenic scanning technology with quantum sensors, both specifically designed for quantum applications. 

“We are convinced that our technology will be instrumental for making good on the promises of quantum computing, enabling the societal advances that quantum technology can deliver,” said QuantaMap co-founder Johannes Jobst.

QuantaMap was founded in November 2022 by Jobst, Kaveh Lahabi, Milan Allan, and Jimi de Haan. The funding round includes investment from QDNL Participations, a fund that will invest €15mn into early-stage Dutch quantum computing startups in the coming years. 

Ton van ‘t Noordende, the fund’s managing director, said that QuantaMap’s unique combination of cryogenic scanning-probe microscopy and custom quantum sensors would solve the crucial challenge of producing reliable quantum chips. 


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New AI tool aims to democratise high-res image generation

In the world of AI image generation, tools like DALL-E and Midjourney are holding the crown — and not simply because of their high-resolution performance. The training of these models requires such substantial investment and resources that it inevitably leads to centralised services and pay-per-use access.

A new AI tool developed by the University of Surrey aims to reverse this trend and democratise the technology, by opening up high-res image generation to a wider audience.

Dubbed DemoFusion, the model allows users to generate high-quality images without the need to subscribe to a service, or own a very powerful computer. In fact, the system only requires consumer-grade RTX 3090 GPU that can be found in any mid-range gaming PC or a Mac M1.

The AI is essentially a plug-and-play extension to the Stable Diffusion XL (SDXL) open-source model, which generates images at a resolution of 1024×1024. DemoFusion enables 4x, 16x, or even higher increase in resolution — with a few simple lines of code and without any additional training. The only trade-off according to the team is “a little more patience.” We tried it at TNW and it’s about six minutes.

SDXL vs DemoFusion AI image generator
Credit: University of Surrey
On the left side: the result by SDXL. On the right side, the result by DemoFusion. Credit: University of Surrey

To achieve these high-res results, the scientists first generated low-res images and then enhanced them using a process called progressive upscaling. This improves the SDXL’s detail and resolution by working across images in patches.

“For the first time, our unique technique lets users enhance their AI-generated images without the need for vast computing power, or any re-training of the model,” said Professor Yi-Zhe Song.

“Digital art and imagery is a powerful medium which everyone should have access to — not just a handful of wealthy corporations. That’s why we made DemoFusion publicly available. We believe it can enrich our lives, and everyone should be able to use it.”

The new technique is available online in the paper “DemoFusion: Democratising High-Resolution Image Generation with No $$$.”

Whether DemoFusion will gain enough traction to compete with giants like OpenAI’s DALL-E remains to be seen, but its creation is an important step to opening up AI’s image-generation potential to the public and the wider tech community.


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Mistral AI nears $2B valuation — less than 12 months after founding

European contributions might have been a little late to join the generative AI investment party, but that does not mean they will not end up rivalling some of the earlier North American frontrunners. According to people familiar with the matter, Mistral AI, the French genAI seed-funding sensation, is just about to conclude the raising of about €450mn from investors. 

Unlike Germany’s Aleph Alpha who just raised a similar sum, most investors come from beyond the confines of the continent. The round is led by Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, and also includes backing from Nvidia and Salesforce. 

Sources close to the deal told Bloomberg that Andreessen Horowitz would invest €200mn in funding, whereas Nvidia and Salesforce would be down for €120mn in convertible debt, although this was still subject to change. If it goes through, this would value the Paris-based startup at nearly $2bn — less than a year after it was founded. 

Mistral AI was one of the few European AI companies to participate in the UK’s AI Safety Summit held at Bletchley Park last month. The generative AI startup released its first large language model (LLM), Mistral 7B, under the open source Apache 2.0 licence in September. 

Targeting dev space with smaller size LLMs

The key thing that sets Mistral apart is that it is specifically building smaller models that target the developer space. Speaking at the SLUSH conference in Helsinki last week, co-founder and CEO Arthur Mensch said this was exactly what separates the philosophy of the company from its competitors.

