Making car travel sustainable is a big challenge, and for a startup to take it on is an even bigger task. But Australian Lewis Horne and his startup Uniti Sweden used crowdfunding to come up with a solution.
During his days as a business student in Australia’s Gold Coast, Horne grew frustrated with the country’s lack of focus on innovation. After convincing his university to send him on an exchange in search of broader minds, he then had to find a place to go.
“I’d never been to Europe and wanted to try a completely different culture to the Anglo-American take on innovation, which is very masculine and achievement oriented,” Horne told The Local.
“I Googled around and saw the white buildings and thought ‘that looks nice’. I came to Sweden for six months, extended it for another six months, studied at Lund, returned to Australia to finish my degree, then after that came back to Sweden to do a masters in entrepreneurship.”
Once back in Lund, Horne started to hone his skills as an entrepreneur by launching several successful startups – ventures he nonetheless labels as “just training” for the challenge he would ultimately end up taking on.
“I started a couple of very aggressive companies. One was super hyped and won a lot of awards then went to the New York Stock Exchange. I had a marketing company, then I started an innovation centre at Lund with some colleagues which is still going now,” he explains.
“So I had startups which were there to make money, and the innovation centre which was about radical innovation addressing grand challenges. I then decided to step away and do one thing that was complex enough to demand all of my attention and was technical, involved economics, problem solving, exciting, fun, all of that.”
That thing was Uniti’s prototype, an electric city car conceived to match the needs of a modern commuter by being both lean and high-tech, light and made of sustainable materials, and topped off with autonomous and augmented reality features.
If that sounds like a complicated task regardless of someone’s business experience, then it’s worth highlighting that Horne is also no stranger to building physical things.
“I come from the Outback originally, a really remote desert part with cattle stations. Out there you have to build wells, sheds, fix cars, tractors, understand hydraulics and that kind of stuff. I did that as a kid,” he notes.
“One of the things I was really inspired with back in the day was Tesla’s work. What they’re doing, strategies they were taking. I was vocal about that. Then in my network people started saying ‘why don’t you start an electric car company?’. So I said ‘yeah!’.”
To put the idea into practice, the Australian started a research project at Lund University, before eventually converting it into a startup in January 2016. Funds were tight in the beginning, to say the least.
“There were a lot of people working and not getting paid. I still have a high salary from things I’d done in the past, so I still got money each month, but I wasn’t comfortable using that to live well and pay rent if I had other students working here on something that couldn’t pay the rent. So instead, I moved into the office and used the money to filter into the team.”
“I think I had the worst health of my whole life. I went to the emergency room four times in January and February for different shit and it was supremely brutal in places. But adversity is never bad for an entrepreneur or any human actually,” he insists.
Horne was soon joined by several other staff members. Uniti’s now CFO Florian Schiewald even quit his dream job at auditing firm KPMG, only weeks after starting it, to come and work for free and live in the Lund office. The normally confident Horne concedes that carrying the expectations of others wasn’t always simple.
“If you have the weight of people not getting paid on your shoulders it’s fucking unbearable. That’s why I moved into the office. It’s an unbearable weight: you have to get the money,” he relates.
To get things off the ground the company launched a crowdfunding campaign with minimal advertising. Horne thinks a last minute change to the all-important video accompanying their call for funding made a real difference.
“I was just sitting there joining the dots saying ‘I think this is the way to do it’. The guys did a whole different video that was super professional, and right at the last minute I decided we needed to be super authentic, show everything, even the ugly side, and I would just narrate it,” he reveals.
“I wrote the script from top to bottom in three minutes, then got on a flight and left. The guys took all the footage we had and matched it to the script and that’s what we went with.”
Whether the change helped or not, it certainly didn’t do any harm: within 36 hours of the October 5th launch, Uniti Sweden had exceeded their equity crowdfunding target of 500,000 euros.
“We paid an average of 17 kronor on Facebook for ads to get a total investment of about 550,000 euros,” their founder laughs.
“Now, the people here have their dream job, they get paid, they have shares. For me that was worth any risk. Swedes have this under-promise, over-deliver thing, which I’m fundamentally against. A young Swede who’s an entrepreneur once asked me ‘aren’t you worried about over-promising and under-delivering?’. I said ‘no, the icecaps are melting for fuck’s sake!’. I deeply hate that idea. I’d much rather shoot for the stars and fail.”
“Prior to living in Sweden I’d never lived in a town for a whole year. I went to 15 different schools all around Australia, always traveling. But in Lund, I spent five years in one town. I’m sort of from Lund. It’s all of the Swedish values I adopted, the norms, then the outsider perspective which helped,” he recalls.
“They have great social norms and noble ways of making a company which I absorbed, but getting shit done is where the Anglo-American culture is valuable. We do this bold, hyped, fearless aggressive stuff they don’t do here. So combining the two has proven to be extremely valuable.”
Successfully reaching the crowdfunding target was a big moment for Horne, not only for the sake of the project’s financial viability, but also because it revealed the broad spectrum of people who related to the concept.
“It feels awesome. These are people from all walks of life: to know that our mission resonates so broadly is brilliant. When people invest they got to write a bio about themselves. So you have one person saying ‘I’m a student in Korea, you’re my role models’, and the next person saying ‘I’ve been an executive at Ikea for 10 years”, “I’ve been a director at Sony for 10 years’,” he beams.
“And that’s from an age group where the youngest person was an 18-year-old student in Hong Kong, and the oldest an 85-year-old man in a little town in Germany. All strangers, 48 different countries, 570 people.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the project also struck a chord in environmentally-conscious Sweden.
“Out of the 570 people there were around 400 Swedes. Critical to that was that we had a lot of Swedish faces, Swedish norms, it’s called Uniti Sweden. That goes a long way,” he says.
“A famous critic in a car magazine here who is wealthy and known for being really harsh even wrote a report saying ‘I keep my money away from the car industry, it’s too up and down, but this is one company I would invest in’.”
If 2016 was the launching point for the company, then 2017 is the year in which they are expected to deliver some of the goods. The all-important prototype is due to be finished in the summer, which brings a whole new set of challenges.
“The goal is to move to a big production space and have the first prototype done by June, unveil it, then the car will go on a six month journey of autonomous driving, round in circles, obstacles, while we study it,” he explains.
“At the end we’ll smash it into a wall and study that. Then between June and December we’ll build between three and four more incarnations. Then by June 2018 we hope to set up production.”
Horne describes the car’s hardware as simple (“made out of composite moulds and 10 pre-assembled sub systems that are then bolted in”), but the tech inside as “super advanced – eight times more powerful than a Tesla Model X”.
he says the basic idea is that “the best form of transport is a bicycle – when that’s not enough, do we really need another two tonnes of emission, or is something simpler possible?”.
The pre-assembled electric car: a purportedly simple solution to a big problem, but one which in reality requires real innovation to come up with. It is perhaps only fitting that it was conceived in a country whose biggest export is flat-pack furniture, another solution that seems simple yet no one else thought to invent.
Uniti’s mission doesn’t stop with building the car. They also plan on licensing the technology they have developed to other vehicle manufacturers, keeping no secrets and instead embracing the Swedish spirit of openness.
“Openness is something I learned from here. It’s also directly related to fearlessness: if you’re not afraid of anything and say ‘here are my ideas. Please, steal them’ – you can talk openly about anything,” Horne notes.
“In entrepreneurship that’s very powerful: it also says you’re confident enough to win on execution. I don’t know if that would work in all countries,” he concludes.