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Aalto University: The startup’s starting place

Helsinki's Aalto University is at the heart of one of the world's most productive tech startup hotbeds

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW EMEA: CW EMEA: Aalto University – where ideas take off

Helsinki’s status as a prominent tech breeding ground is well established, with an alumnus contingent that includes Rovio, Supercell, ICEYE and the world-renowned Slush event. Every startup needs a starting place, however, and for many Finnish innovators, their stories began at Aalto University. 

Established as a priority project as part of the Finnish university renewal, the idea behind Aalto was to create an innovative institution that would merge science, technology, design, art, business and economics. Formed in 2010 as an amalgamation of schools and universities specialising in these exact areas, it has since grown to comprise six schools, host 12,000 full-time students and employ 4,000 members of staff.   

Yet, one of its most significant roles goes beyond fostering technical expertise and harnessing innovation. In its current form, Aalto University exists as a starting point for entrepreneurs - an all-under-one-roof enabler of the transition from education to startup developer. 

Tomi Erho, head of innovation ecosystem services at the institution, tells Computer Weekly: “Aalto University is the home of tech innovations firstly, but the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society run by students has been key since the early 2010s in advancing the greater Helsinki ecosystem to the level and stage it is nowadays.”

He adds: “The university, based in Espoo, just outside Helsinki, has continuously supported students financially and through its facilities, while stepping back and empowering them to take charge of advancing their ideas.

“Now, Aalto University is home to a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem and culture. The ecosystem is powered by both student-led entrepreneurial activities and the university's own research and innovation hubs. The result is an embedded culture that guides the transition between academia and business development – a culture that is now typical of the Helsinki tech ecosystem more generally.” 

Technically-skilled, business-aware 

By providing budding entrepreneurs with the facilities, equipment, space and security to manifest their first forays into startup development, Aalto has become a critical cog in the Helsinki tech machine. Its Entrepreneurial Mindset strategy seeks to embed learning of entrepreneurial skills into its traditional academic courses, to make that transition seamless and organic.  

“The aim is to have 100% of the students attend a class where they learn these skills, perhaps without even realising it in some cases. For example, it would simply be part of their engineering training to also become business-aware,” Erho explains.

“However, towards the end of their studies, students, corporates and startups begin to come together as they think about their futures. They can do this and work jointly on ideas in our dedicated Design Factory.” 

One of the most exciting moments in this job will always be seeing a student or researcher make that transition to becoming a successful entrepreneur
Tomi Erho, Aalto University

There are then options put forward to these groups, for them to channel the ideas being fostered. Some will move into research or become a doctorate candidate as part of an academic department. This often leads to a more research-driven business idea, as epitomised by global microsatellite manufacturer, ICEYE. Alternatively, a student might feel emboldened enough at that stage to establish a company immediately, where various incubator and accelerator programmes are also on offer to assist.  

While the programmes on offer through Aalto don’t provide direct financial support, there are partnerships with affiliated financiers in the Helsinki ecosystem as well, with venture capitalists keeping an ever-watchful eye on fresh graduates and their inevitable innovations developed at the university. 

Global success stories 

Revisiting two of Aalto’s success stories, the university can justifiably claim to have played an important role in the successes of ICEYE and Slush. The former originated from the university nanosatellite group, Aalto-1, a combined offering courtesy of the Aalto Business School and the Stanford University Technology Ventures programme. Learning both technical expertise and entrepreneurial acumen, the result since 2012 has been one of the world’s pioneering microsatellite manufacturers leading innovations in outer space. 

Meanwhile, Slush has become something of a household name when it comes to tech events, attracting 12,000 people in 2022 alone. However, its early days can once again be tracked back to the university where Aalto students took over its development soon after inception and guided the event to where it is today. 

Additional success stories have seen sold in 2019 for $200m, with its co-founder Kristo Ovaska kickstarting the idea at Aalto, where he was also one of the founders of the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society in 2009. Similarly, former president of the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society, Miki Kuusi, sold his company, Wolt, to DoorDash in 2021 in an $8bn deal. 

Merging disciplines 

As the relationship between academia and entrepreneurship becomes stronger year after year, the influence on Helsinki’s wider tech ecosystem becomes more pronounced. Enter, Woamy – a biomanufacturing company founded as recently as June 2022 by a diverse multidisciplinary group of scientists and designers. 

“Our material was invented by a group of researchers in Aalto University and developed under a Foamwood research project that was funded also by the Business Finland research-to-business department,” explains Woamy’s CEO, Susanna Partanen.

“We closed our $1m seed round in January 2023 and we’re now at full speed scaling up the technology during 2023. The result will be a container-sized machine capable of producing 10 cubic metres of bio-based and biodegradable foam material per day. This will take Woamy one step closer to reaching the industrial scale that will have a big, positive environmental impact.” 

Capitalising on the bridging of engineering and tech, academic know-how and entrepreneurial facilitation, Partanen attributes the company’s rapid success to this seamless collaboration and transition. 

“We would not be here without Aalto,” she says. “Our innovation is born from a decade of scientific research and nurtured by the Aalto culture that encourages new innovations and environmentally friendly solutions. Not to mention the great research facilities it provides.  

“Aalto is also where our multidisciplinary founders met, and we see it as a huge benefit that we have such a diverse team with a vast skillset. We are still collaborating with Aalto and plan to do so in the future as well - while we also love to give Aalto students a place to grow their skills inside our startup.”  

An exciting vantage point 

Partanen describes Aalto University as the birthplace of such multidisciplinary spinoffs, and therefore as a primary influencer of Helsinki’s broader tech startup culture. 

“Moreover, the university matched our philosophy to make the transition from research to business smoother and quicker, so we can more quickly help to solve all the problems we face in this world. Many societies and ecosystems are slow to utilise all available innovations, but Aalto is doing a great job making this path smooth,”  she says.

This strength isn’t lost on Erho at Aalto who noted that the university is active in bringing new and different programmes into student society. One initiative tested last autumn was called Deep Dive, a 24-hour competition encouraging students to help research-based early-stage startups. 

The key is exposure in a safe and supportive environment – both to the technical skills required to inspire innovation, but also to the commercial facets that will dictate whether these innovations are scalable in the outside world. 

Erho aptly concludes: “At Aalto, I am excited on a daily basis to see world-class research taking place, and to witness all the outstanding graduates who will change the world in their own unique ways. 

“However, personally, as a Finnish institution at the centre of Helsinki’s exciting tech ecosystem, one of the most exciting moments in this job will always be seeing a student or researcher make that transition to becoming a successful entrepreneur.” 

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