“You can start with a very big model with hundreds of billions of parameters — maybe it’s going to solve your task. But you could actually have something which is a hundred times smaller,” Mensch stated. “And when you make a production application that targets a lot of users, you want to make choices that lower the latency, lower the costs, and leverage the actual populated data that you may have. And this is something that I think is not the topic of our competitors — they’re really targeting multi-usage, very large models.”

Mensch, who previously worked for Google DeepMind, added that this approach would also allow for strong differentiation through proprietary data, a key factor for actors to survive in the mature application market space. 

Mistral AI and the reported investors have all declined to comment on the potential proceedings.


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Tree-planting search engine Ecosia launches ‘green’ AI chatbot

With COP28 underway in Dubai making it again glaringly obvious just how little lawmakers are prepared to bend for the sake of future generations of Earthlings, the release of the first “green filter” generative AI search chatbot could not have been more timely. 

Berlin-based Ecosia, the world’s largest not-for-profit search engine, hopes the launch of its new product will assist users in making better choices for the planet, and further differentiate its offerings from the “monolithic giants” of internet search. 

Powered by OpenAI’s API, Ecosia’s chatbot has a “green answers” option. This triggers a layered green persona that will provide users with more sustainable results and answers. Say, suggest train rides over air travel.

GenAI + DMA = search market disruption?

Ecosia, which uses the ad revenue from its site (read, all its profits) to plant trees across the globe, is among the first independent search engines to roll out its own GenAI-powered chatbot. When speaking to TNW last month, Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll stated how important it was for small independent players to stay up to date with the technology. 

Further, he highlighted the opportunities generative AI could present in terms of disrupting the status quo in the internet search market. “I think there is potential for us to innovate as well — and maybe even leapfrog some of the established players,” he said. 

Upon the launch of the company’s “green chatbot,” Kroll today added that the past year had introduced more change to the internet search landscape than the previous 14 combined (Ecosia was founded in 2009). “Generative AI has the potential to revolutionise the search market — no longer does it cost hundreds of billions to develop best-in-class search technologies,” he said, adding that Ecosia was targeting a “global increase in search engine market share.” 

Something else that could potentially disrupt the market is the coming into play of the EU Digital Markets Act. From March 2024 onwards, consumers will no longer be “encouraged” to use default apps on their devices (say Safari web browser on an iPhone, or Google Maps on an Android device). This may come to include offering users a “choice screen” when setting up a device, which would invite them to select which browsers, search engines, and virtual assistants to install, rather than defaulting to the preferences of Apple and Android. Ecosia says it is “pushing hard” for this provision.

Green chatbot powered by clean energy

Many companies pay lip service to sustainability. Ecosia actually puts its money where its mouth is. A few years ago, its founder turned Ecosia into a steward-owned company. This means that no shares can be sold at a profit or owned by people outside of the company. In addition, no profits can be taken out of the company — as previously mentioned, all profits go to Ecosia’s tree-planting endeavours. 

“It [tree planting] is one of the most effective measures we can take to fight the climate crisis. But unfortunately, it’s often not done properly. So that’s why it also gets a lot of criticism,” Kroll told TNW. 

“We’re trying to define the standards of what good tree planting means. So first of all, you count the trees that survived, not just the ones that you have planted — then you also have to check on them.” This, we should add, falls under the purview of Ecosia’s Chief Tree Planting Officer. To date, the community has planted over 187,000,000 trees and counting. 

In addition, Ecosia’s search engine is powered by solar energy — accounting for 200% of the carbon emitted from the server usage and broader operations. 

LLMs and CO2 are still an undisclosed relationship

You may ask how adding generative AI to a search function is compatible with an environmental agenda. After all, Google’s use of generative AI alone could use as much energy as a small-ish country

Ecosia admits that it does not yet have “oversight of the carbon emissions created by LLM-based genAI functions,” since OpenAI does not openly share this information. However, initial testing indicates that the new GenAI function will increase CO2 emissions by 5%, Ecosia said, for which it will increase investment in solar power, regenerative agriculture, and other nature-based solutions. 

Environmental credentials aside, a search engine still has to perform when it comes to its core function. “For us to compete against monolithic giants that have a 99% market share, we have to offer our users a product they’ll want to use day in, day out,” Michael Metcalf, chief product officer at Ecosia, shared. “That means not only offering a positive impact on climate action, but a best-in-class search engine that can go head-to-head with the likes of Bing and Google.” 

