Born a mere two months ago, AENU is an organization that invests in impact start-ups developing (or scaling up) climate-relevant technology and/or working to improve our quality of life through education. AENU (a play on “a new” era of impact venture capitalism) was founded by brothers Ferry (BSc, 2009) and Fabian Heilemann and spun off from the family office Pirate Impact. The duo is working on a common vision of the future as it pertains to how technology can help address climate change and positively impact society.
1. With your venture capital fund AENU, you invest exclusively in up-and-coming companies, including start-ups, that focus on sustainability and impact. The goal is not primarily on maximizing profits. Why is sustainability so important to you and on which investment areas do you focus?
Ferry Heilemann: I started digging into the topic of climate change in 2015 and quickly realized that the climate crisis is by far the biggest challenge that mankind has ever encountered. And unlike many other man made or social problems that might exist, climate change is irreversible once we cross certain thresholds. With that realization I started taking action and then increased the scope of my action over time. First I worked on my personal footprint, which is now considerably smaller than the average in Germany. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I reduced my carbon emissions by 7 – 8 tons per year. My journey led me to look outside my personal sphere. This meant rendering Forto (the start-up I’d co-founded in 2016 and led as CEO until 2020) climate neutral and ingraining a strong sustainability focus from day one. I also co-founded the Leaders for Climate Action (Europe’s biggest climate action community for businesses) and ultimately moved on from being Forto’s CEO to dedicate all of my time, energy and resources to climate action and social justice. I am fulfilling this purpose by contributing to the transition from a financial capitalist system to “impact capitalism” through our impact technology evergreen fund AENU which focuses on early-stage companies in climate-tech & social impact based in Europe.
My brother, Fabian Heilemann and I are convinced that any climate action will be part of a larger political agenda and must be embedded in an economic framework. Financial capitalism as we know it has never done this as it optimizes at all costs on a single key figure: short-term financial return. It has finally had its day as the “operating system” of our economy and our society. We are here to establish AENU era of impact venture capitalism. AENU has five investment focus areas: the energy transition, carbon removal, food & agri tech, buildings and education.
2. What is your methodology for investments and what criteria do companies have to meet in order to be considered?
We primarily invest in companies that develop technologies that have the potential to avoid or remove at least 100 MT CO2 e at scale or that can improve the well-being of at least ten million people. Our secondary impact KPIs target biodiversity technologies that help restore or conserve our most precious natural and biological resources, such as water and soil.
3. “Sustainability” is now a rather colorful term in the corporate world, and practically every company profile would be unimaginable without it. How do you make sure to invest in companies that aren’t merely greenwashing?
We have strict screening criteria. First of all, we only partner with impact entrepreneurs that subscribe to our vision of the future and who are solving pressing global climate and societal issues through the power of technology. We evaluate start-ups based on six impact guidelines. This first screening helps us understand whether a technology is tackling the root cause of a problem, whether the business model is delivering impact at the core, and whether the potential impact meets our investment thresholds. The six impact guidelines are: intentionality, impact logic, interlock, depth and breadth, additionality and impact measurement. People can read more about these guidelines in our Impact Framework.
4. AENU recently emerged from Pirate Impact. You now manage €100M in assets, an amount expected to increase over time. How did the launch of AENU go? And where do you want to go with it in the future?
We are very grateful for the support we received for our launch. It was covered well by the press, and we are seeing an increasing amount of inbound deal flow. There is also a lot of interest around our evergreen impact fund model. The first closing of the fund has been oversubscribed. Investors have, so far, been limited to our friends and family on an invitation-only basis. These include E.R. Capital as our first cornerstone Limited Partner (LP) and unicorn CEOs such as Lawrence Leuschner (TIER), Michael Wax (Forto), and Niklas Zenstrom (Skype / Atomico), as well as a number of German family offices. We will gradually open up the fund to the broader market over the coming quarters. Now is the right time to take impact investing to the next level. With AENU, we want to lead the change and invite the venture capital ecosystem to join.
5. But AENU is more than a venture capital fund. Your team also shares a common vision for the future of planet Earth. What will this ideally look like in a few years?
Our society needs to actively re-design capitalism. We dream of a world in which profits and impact are not contradicting choices, but overlapping circles—a world in which all external costs are adequately priced. But it is not enough to apply a VC framework to a societal or environmental challenge. We envision an economic system that drives environmental and social well-being based on the fair and inclusive distribution of natural and human resources. Impact start-ups and impact investors will be an integral part of this over the next few years. Last year, impact start-ups raised a record €39B in venture funding and despite the economic downturn, investments in climate tech still remain fairly stable today. They’ll soon be back on an upward trajectory.