How could nature-based technology help mitigate the effects of climate change in cities, while also contributing to biodiversity protection and human wellbeing? CEU iLab incubated startup, Physi Solutions, is working on digital technology that helps people address unsustainability challenges by re-imagining urban space with nature-based solutions (NBS). We talked to Professor László Pintér, Physi Solutions founder and partner and Former Head of the Department at the Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University about their successes, their challenges and their advice to aspiring sustainability entrepreneurs.
What are you up to at Physi Solutions at the moment?
At the beginning of July, we formally established the company and appointed Lilla Somosfalvi as CEO. Most other founding partners, Dóra Almássy, Judit Boros, Attila Katona and Sara Maia are also alumni or current students in the department’s PhD program, except Zsófia Mau Ábrahám who we worked with as an external consultant. All come with serious expertise related to nature based solutions. As for CEU, the university the IP rights will be agreed upon in exchange for our incubation in iLab. As for other things, we secured IP rights for the use of our core knowledge and software tools, and at the moment, we are in the middle of an administrative tsunami for setting up the operating structures. Over the last few weeks we had two retreats to fine tune our vision and mission, work on our web presence strategy, and continue discussing how we work as a team. And in the meantime, we are close to closing Physi’s first contracts, with one client in Singapore and another in the Netherlands.
What’s your unique selling point for these potential clients?
Our project is a spinoff of Naturvation, a research project funded through the Horizon 2020 research program of the European Commission, where we created a working prototype of a customizable platform to simulate how future urban greening projects might impact specific neighborhoods and people’s well-being. Here, the reference to greening should be taken almost literally: NBS as parks, rooftop gardens, and other infrastructural changes that typically include natural elements such as plants, water and soil. We let people add NBS to an intelligent map - essentially a sort of digital twin at a small scale - of their area and instantaneously seethe potential impact, projected to the future. Essentially, what clients can do is build and play with green scenarios for urban neighbourhoods.
Our unique selling point is that Physi can help clients make the most of nature-based solutions in the specific context of their urban development projects. We do that first by helping to reimagine urban space with nature-based solutions best fit for the client’s carefully mapped context. Going a step further, as NBS are added, our system provides a real-time projection of both their impacts and indicative costs.
At the moment, we have two products to help make all this happen. One of them is a large database called Urban Nature Atlas, which we are continuously developing and extending. The Atlas provides over 1100 detailed, already existing examples for innovative and effective nature-based solutions in cities from around the world.
Our other product is the Urban Nature Explorer, a scenario software tool operating as an urban planning aid, which allows the addition of green infrastructure to predefined urban neighborhoods. And not only that, the Explorer also quantifies the future effects of nature-based infrastructural elements such as parks or rooftop gardens on urban life and the environment.
Clients do the creative scenario building work in the digital representation of their urban project in the Urban Nature Explorer, while we also make use of the vast library of NBS cases in the Urban Nature Atlas. Ultimately, Physi helps make urban nature-related development and investment decisions where the rate of return in terms of sustainability impacts is maximized and measurable.
That sounds very promising. Have you already had any project where users could experience digital twins in action?
At first we launched a custom version of our platform at the 9th European Conference on Sustainable Cities and Towns in Mannheim in 2020, where participants could test in real time how they could rearrange Dunakapu Square in Győr, Hungary to address a variety of sustainability challenges using a “library” of nature-based solutions attributes. For example, they could put trees or rain gardens on the square, see up front setup and long-term maintenance costs, and what impact it would have on the micro-environment. Impacts such as the effects of green space on surface and air temperature, and thus heat stress which might affect how people feel on the square. The session in Mannheim provided a lot of positive feedback on this gamified version of the software.
We also had another project, whose choice seems to be quite self-explanatory: we were working on the potential new campus of CEU at Steinhof, in the 14th district of Vienna. It’s a unique world-heritage site and it’s already fairly green, but the City of Vienna and CEU had aspirations to make it even greener. Even though CEU’s plans have changed, this was a valuable experience for us to validate our Urban Nature Explorer at a second location
We recently completed a third pilot project in Montevideo, Uruguay, where we worked with several blocks of the city with significant areas covered by concrete or bare soil, and where municipal and civil interest in greener re-development is high. Similar to the cases in Győr and Steinhof, we prepared a map-based representation of the area customized with NBS options and impact models like a miniature digital laboratorium with tons of data. Now that it’s completed, this laboratory is available for residents and decision-makers to come up with alternative future scenarios for how the area could look and feel like when its hidden green potential is realized.
Before we established the company, these projects were only research-based pilots but from now on, Physi will seek out opportunities to work with real-life clients in real-life locations.
What was the biggest challenge the team had to conquer on its journey to becoming a company?
One of the greatest challenges - though also opportunity - was that we had to create Physi while also running Naturvation as a research project with a research mentality. It also took time to secure IP rights and identify a CEO. And the hardest of all was to find a time and place that works for everyone, including our lawyers, to sign the founding document
And what would be your advice to those who are thinking on realizing a startup idea?
One has to be brave. We know that 9 out of 10 startups fail but if you have faith in your idea, it’s always worth a try - even as a practice for life. If you have an idea that you think can help solve real-life problems, and the university environment and research can’t take you far enough and fast enough, then consider whether entrepreneurship is a realistic option. At some point, an opportunity even turns into responsibility: if you happen to know a workable solution to a problem you clearly recognize, why wouldn’t you help in solving it?