Metcalf added that user testing had shown very positive feedback on the company’s sustainability-minded AI chatbot. “We’re going to market with generative AI products before peers precisely because we want to grow: Grow our user base, grow our profits, and then grow our positive climate impact — which is mission critical for our warming planet.”

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This giant dome battery cuts CO2 emissions — by using more CO2

Renewable energies like wind and solar are clean, abundant, and cheap — but notoriously unpredictable. That’s why so much time and money has been pumped into scaling energy storage solutions: we need to keep the lights on even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

While lithium-ion batteries have received the bulk of this investment, there’s another kid on the block that could be cheaper and greener. In an ironic twist, the whole system is powered by the same molecule it is attended to fight — carbon dioxide. 

Imaginatively, it is called the CO2 battery. The way it works is relatively simple. CO2 gets stored in a gigantic dome. When charging, the system pulls the gas from the dome, compresses it into a liquid and stores it in big carbon steel tanks. The compression process also produces heat which is stored in ‘bricks’ made of steel shot and quartzite for later use.  

Then, when power is needed, the liquid carbon dioxide is heated up using the hot bricks, rapidly turning it back into a gas — which refills the dome. On its way back to the dome, however, the gas spins a turbine, producing electricity.

an image of Energy Dome's pilot plant in Sardinia, Italy
Energy Dome’s first pilot plant near Ottana on the island of Sardinia, Italy. Credit: Energy Dome

And what about all the CO2 to fill that dome, you may ask? Well, it’s a closed-loop system so you only need to inject gas into the dome once across the battery’s entire 30-year lifespan. So by using a pinch of CO2 it can support the rollout of renewable energies that can cut our emission of the gas altogether. 

‘Half the cost of lithium-ion’

The brainchild of Italian startup Energy Dome, the battery builds upon existing compressed air and liquid air energy storage technologies. Except, the use of CO2 brings a couple of distinct advantages. 

Pure carbon dioxide is a lot denser than air, which means you can store the same amount of energy in a much smaller space. Up to ten times smaller than compressed air, in fact. And while liquid air energy storage is admittedly more space efficient than either CO2 or compressed air, it must be cooled to almost -200 degrees Celcius to achieve the desired results. This requires a lot of energy, which cuts efficiency, and is why liquid air energy storage has struggled to compete with other storage technologies on cost. 

But affordability is exactly where CO2 batteries excel. They’re built using steel, carbon dioxide, and water. That’s it. The rest of the components — like pipes, compressors, and turbines — can be purchased off the shelf. According to Energy Dome, this means its system can produce electricity at half the cost of lithium-ion batteries. 

Those are some impressive figures, which have naturally caught the attention of investors. At COP28 last week, Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the European Investment Bank jointly committed €60mn to help Energy Dome build its first commercial-scale plant on the island of Sardinia, Italy. This adds to the €80mn in funding the startup has already secured. 

‘Game-changing technology’

The CO2 battery will store some 20MW of renewable energy supplied by nearby solar and wind farms on the island. Energy Dome already built a demonstration plant on the island last year. The smaller, 2.5MW, facility is currently operating and transmitting power to the grid. 

Gelsomina Vigliotti, vice president at the EIB, called the initiave an “inspiring example of game-changing technology that we need more of in Europe and worldwide”. 

Energy Dome’s founder, Claudio Spadacini, said the Sardinia plant will be the “first of many identical full-scale CO2 batteries”. The company said that the modular, simple design of its CO2 battery means it can be scaled relatively rapidly. 

The company has already signed a deal with Norwegian wind energy giant Ørsted to install “one or more” of the CO2 batteries at its sites in Europe. If all goes well, construction on the first storage facility using Energy Dome’s CO2 battery could begin in 2024.

lithium production in Chile
Brine evaporation pools at a lithium mine in Argentina. The environmental costs of lithium mining are not always factored into the pricetag of the batteries that they are used to produce. Credit: Anita Pouchard Serra/Bloomberg

While lithium-ion batteries will no doubt continue to play an important role in the energy transition, the negative environmental and social consequences of their production have been thrown into the spotlight in recent years. They rely on a number of rare earth metals like lithium, nickel, and cobalt, the mining of which has been linked to extensive environmental degradation and even human rights abuses the world over.

