9 May 2017

Niklas Zennström: Entrepreneurship to save the Baltic Sea

For Niklas Zennström, a venture capital investor for many technology ventures, the Baltic Sea is a new start-up, the benefits of which, if ever, will be equally shared by everyone in the Baltic Sea region. As with any other start-up, it requires bold, innovative solutions and complete immersion from the stakeholders.

Niklas Zennström, an experienced entrepreneur and a co-founder of Skype, once in Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential people, is passionate about investing—both in cutting-edge technologies and in sustainable development. Ten years ago, together with his wife Catherine, he created a philanthropic foundation to work on human rights issues help and improve the state of the Baltic Sea.

“One sixth of the Baltic seabed is completely dead, without any oxygen, and these dead zones are equivalent to the size of Denmark”, he says when speaking with the NIB Newsletter about choosing the Baltic Sea as an avenue for his philanthropic work.

“I grew up in Sweden and learned to swim, sail and fish in the Baltic Sea. It’s hard to believe that the Baltic Sea is actually one of the most polluted seas in the world.”

Baltic Sea eutrophication
Blue-green algae blooms in the Gulf of Finland. Photo: Lilyana Vynogradova

“I belong to the first generation that is aware of the causes of why the sea is dying. As a Baltic Sea citizen, I believe I have a moral responsibility to act.”

A co-founder of globally successful start-ups, Niklas Zennström is now a venture capitalist. He says that economic and environmental sustainability go hand in hand.

“I think about sustainability like an entrepreneur, looking for innovative solutions. I see great potential for digital and other technologies to help us solve environmental challenges, including the environmental status of the Baltic Sea.”

Here is one idea: Mr Zennström thinks that precision farming is an effective way to combat eutrophication, which is an outcome of overusing nutrients in agriculture. Sensor technology to determine the type and amount of fertiliser may help minimise the amount of nutrients ending up in the Baltic Sea.

To support innovation in improving the state of the Baltic Sea, in 2013, Mr Zennström established an organisation called Race for The Baltic (click here), “an initiative that connects business, science, government and civil society in joint action for a clean Baltic Sea.”

“Philanthropy is not simply about making donations and grants. Donations can even exacerbate problems that come with a ‘silo mentality’. Instead we can help mobilise actors, technologies and capital”, he says.

Mr Zennström believes that the entrepreneurial community needs support to develop robust business models; it needs to stay connected with their stakeholders—with those who are dealing with the challenges of the dying sea.

The foundation’s current programme, the Baltic Sea City Accelerator (click here), has been launched to help the region’s cities to identify what they can do to both improve the health of the Baltic Sea and gain socioeconomic benefits.

In the past year, seven cities in Sweden, Lithuania, Poland and Finland engaged in the programme to join forces and tap international expertise to tackle local water and wastewater management challenges.

“The participating cities are pioneers, and by working with us and leveraging our network of partners and solution providers, they are able to accelerate their efforts and sometimes even able to develop interesting investment cases”, says Mr Zennström.

Through a series of workshops, meetings, webinars and peer-to-peer networking, the programme helps the participating communities to define ideas for improvement, raise public awareness, implement the innovation and spread the word across the region about the successful experience.

In one of the pioneering cities, Kalmar in southern Sweden, the biggest challenge is eutrophication. The region has identified effective solutions to minimise the impact from agriculture. Catch crops and wetlands let water circulate in the fields and allow reusing the discharged nutrients. Together, this translates into business opportunities—a mussel farm and an algae farm. Kalmar is eager to share its experience on a regional scale.

Wetland project in Tullstorp
A 10-kilometre stream in Tullstorp in southern Sweden will help restore the wetlands in the area to trap nutrients from fields. Photo: Race for the Baltic Sea

Located on Poland’s Baltic coast, Slupsk wants to engage its citizens in “water democracy”: to let them assume more responsibility for the decisions that affect the environment and the quality of life. The local water company already now provides the region with good-quality water. Slupsk, however, wants people’s participation in decision-making in the areas with a “water footprint”, such as sustainable consumption, water treatment and circular economy.

Another Swedish participating municipality, Vaxholm, is where boats go in and out of Stockholm Archipelago. Home to fewer than five thousand people scattered over tens of islands in the Baltic Sea, the municipality is seeking international expertise for an action plan to reduce discharges of phosphorus and nitrogen into the waters surrounding Vaxholm.

Niklas Zennström

“We want everyone to see that the Baltic Sea is an attractive area for investment in improving the environment—not only for politicians and local governments, but also for investors and citizens.”

Niklas Zennström

Co founder of Skype, Niklas is an experienced global entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist, passionate about working towards a healthy and sustainable Baltic Sea. His organisation, Race For The Baltic, is driving change to transform environmental challenges into local economic opportunities.


The Baltic Sea City Accelerator helps to “accelerate local impact—transforming environmental challenges into opportunities for local economic development”. The initiative connects participating communities with universities, NGOs, investors and other foundations in the region.

The programme will organise an event in June 2017 where the participating cities will present their visions, action plans and business cases.

“We expect them to develop more than thirty initiatives as an outcome of this programme. And this is just a start. Going forward, we intend to scale up this work and engage 100 cities by 2020.”

“We are happy to see knowledge being shared and investment opportunities being developed across the region, among solution providers and impact investors. A lot of good work is already being done. The engagement of different stakeholders in the Baltic Sea region encourages me. Still, we need to continue and make the changes come more quickly and in a more cost-effective way”, says Mr Zennström.