Hamburg’s Sustainable Aero Lab – an innovative thrust towards climate-neutral aviation

(Andreas Vallbracht

As one of the world’s great centres for aviation, Hamburg will remain a major player in the development of climate-neutral aircraft, as evidenced by its new Sustainable Aero Lab incubator program, which was established to accelerate the transformation of aviation by gathering start-ups, industry, science and investors under one roof. The Sustainable Aero Lab, which was founded by Density Ventures at the turn of the year, is supported not only by Hamburg’s Ministry for Economic Affairs and Innovation (BWI), the Chamber of Commerce and the Hamburg Investment and Development Bank, but also by the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research and the Aviation Cluster. The city hopes the Sustainable Aero Lab will make Hamburg a leader in climate-neutral aircraft technology.

The Aviation Cluster – a launchpad for start-ups

“Over the next few decades, the implications of climate change will have a significant impact on the aviation industry and its business models,” says Michael Westhagemann, Hamburg’s Minister of Economy, Transport and Innovation. For the time being aviation is preoccupied by the corona virus pandemic but, as Westhagemann points out, its real challenge is how to develop innovative products and climate-neutral aircraft. For Hamburg, whose aviation sector comprises more than 300 companies and over 40,000 highly skilled employees, this challenge presents numerous opportunities, he argues. “To seize them, we need more open dialogue, and more speed. The Sustainable Aero Lab will enable us to focus on just that.”

Hamburg’s metropolitan area is home to both Lufthansa and Airbus, and the two aviation giants are already working hard on becoming more sustainability-focused concerns. For example, by 2035 Airbus plans to unveil three zero-emission ZEROe hybrid-hydrogen jets, for which it has already received funding from the city of Hamburg, while Lufthansa’s engineering subsidiary Lufthansa Technik is already the world’s leading provider of aircraft maintenance. These big players are a magnet for countless suppliers, a substantial cohort of mid-sized companies, and several leading research facilities, including the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research – a globally recognized institution that looks set for rapid growth. At the centre of this elite congregation is the Aviation Cluster Hamburg, which actively connects the region’s assorted players.

ZAL - Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (DoubleVision

Hamburg’s aviation expertise – a boon for start-ups

The aim of the Sustainable Aero Lab is to make this globally unique aviation cluster accessible to start-ups, as co-founder Stephan Uhrenbacher explains: “From our base in Hamburg we want to create the world’s leading platform – to accelerate the development of sustainable aviation technologies, to bring together the world’s leading experts, and especially to lower any obstacles that might prevent start-ups getting their foot in the door.” To this end, four times a year Uhrenbacher invites recently founded companies to live forums where they can present their projects and get feedback from experienced mentors from the aviation branch. Subject-specific coaching from international experts and individual counselling sessions by mentors round off the program.

The mentors are all recognized figures from the international-aviation, green-tech and venture-capital branches. Among them former Executive Vice-President Lufthansa Group Fleet Management Nico Buchholz and the London-based venture capitalist Christian Hernandez Gallardo. The Aero Lab accepts applications from start-ups all year round, with the focus on projects that could help reduce the industry’s carbon footprint and make aviation more sustainable. For hopeful start-ups, the range of potential disciplines is broad – from hydrogen propulsion and e-fuel to lightweight construction, sustainable design concepts, noise reduction and electric mobility. More information on the application process is available here.

Aero Lab – a lighthouse project with a global radius

In addition to mentoring and finance, another bonus for participating start-ups is the backing of governmental, science and industry organisations. Together they are determined to transform the cluster as fast as they can, as Ulf Weber, Managing Director of Hamburg Aviation, explains. “Making aviation more sustainable is going to be an important issue over the next few years and decades, and not just in Hamburg,” he says. “As an economic cluster network, we are already reacting to this development with a number of initiatives. The Sustainable Aero Lab is one of those. It’s going to be a major lighthouse project, with a global radius, that at the same time will continue to grow our start-up ecosystem.”  

Other initiatives include the Aviation Task Force and the Green Aviation Roadmap.

The city of Hamburg is likewise getting behind a host of future-oriented projects, for instance the expansion of the hydrogen economy, in which Hamburg hopes to establish itself as a leading player. This includes plans for the city’s port to host the world’s largest hydrogen electrolyser. Meanwhile Airbus is developing fuel cells to power aircraft with the ‘kerosene of the future’. This all puts Hamburg in an ideal position to play a leading role in the development of climate-neutral aircraft.

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