If CO2 batteries can circumvent some of these impacts and undercut lithium-ion on cost, who knows, perhaps they could become the next big thing in energy storage.

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Bluebird-inspired material could boost battery life

The eastern bluebird isn’t simply beautiful to look at. Its feathers also feature a unique structure that could revolutionise sustainable applications such as batteries and water filtration.

Specifically, the brilliant blue of the bird’s wings isn’t the result of colour pigmentation. Instead, it’s due to a network of channels with a diameter of a few hundred nanometres, traversing the feathers.

This network structure inspired researchers at ETH Zurich to replicate this material in the lab. They have now developed a synthetic material that exhibits the same structural design of the bluebird’s feathers — with the potential to deliver practical use cases, such as improved battery life.

The researchers experimented with a transparent silicone rubber that can be both stretched and deformed. They placed it in an oily solution, leaving it to swell for several days in an oven heated at 60 °C. They then cooled and extracted it.

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The team observed that the rubber’s nanostructure had changed during the procedure and they identified similar network structures to the ones in the bluebird’s feathers. The only essential difference was the thickness of the formed channels: the synthetic material was 800 nanometres next to the feather’s 200 nanometres.

Bluebird feather structure and synthetic material replication
The microstructure of a feather (B) of the eastern bluebird (A) and on the right the same structure from the lab (D) and the material developed (C). Credit: Fernández-​Rico, C., et al. Nature Materials, 2023

The achievement was a result of the new method based on the phase separation of a polymer matrix and an oily solution. Phase separation is a common physics phenomenon we’ve all witnessed in our everyday life. For instance, think of a salad dressing made of oil and vinegar — the substances separate unless vigorously shaken and separate again when the shaking stops.

But it’s also possible to mix the substances with heating and separate them again with cooling — and that’s exactly what the scientists did in the lab.

“We are able to control and select the conditions in such a way that channels are formed during phase separation. We have succeeded in halting the procedure before the two phases merge with each other completely again,” said Carla Fernández Rico, lead author of the study.

A notable advantage of this method is that the material remains scalable. “In principle you could use a piece of rubbery plastic of any size. However, you’d then also need correspondingly large containers and ovens,” added Rico.

The technology could prove useful in batteries by replacing liquid electrolytes, which facilitate the transfer of lithium ions between the electrodes, but often react with the ions and, this way, reduce battery capacity and health. Solid electrolytes with a network structure like the one developed by the researchers would not only eliminate the issue, but also enable good ion transport and increase battery life.

Water filters are another potential field of application thanks to the network’s transport properties and large surface area, which could enable the removal of contaminants, including bacteria and other harmful water particles.

Rico aims to further develop her research with a view to sustainability and notes that the team’s work is far from over.

“The product is still a long way from being ready for market,” she said. “While the rubbery material is cheap and easy to obtain, the oily phase is quite expensive. A less expensive pair of materials would be required here.” Perhaps DeepMind’s deep learning tool could be of service.

The full study is published in the journal Nature Materials.

Bluebird-inspired material could boost battery life Read More »


Ariane 6 rocket set to restore Europe’s space access next year

The European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 rocket is scheduled for its debut launch in mid-2024, its director Josef Aschbacher announced yesterday.

The news follows a successful hot-fire test on November 23 at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana. The term ‘hot-fire’ refers to the fact that the engine is fired with its propellants, producing actual combustion and exhaust. The only difference from an actual launch is that the boosters are not ignited — keeping the rocket firmly planted to the ground.

“With the latest test complete, Ariane 6 has been through the essential rehearsals required for qualification,” said Aschbacher on X, formerly Twitter. “We have validated our models, increased our knowledge of operations and are now confident for our first launch period for Europe’s new heavy-lift launcher.” 

While the inaugural flight won’t carry major payloads in orbit, it will transport several smaller satellites. If that launch is successful, Arianespace, the company who developed the rocket, will aim for a second launch later in the year. That second launch would carry the CSO-3 reconnaissance satellite for the French military, said the company’s CEO Stéphane Israël in a press briefing.

