Digitizing the Oceans 

8 min read
11 Jun 2024

Interview with
Jann Wendt,
Founder at north.io

Where does environmental geography meet software development? When Jann Wendt moved to Kiel to study geography and environmental management in 2008, he came up with an answer: due to his affinity with computers, he quickly got into geodata topics such as spatial data and geoinformatics. “It was very interesting to me to understand the world from a data-driven perspective combined with geography,” he says. While still in university, he started dealing with satellite images and discovered that there were many uses for geo-information systems.

During his mandatory internship, he found himself working for Schleswig-Holstein’s Bomb Disposal Unit. This state squad looks for and deals with forgotten ammunition from the Second World War, and uses historical aerial images to find their locations. Between 1940 and 1945, US and British forces dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Europe. Half of them targeted Germany, and, according to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, a quarter of a million bombs did not explode due to technical faults. Experts estimate that there are 1.6 million metric tons of conventional and chemical ammunition in German territorial waters alone, including giant aerial bombs weighing hundreds of kilograms, 15-kilo shells, small high-explosive shells, hand grenades, detonators and ammunition rounds. On the North and Baltic Seas, where Kiel is located, over 50 million ammunition items are rusting away on the ocean floor, endangering fishermen and wildlife. Before, fishermen would usually find these in their nets or could risk their anchors hitting an explosive device. Today, geo-information systems can help the government find and disable these forgotten ammunitions. “It was fascinating to me that we could do so much with modern geo-information systems, both on a theoretical and practical level.” 

Once Jann’s internship was done, he was offered a job working for the state’s Bomb Disposal Unit, but he wasn’t done with his research. “My thought process was: okay, what can I do? I wanted to do my master’s, and, very early on, I wanted to start my own company.” In April 2011, as a student, he founded north.io, a startup focused on the organization and management of geospatial data on land and at sea. Back then, aerial images and geo-information were still far from mainstream; for example, Google Maps was only launched in February 2005. At the time, he was still studying for his master’s. “I started running the company on the side. Actually, I worked more on the startup than I did on my thesis, but it was a very good time to do that. I could get hands-on practice on what I was studying straight away.”  

Jann Wendt — Photo by Jan Konitzki

Our team has twelve different nationalities. Even though they come from cities like Moscow or Buenos Aires, they still love Kiel’s size. It’s cozy and vibrant at the same time.

When he finished his studies in 2014, he wondered if he should leave Kiel and move the company somewhere else. “But I liked the place,” he says. “I like being here, surrounded by the sea. And I thought the entrepreneurial opportunity was very interesting.” He decided to go full-on with north.io and started hiring his first team members. “We were a classic project-based software development startup back then, fifteen to twenty people. But I realized that if I wanted to have a real impact – and I knew we had the chance to really make a splash – we needed funding. It’s that simple. You need to grow, you need to scale, and you need to move from being a project-based startup to actually having a product.” With that strategy in mind, Jann began to rethink the whole startup structure over 2019 and 2020. During this time, he brought in experienced cofounder Frithjof Hennemann, and they created their first product: TrueOcean.

The first external investment came in 2019, kickstarting their long-term goal of developing a totally new platform technology to digitize oceans and ocean data. “Ocean digitalization is underrepresented,” he says. “It’s a conservative domain. There’s barely any cloud technology representing ocean data, and ships are isolated. On the other hand, you have these megatrends: industrializing the oceans, even if it sounds like a negative term. I’m talking offshore wind farms, for example, and other types of industrial usage. We have autonomous systems getting into the ocean, gathering more and more data, and we finally have big satellite connections out there.” Noticing those megatrends was enough for Jann to see how the digital ocean environment could be totally reshaped. With TrueOcean, they built a cloud-platform product able to deal with huge amounts of raw data instead of solving a single problem project by project, client by client. “With this product, we were still digitizing the oceans, but with a long-term approach.” Although they made some mistakes in those first five years of the company, while restructuring it, Jann had the opportunity to avoid repeating them. 

Today, the startup focuses on digital tools that enable its customers to better understand their geospatial data and make informed decisions. The TrueOcean platform makes it easier for marine professionals to access, visualize and use their ocean data to drive offshore projects, and the TrueEarth platform allows experts to access, visualize, share and use geo-referenced data to drive their projects. In 2024, north.io was listed among the Global Top 100 Geospatial Companies by Geoawesomeness.

