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Meet the Innovator | Rutger de Graaf-van Dinther Blue21

3 February 2023 | Meet the Innovator

Meet the Innovators: we kick off a new serie in which we interview founders from the energy & maritime industry. We talk about entrepreneurship, innovation and doing this in a sustainable way. How do they try to change the industry, how is their journey coming along and what have they learned so far? Let’s find out!

There is no better way, than to kick off this serie with Rutger de Graaf-van Dinther. He’s the co-founder of Blue21, based at Buccaneer Delft, and already has many years of experience as an entrepreneur. For Rutger, his journey started 17 years ago at the TU Delft with winning a contest which eventually resulted in Blue21, a scale-up which is specialized in developing floating structures.

Fascinated by living below sea level

As a kid Rutger grew-up in Zoetermeer which lies, just like a large part of the Netherlands, below sea level. “I was always kind off intrigued by this. Especially when I got older and started my study at the TU Delft. We heard more and more about climate change and rising sea levels. Fortunately we live in a country which has a great history in fighting water, but I already wondered if there could also be more adaptive solutions in addition to the great dikes and flood defenses we have. Can’t we live on the water as well?”

Rutger studied civil engineering at TU Delft and right after his study, he took part in the Deltacompetition, organized by consultant Royal Haskoning. The subject: How can delta areas prepare themselves for the effects of climate change? “Together with a group of enthusiast co-students we worked out the idea of a floating city. We won the contest and we thought that would be the end of it. But there was so much interest, that it turned out to be the beginning and we chose to start a company based on this idea.”

With no experience as entrepreneurs and a purely technical background the first years where quite challenging. “Luckily we started in Delft, a city that really supports young entrepreneurs. We met with people from YES!Delft and made our first steps, getting also familiar with the commercial side of starting a business. Later on, we moved to Buccaneer Delft as Blue21. Buccaneer Delft also helped us a lot with their strong roots in the maritime industry. They connected us to interesting parties, but also to fellow entrepreneurs in the same industry.”

Taking the long road

With Blue21 Rutger has the ambition to develop floating structures that could offer millions of people a home, even if sea levels rise due to climate change. But as you can imagine, you can’t build a city in a day, especially not a floating one. “We luckily had the support of the Gemeente Rotterdam, to develop our first floating object: the floating pavilion in Rotterdam. This was our first milestone, which last year also got mentioned in the IPCC report as climate adaptation example project. Then followed the development of floating homes in Delft and we also did a case with TU Delft developing floating solar panels.

We have our own inhouse toolkit, called HydroMEC+. This unique tool calculates various comfort and safety conditions of floating structures in different circumstances. It helps answer questions like; what is the best size for a floating structure? How it will balance out in different wave conditions? On our end we see much evidence that the technology has proven itself over the last couple of years, but the challenge lies with upscaling the technology.”

The next step for Blue21 would be to develop a living district with more than 100 houses, the biggest floating project yet. “In the Netherlands we have multiple locations that could be interesting for this like; The ijmeer in Amsterdam or Stadshavens in Rotterdam. Internationally, we collaborate with partners in countries such as Japan, South-Korea, Colombia, Finland and Estonia. Our technology is ready for the next step, but there must be support from politics and the communities as well. This is something that we are really focusing on in addition to our technology innovations.”

Find out why you and your co-founders want to start a company. Motivation is key and if all founders have different motivations, this could lead to friction. So is it financial, do you want more freedom or do you want to develop something that fixes a certain problem? By discussing this you can save a lot of trouble along the road.

Rutger de Graaf-van Dinther, Co-Founder Blue21

Always be in touch with your end-user

The personal journey for Rutger as a starting entrepreneur was also about stepping out of his comfort zone, trying to fix multiple problems and learning a lot while doing so. “Yes, it’s true I have learned a lot in 17 years. When looking back there really where a view key lessons that I would like to share.

The first thing is to find out why you and your co-founders want to start a company. Motivation is key and if all founders have different motivations, this could lead to friction. So is it financial, do you want more freedom or do you want to develop something that fixes a certain problem? By discussing this you can save a lot of trouble along the road.

Also I think it is very important to involve your end-user or possible client as quickly as possible. Don’t overthink your business idea, but talk to others and hear their opinion. Do they believe in your product or otherwise find out why not? This can save you a lot of time. We were very lucky that Gemeente Rotterdam was and is a firm believer who really supported us in the first phase as a launching customer.

And to wrap up; you can’t do it on your own. At Blue21, we have a fantastic team and we really stimulate a culture in which innovation is key. Always have an open mind and be supportive of the ideas from others. The craziest ideas can lead to the most beautiful things.”

As an accelerator, Buccaneer Delft proudly supports start- & scale-ups in the ever evolving energy & maritime sector. We accelerate growth, connect, inspire & help realize potential. Can we help you along your journey in becoming a successful entrepreneur? Find out more.