Following that, Ariane 6 would be put to work conducting as many flights as possible. The long-term objective is to launch the rocket into space 9-10 times per year, said Israël. These would include 18 launches for Amazon’s Kuiper broadband megaconstellation project.  

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Ariane 6 was first scheduled to launch four years ago. However, the rocket suffered a series of delays, attributed to technical issues, COVID-19, and design changes. 

With Ariane 6’s predecessor, Ariane 5, officially decommissioned and Italy’s Vega C rocket grounded following launch failure in December, Europe is currently without independent access to space satellites. 

So it is welcome news that Ariane 6 is on track for launch in around 6 months’ time — if all goes to plan that is. 


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Ariane 6 rocket set to restore Europe’s space access next year Read More »


Silo AI releases checkpoint on mission to democratise LLMs

A year has passed since OpenAI unleashed ChatGPT on the world and popularised terms like foundational model, LLM, and GenAI. However, the promised benefits of generative AI technology are still much more likely to be derived by those who speak English, over other languages. 

There are over 7,000 languages in the world. Yet, most large language models (LLMs) work far more effectively in English. Naturally, this threatens to amplify language bias when it comes to access to knowledge, research, innovation — and competitive advantage for businesses. 

In November, Finland’s Silo AI released its multilingual open European LLM Poro 34B developed in collaboration with the University of Turku. Poro, which means reindeer in Finnish, has been trained on Europe’s most powerful supercomputer LUMI in Kajani, Finland. (Interestingly, LUMI runs on AMD architecture, as opposed to all-the-rage LLM-training Nvidia.) 

Along with Poro 1, the company unveiled a research checkpoint program that will release checkpoints as the model completes (the first three points were announced with the model last month). 

Now, the company, through its branch SiloGen, has trained more than 50% of the model and has just published the next two checkpoints in the program. With these five checkpoints now complete, Poro 34B has shown best-in-class performance for low-resource languages like Finnish (compared to Llama, Mistral, FinGPT, etc) — without compromising performance in English. 

Research Fellow Sampo Pyysalo from TurkuNLP says that they expect to have trained the model fully within the next few weeks. As the next step, the model will add support for other Nordic languages, including Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic. 

“It’s imperative for Europe’s digital sovereignty to have access to language models aligned with European values, culture and languages. We’re proud to see that Poro shows best-in-class performance on a low-resource language like Finnish,” Silo AI’s co-founder and CEO, Peter Sarlin, told TNW. “In line with the intent to cover all European languages, it’s a natural step to start with an extension to the Nordic languages.” 

Furthermore, SiloGen has commenced training Poro 2. Through a partnership with non-profit LAION (Large-scale Artificial Intelligence Open Network), it will add multimodality to the model.

“It’s likewise natural to extend Poro with vision,” Sarlin added. “Like textual data, we see an even larger potential for generative AI to consolidate large amounts of data of different modalities.”

LAION says it is “passionate about advancing the field of machine learning for the greater good.” In keeping with Silo AI’s intentions for building its GenAI model and LAION’s overall mission to increase access to large-scale ML models, and datasets, Poro 2 will be freely available under the Apache 2.0 Licence. This means developers will also be able to build proprietary solutions on top. 

Silo AI, which calls itself “Europe’s largest private AI lab” launched in 2017 on the idea that Europe needed an AI flagship. The company is based in Helsinki, Finland, and builds AI-driven solutions and products to enable smart devices, autonomous vehicles, industry 4.0, and smart cities. Currently, Silo AI counts over 300 employees and also has offices in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Silo AI releases checkpoint on mission to democratise LLMs Read More »


Tech is bringing ancient ruins back to life. Here’s how

From bringing ancient ruins to life through augmented reality (AR) to 3D-printing centuries-old artefacts, cultural heritage startups are transforming the landscape of heritage preservation and education. By leveraging technology to foster a deeper connection with our past, this breed of companies help safeguard some of the most defining elements of human history.

TNW spoke with three innovative startups in the space to find out how they’re using tech to bridge the gap between past and present.