The ecosystem in Kiel has a tremendous potential to even offer more in the future, especially in the ocean and geography tech space.

If Jann could give any advice to his younger entrepreneurial self, he would say, listen to your customers as early as possible. “As a founder, you have an idea, but that idea needs to be verified and challenged the whole time. Get other people involved from early on, and get them to challenge your idea from a usability or economic perspective. As the founder, you’re in love with your idea – there’s no question about it – and you want others to love it too. Sometimes, all you need is a twenty percent shift in a different direction to get other people to love it, and more importantly, to use it.”

Another challenge Jann encountered during his decade-long venture into entrepreneurship was managing his team as the company grew. “When we were five or ten people, everybody knew all the details. We were talking about the same thing all day. But then we were fifteen, then twenty, and it became different. You’re not seeing each other every day anymore.” Issues started arising because communication had more layers. “How do you communicate an idea, and which channel do you use? We have Slack, video calls, emails, phone calls, direct communication. That’s when you need to put structures in place, creating hierarchies for different business stages. And then you have to ask yourself: do existing colleagues still fit the growth stage we’re at now? Some people work better in a startup environment, some people like the structured, process-based approach of a larger business. It’s interesting to see how we can find solutions together, and an interesting challenge to figure out who fits at what time in a way that everyone is respected.” And while personally, Jann is not the type of person who enjoys routine and processes, he believes there is a very good reason to have them in place. “Otherwise, the ideas will never become reality.”

Today, north.io is preparing for its second funding round, entering the classic venture capital market. “We’re seventy people now, and we’re on the path to growth,” he says. Right now, the company is focused on Europe, but it receives increasing requests from the US and the Asia Pacific region. “We’re on a good path to growth, and we’re doing it all from Kiel.”

Jann Wendt — Photo by Jan Konitzki

For Jann, his business and family life are intrinsically connected to the city. “If Kiel didn’t have a master’s focused on digital tools in geography, I probably would have ended up in the Netherlands – they have a strong geoinformatics scene too. But Kiel had the course I was interested in, and I met my wife at university there too,” he says. “It’s the perfect place to be if you’re working with the ocean somehow.” For example, with Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research GEOMAR Kiel, the government supports research projects and corporations that strengthen the ecosystem. “Many people are joining us from the academic field after finishing their postdocs and PhDs. The ecosystem in Kiel has a tremendous potential to even offer more in the future, especially in the ocean and geography tech space. It is quite connected.” 

As a former researcher, Jann sees critical points in today’s academic system and believes that becoming an entrepreneur showed him how to translate a theoretical idea into something that adds value to society and to the economy. “Theoretical research and the economy are usually so far away from each other, which definitely needs to change. The academic system often cannot create enough practical value, but research-oriented entrepreneurship can change that. Founding a company is, for sure, one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had.”

Having built a company in the region for the past ten years, Jann has not only grown as an entrepreneur himself but also watched the city’s startup ecosystem develop and change. “There’s a young spirit coming to the city. Okay, we’re not an extremely beautiful old town, but we’re realizing that our value lies in the vicinity of the ocean. We are getting more tourists, more infrastructure, and we have a major opportunity to incorporate the ocean into the city’s vision and approach to urbanism and development. It’s a holistic growth.”

[Flash Q & A]

What’s your favorite book?
No Rules Rules. NETFLIX and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. I highly recommend it.

What’s your most used app? 
It’s probably Asana.

Do you have a favorite podcast?
I like Lex Fridman’s podcast a lot.

‍[City Recommendations]

Favorite restaurant:
I like to try new things. But there is this one Greek restaurant in Altenholz, Hellas. Very good Greek food and absolutely recommendable.

Favorite place to go for creative thinking:
There’s a place in Wrohe where you can sit on a bench, watch the sunset, look at the lake and think.

Local food that a newcomer has to try:
Kieler Sprotten [smoked sprats], for sure. 

Favorite thing to do on a weekend:
Spending time with the family or going on a mountain bike trip with some friends.

One thing newcomers should be aware of:
Don’t expect Kiel to be an old-town city. It’s modern, young. To fully understand it, visit both the West and East sides.