Johnian magazine issue 51, autumn 2023
Caroline Walerud: career spotlight
As an entrepreneur and investor, Caroline Walerud (2011) has a passion for building deep tech solutions to everyday problems. Caroline is Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of Volumental, which uses 3D scanning and artificial intelligence to accurately measure feet for perfectly fitting shoes, and AirForestry, a company which is reducing carbon emissions by using electric drones to thin forests from the air.
Please tell us a little about your background.
I’ve always loved learning how the world works from different angles and solving problems. Growing up in Stockholm I attended an international school with fantastic teachers who let me run wild with my nerdy interests – often going way beyond our formal curriculum. I fell in love with biology, seeking to understand how ecosystems work and learning about the inner workings of our cells and our brains.
As a teenager, I worked most summers. In a couple of those years, I baked sourdough bread and sold it door to door. Another year I did order fulfilment for an early e-commerce company and worked at Karolinska Institute as a research intern managing a study on problem-solving skills. I’ve always been interested in how research applies to real-world situations.
How did your time at Cambridge and your Natural Sciences degree support your career?
I wish I could relive my three years in Cambridge again and again – I feel I only took one of a thousand fun paths through university! Natural Sciences was intense with lectures six days a week, but I learned so much useful concrete knowledge. I learnt everything from understanding how people and cells work to transferable skills like coding in R, writing well and getting things done fast… And we had some great discussions in supervisions!
When I started my master’s degree, however, I realised that the actual research work wasn’t for me. Despite my love of nature and biology, my strongest passions at Cambridge had been teamwork and driving organisations, for example as President of the University Women’s Basketball Club and the Scandinavian Society. So I came home to Stockholm knowing that I wanted to work in business. I got a job as the first employee at a start-up doing satellite image analysis of forests, a really exciting combination of natural sciences and organisation-building.
Please give us an overview of your career so far. Are there any particular highlights that you would like to share?
In 2012, the year after I graduated, I co-founded Volumental with three PhD students at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Volumental is shaping a world free from sizes by using 3D scanning and artificial intelligence to match people with shoes that fit them perfectly. To date we’ve scanned more than 45 million feet, and our technology is deployed with top brands, at over 3000 stores in more than 50 countries. We’ve just launched in ecommerce to make sure people everywhere can easily find their perfect fit! And our foot data helps brands design shoes that fit better, reducing the huge waste and frustration of bad fit and returns.
In the first three years I was CEO, we grew the team to 20 employees and raised $3 million in venture capital and $2 million in grants. Now I’m Chairman of the Board. In 2016 I was listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Leaderboard for our pioneering work transforming retail.
From a humiliating hunt for just one pair of shoes that might fit, I can now get a fit-ranked list of shoes at any Volumental-powered store. This summer in London I visited Runners Need and New Balance, took in the two top-ranked pairs, which both fit perfectly, and I picked the prettier pair. It’s such a relief!
Today I split my time between Volumental and AirForestry, where I am an Executive Chairman, Co-Founder and Investor. AirForestry is reinventing forestry with electric drones. In Sweden alone, by thinning trees more gently we can reduce direct emissions by 20 million tons of carbon dioxide per year – that’s almost halfway to Sweden’s net zero target! The World Economic Forum recently shared a great little video that explains what we do.
It is magnificent to witness our product in action. I remember well the first time our six-metre drone hovered over the tree line and directed the harvesting tool so it hugged a tree top, when the harvesting tool dropped with just gravity and cut the branches, sawing off the tree at the bottom, and then seeing the drone and tool lift a whole tree.
Besides that, I am a partner at Walerud Ventures, investing in pre-seed, deep-tech projects for the living planet. We were the first investors and active team members in Klarna, the fintech unicorn; Paebbl, the carbon re-storing company; and Graphmatech, advanced graphene materials, among others. Right now, we’re not investing in new companies, but I mentor entrepreneurs through Prince Daniel’s Fellowship, the accelerator Sting, and Creative Destruction Lab.
What motivated you to co-found and lead Volumental and AirForestry?
For me it’s all about solving important problems with great people.
In the case of Volumental, it was about recognising that each human body is a unique shape that can’t be categorised with a single size or number. We need a size ‘me’ option and Volumental provides that intelligence. I love working with our world-class AI and commercial teams to make sure no bad-fitting products are ever produced or sold again.
At AirForestry I saw the opportunity to create more beautiful and resilient forests while making a gigaton carbon impact. We also have a stellar team in electrification, aviation and forest machinery. Commercial forestry is an important source of sustainable biomaterials. It requires thinning (removing small sick trees to allow larger ones to grow), but today that’s done with 20-ton machines that require 20% of the forest to be clear-cut just so the machines can drive through the forest. They mash the ground, hurt sensitive ecosystems and leak mercury into waterways. We are solving forestry’s biggest challenges by moving the machines into the air!
Where do you hope your career will take you next?
I’ve found a good spot, working to scale up deep tech for the living planet with brilliant entrepreneurs and innovators. I’m fully focused on helping Volumental, AirForestry and our other companies succeed.
Over time, I hope my work can help Europe’s competitiveness and growth. Europe is a leader in nudging companies to become more sustainable and fair. I’m concerned we may become just consumers of foreign products if we don’t start, scale and keep more companies here.
That’s a big mission and I think it will take my whole career!
Caroline is Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of businesses Volumental and AirForestry. She is also a Partner at Walerud Ventures and a mentor at Prince Daniel’s Fellowship, Sting incubator and Creative Destruction Lab. In 2013 she was named ‘No. 1 Swedish Supertalent of the Year’, she was on the first Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list in 2016 and was named one of Sweden’s most powerful women within technology by the Swedish Business Week in 2017.