Over 2,000 years ago, the city of Baia near Naples was the go-to holiday destination for the elite of the Roman Empire. Known for its luxurious and hedonistic vibe, it attracted prominent figures such as Cicero and even Julius Caesar himself.

Today, about half of the ancient town lies beneath the surface of the Mediterranean.

Baia is one of the world’s very few underwater sites open to the public, accessible through snorkelling, scuba diving, and glass-bottomed boat tours. But preserving submerged ruins is no easy task.

archeological park of Baia
Diving in Baia. Credit: Campi Flegrei Sub Center

To help protect Baia, in 2019, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage partnered with Wsense, a spinoff from the Sapienza University of Rome, which specialises in underwater monitoring and communication systems.

“Since GPS, radiocommunication, and satellite signals don’t work underwater, you need to build your own infrastructure for the underwater domain,” Chiara Petrioli, founder and CEO of Wsense and Professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, tells TNW.

Wsense has created a subsea Wi-Fi so that real-time data below the water’s surface can be collected and transmitted back to land. To serve that purpose, the deep tech startup has developed a network of wireless IoUT (Internet of Underwater Things) devices.

Specifically, Wsense’s system relies on multi-sensor nodes, which provide information on various aspects of water quality, from temperature and pressure to pH, salinity currents, and tides.

Data can be transmitted in two ways. Firstly, from one node to the other, a process that is optimised by an AI algorithm that changes the transfer path when sea conditions change. Secondly, it can be transferred to the surface through Wsense’s gateways, which, either integrated into floating buoys or posted on nearby land, connect the underwater network to the cloud — and from there, to the rest of the world.

In the case of Baia, this system allows for remote in-situ monitoring, which doesn’t simply set off alarms in case of unauthorised access, but most importantly provides water information critical for the site’s preservation.

This includes tracking the environmental conditions that could distort the artefacts. It further entails observing CO2 emission levels to understand how the area’s volcanic activity is developing, while enabling the study of climate change’s impact on underwater cultural heritage.

Here’s a video with how Wsense’s system in Baia works:

In addition, the technology has provided a valuable tool for archaeologists diving in the submerged city. Thanks to special micronodes attached to a waterproof tablet, divers can communicate both with each other and with their colleagues above the surface. “Think of it as an underwater WhatsApp,” Dr Petrioli says. At the same time, these micronodes create a type of underwater GPS that helps locate divers in real time.

“We have also been collaborating with a partner to develop an AR app on our tablet, which visitors can use to view 3D reconstructions of Baia while at the site,” she adds.

diver at the underwater city of Baia
Footage of diver using Wsense’s tablet in submerged Baia. CreditL: Wsense

Besides the preservation of cultural heritage, the startup’s technology has multiple areas of application, including environmental and critical infrastructure monitoring and aquaculture. Last January, the World Economic Forum named it “the world’s most innovative company in collecting and managing big data for the purpose of protecting the ocean environment.”

Founded in 2017, Wsense has grown into a team of 50 people, with offices in Italy, Norway, and the UK. In October, the award-winning spinoff completed a €9mn Series A round, raising its total funding to €13mn.


It doesn’t take a knight in shining armour to save a castle in distress — and that’s exactly what Dartagnans has been proving. Named after Dumas’ famous musketeer, the Paris-based startup is fighting to save and promote castles that would have otherwise fallen into oblivion.

“We wanted to save a castle from A to Z.

Founded in 2015, the startup began as a crowdfunding platform connecting donors to owners/managers of historical monuments. By gradually building a community, Dartagnans became France’s leader in crowdfunding for heritage preservation, just after the first two years of operation.

“After a point, we wanted to have our castle and save it from A to Z,” Romain Delaume, Dartagnans’ co-founder and CEO, tells TNW. “We didn’t have enough capital to buy one but we had a growing community.”

So in 2018, the startup reinvented its business model and introduced the collective purchase of castles concept, offering the opportunity for anyone in the world to invest in endangered castles and become co-owners.

“When we launched the first collective purchase campaign, we raised over €1.6mn in 45 days,” Delaume says. “This means that when you give the opportunity to people, they all gather for a cause regardless of their background.”

In the past five years, Dartagnans has helped save four castles in France: the Château de la Monthe Chandeniers in Vienne, the the Château de l’Ebaupinay in Deux-Sèvres, the Château de Vibrac in Charente, and the Château de Boulogne in Oise.

The Château de Boulogne
The Château de Boulogne. The 19th-century castle features a distinct architecture, inspired from history and esotericism. It was commissioned by Count Charles de Boulogne, a rich Belgian landowner. The castle suffered terribly during WWI and, now, nearly 7,500 people have become co-castellans to save it. Credit: Dartagnans

Following the purchase, the castles go through gradual restoration and are opened to the public for touristic activities, such as visits, events, volunteer projects, and hospitality programmes. The self-funded startup now counts over 50,000 co-castellans and an international community of 300,000 heritage defenders. Since its founding, it has raised €15mn for the safeguarding of monuments.

Co-castellans can invest in castles on the startup’s platform and, in return, they receive ownership shares, which they can keep, sell, or pass on to their children or friends. “It’s a share of a company,” Delaume explains. “We create a company for each castle we operate and then we sell the shares to the public.” Each share costs €79.

According to Delaume, Dartagnans owns one-third of the castles, which allows it to pilot the company and carry out restoration, management, marketing, and tourist activities. “I am like a CEO with thousands and thousands of little shareholders,” he says.

The Château de l'Ebaupinay
The Château de l’Ebaupinay. Classified as an historical monument since 1898, the medieval castle is a rare remnant of the mid-15th century architecture. Credit: Dartagnans

Nevertheless, co-castellans have their own say in big management decisions, with each share representing one vote. The community is also involved through activities, meetings, and assemblies, both in person and online. The company’s biggest event is The Night of the Castles (link), when hundreds of castles across France and Europe simultaneously open their doors at nighttime.

Dartagnans currently employs 14 people and operates solely in France, with future plans for international expansion. Within the next decade, Delaume hopes that they’ll have accomplished half of the restoration needed for the castles. Another goal is to keep growing what he calls “a happy community.”


Standing in front of historical ruins or a vase dating back to 500 BCE can cause a feeling of detachment. Even for those with a vivid imagination, reconstructing the past from a centuries-old object is no easy task — but thankfully, technology can help.

Hi.Stories was founded in Sicily in 2017 with the mission to integrate digital technologies into cultural heritage to help facilitate its communication, and in turn, its protection.

The startup offers multiple services. It develops 3D models and prints of museum artefacts; it designs apps for archaeological sites and museums, using storytelling narratives and gamification; and it creates virtual tours based on augmented reality (AR).

Sicily Stories App
The startup developed the Sicily Histories app to help visitors explore the region’s sites using AR and 3D reconstructions. Through storytelling and a gamified narrative, users can help characters explore Sicily. Credit: Hi.Stories

One notable advantage of these tools is that they increase visitors’ interactive experience, and in turn, their engagement with heritage.

“Communication through the realisation of digital use systems allows heritage to be read at different levels: the visitor — on-site or remotely — becomes the protagonist of his or her own visit, being able to choose different degrees of immersion,” Luna Meli, co-founder of the startup, tells TNW.

Another advantage is the improved accessibility of exhibits, which goes well beyond the obvious benefit of accessing sites or museum collections remotely.

The 3D reproduction of objects, for instance, offers an alternative for groups such as individuals with visual impairments to approach works of art through touch. According to the company, this particular service can be used for educational purposes as well, enabling students to develop a direct, physical relationship with artefacts.

3D print of the Capitoline Wolf
3D print of the Capitoline Wolf, the symbol of ancient Rome. According to the legend, the female wolf nurtured the twins Remus and Romulus, the mythical founders of the city. The original statue is displayed at the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Credit: Hi.Stories

Meli says that, after the pandemic, awareness of the need to use digital technologies for cultural valorisation and appropriation has grown. This has led to an increased demand for these services — especially regarding the creation of content and platforms that can be used in multimedia guide applications, webapps with AR, and immersive tours. Meanwhile, 3D models and prints have shown the biggest demand, partly because of their potential to improve the accessibility of exhibits.

In the video below, you can watch part of the startup’s 3D reconstruction and virtual tour of the Necropolis in Via Sant’ Euplio in Catania: