Polar Bear Pitching: Hot mobile apps come in from the cold

Flexing its current technological muscle, the city of Oulu in Finland shows that in addition to being a hub of 5G and 6G development, it is also a hot house for mobile apps, even from a hole in the ice

Just over a quarter of the way in, 2024 has already shown signs of being the year when things got back to normal. CES 2024 in January hosted 138,789 visitors from around the globe, with a record 1,442 companies exhibiting. In the last week of February, the mobile technology jamboree that is MWC saw a record 101,000 unique in-person attendees from 205 countries, giving the distinct impression of a return to pre-Covid days. The same week as MWC saw the equally welcome return of Polar Bear Pitching, the first since 2020.

Billed as the coolest pitching event of its kind in the world – almost certainly literally true on a mercury level basis and on a vastly smaller scale to what was happening at the same time in Barcelona – the event captured the imagination of mobile app innovation and artificial intelligence (AI), firming up the reputation of its base in Oulu, Finland, of being a hotspot for technology development despite being near the Arctic Circle.

As reported earlier this year by Computer Weekly, the city of Oulu is at the forefront of cutting-edge development in telecommunications and networking, and is currently a pace leader in research and development in the growing 6G mobile technology ecosystem.

Located in the Finnish midlands at 65 degrees north, just over an hour’s flight from Helsinki, the city of Oulu has 215,000 inhabitants, growing at over 3,000 a year. It is the leading tech hub for Finland. Looking at the country’s research and development (R&D) expenditure per capita in 2022, Oulu saw €3.437bn invested, followed by Vassa with €2.703bn, the country’s capital Helsinki on €2.345bn and Tampere with €2.169bn. More than a tenth of Oulu’s population are university students and the average age is 39.4 years. It is also going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2026.

The growth of Oulu as a tech hub is essentially a case of triumphing over adversity. The city was long a centre of excellence for Nokia and faced great uncertainty when the comms technology and services giant hit financial troubles around 2011. After the fall of Nokia, there were thousands of highly skilled, highly educated telecommunications engineers and other key knowledge workers across the city trying to figure out what to do next. What they did was tap into a technology and entrepreneurial spirit to form a tech hub determined to succeed. It is fair to say that the local tech sector is now flourishing.

In addition to being the home of the world-class University of Oulu (perhaps uniquely very well set up for mobile communications research), a large research facility from a new-generation Nokia and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the city is where Polar Bear Pitching has dug its roots. Or to be more exact, dug a hole in the ice and snow that covers everything in sub-zero February.

Photo of Polar Bear Pitching stage with slogan:
Polar Bear Pitching is billed as the coolest pitching event of its kind in the world

Run by BusinessOulu, and this year celebrating its tenth birthday, Polar Bear Pitching has the stated aim of “empowering startups to demonstrate their resilience and commitment to the whole world through an unconventional platform”.

This year’s event brought ten startups from a multitude of fields and nationalities to Oulu to compete for the attention of investors and a prize of €10,000 to help them develop their business further. Running alongside Polar Bear Pitching was the so-called IceTech Summit, a conference encompassing printed electronics, an area of expertise at VTT, and AI, offering what was described as a northern experience from companies including BusinesOulu, ICTOulu, iSoft.ai, Brightly Works and Silo AI. The agenda examined the underlying technology of large language models (LLMs), their diverse applications and societal impacts.

As well as local startups, the 10 teams competing in Polar Bear Pitching 2024 hailed from Japan, Iceland, Kazakhstan and Norway. The innovations and solutions on show encompassed sustainability, the environment, the circular economy and AI. Eight of the teams for the main event had been selected by a panel of experts at BusinessOulu, while two teams qualified by winning the pitching competitions at satellite events in Hokkaido in Japan and Kirkenes in Norway.

The pitch was totally unique. Intrepid representatives of the startups jumped into freezing water exposed by cutting a hole in the ice and pitched their company’s idea to the panel of experts for as long as they could bear. After the 10 contestants had immersed themselves in the sub-zero waters and thawed out in a very hot bath, the winner was announced as the first person to take the plunge, Aura Pyykönen, medical lead of Finland’s Natal Mind.

Photo of Aura Pyykönen, medical lead of Finland’s Natal Mind, making her pitch in a hole in the ice.
The first person to take the plunge – and eventual winner – Aura Pyykönen, medical lead of Finland’s Natal Mind, making her pitch in the icy water

Digital coaching in pregnancy

In its mission statement, Natal Mind says it focuses on calmer pregnancy and better birth through the Nordic method. It aims to combine virtual maternity care and LLM-supported mental health with wearable devices through a mobile app designed for pregnant women and their partners. The app offers a personalised digital coach that suggests user-targeted and clinically validated psychotherapy techniques and physical exercises, connected to wearable data. These exercises are intended to prepare individuals for childbirth and the postpartum period, as well as to alleviate fear and anxious feelings towards parenthood, birth and the recovery process.

Currently, Natal Mind is a Research to Business project at Finland’s Aalto University, funded by a public grant from Business Finland, a public organisation under the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy, with the goal of attracting trade, tourism and foreign investment, and providing funds for innovation to Finland.

[Polar Bear Pitching] was a great opportunity to prepare a really condensed and focused pitch. And the work and effort we put into preparation actually set the whole business forward
Aura Pyykönen, Natal Mind

The company is looking to spin off into a startup in 2024. A nationwide clinical trial on the effectiveness of the Natal Mind solution is ongoing in Finland, in collaboration with HUS Helsinki University Hospital. As part of its development, Natal Mind is looking for scaling partners to take Nordic maternity care to global markets. Target partners include Maternity clinics, hospitals, academic institutions, insurance companies, investors and FemTech enthusiasts.

In terms of the business arena that it is working in, Natal Mind believes it sits in the intersection of the post-partum depression market, AI in mental health and the wearable device industry. In terms of the financial value of the respective total addressable markets (TAM), it calculates the post-partum depression market to have a current TAM of $55.3bn and a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30.4%; AI and mental health to have a TAM of $12.7bn and CAGR of 37.5%; and the wearables industry to have a TAM of $931.3bn and a CAGR of 33.9%.

Polar Bear Pitching saw the company represented by its three lead partners. Pyykönen describes herself as an obstetrician and gynaecologist by profession and an entrepreneur at heart. She is joined by head of psychology Riikka Lemmetyinen, who during her years at the Women’s Clinic in Helsinki University Hospital led group therapy sessions for patients grappling with severe fear of childbirth, and commercial lead Annika Järvelin, who has as a background in digital user experience design, business strategy, branding and marketing. Her previous venture, a sustainable travel startup, took her on a global journey. The team also consists of research lead Henni Tenhunen, product lead Wintom Zecarias and content specialist Hanna-Mari Kuikka.

Doing healthcare the right way

Talking with Computer Weekly about how the company came about and her reasons for forming a startup, Pyykönen, who is a practising medical doctor, attributed the drivers to mainly having an impact-minded mentality and a passion for doing healthcare the right way.

“I left my ‘safe’ hospital position in 2021 because I felt I couldn’t deliver the care in the way I thought it should be delivered. I was spending more time with computers than with people. I didn’t have chance to talk with anybody or form a comprehensive picture of problems when I was too busy attending to the ‘urgent stuff’. Then I established an online clinic for women with a holistic, compassionate approach,” she recalls.

“Annika, with a designer background, got interested in women’s health elsewhere and reached out to me because of my online clinic and suggested we work together. And Riikka, our psychologist, was working with me in our online clinic Isla, and she knows Annika from childhood. She was immediately interested in joining forces in doing something different.”

Aerial view of the Polar Bear Pitching event, with a hole cut in the ice from which startups pitch their ideas
Polar Bear Pitching is totally unique, with a hole cut in the ice from which startups pitch their ideas

Looking at the business environment in which she is now working in, and the challenges that her business is facing, Pyykönen says she has a strong belief in the need to find scalable “low-level” care and support models that free up the scarce resources to where she believes they are most desperately needed.

“We decided to set up research first and company second, mostly because of local funding structures. We got this so-called Research to Business funding (€700,000) which requires us not to be company first but to test and study the concept within the university setting,” she reveals.

From a technological perspective, the development of Natal Mind’s minimum viable product (MVP) was partially outsourced to a company called Healthware (Eversana), a leading provider of global commercial services to the life sciences industry, where two developers have been in charge of the technical development. Code has now been transferred to the team’s CTO, Mikael Högqvist, who has been charged with developing the software together with Järvelin, who is in charge of user interface and user experience (UI/UX).

Funding growth

With more funding, Natal Mind plans that from 2025 it will hire one or two more developers. Pyykönen expresses confidence that its market, which she regards as massive, will grow rapidly and that Natal Mind is well positioned to grow commensurately.

“Our goal is to capture a small share of this big market. Also, we position ourselves in several different markets and there’s an overlap [of the post-partum depression, AI in mental health and wearables market]. We intend to launch the first commercial version primarily outside Finland, due to the small market size in Finland alone, and aim at the UK as our primary market.”

Photo of the Natal Mind team receiving a €10,000 cheque for winning Polar Bear Pitching 2024
Natal Mind plans to use the €10,000 funding to cover the bridge period between spinning off from the university and getting future investment

The €10,000 from Polar Bear Pitching will be extremely useful in achieving these goals. Asked why she thought climbing into freezing water was a good idea, Pyykönen says the team thought it would give the company some great footage and visibility.

“[Polar Bear Pitching] was a great opportunity to prepare a really condensed and focused pitch. And the work and effort we put into preparation actually set the whole business forward. We will use the money to cover the bridge period spinning off from the university and getting the future investment in – so no extravaganza there, but the money offers much-needed help with the technical issues during the transfer period. It has been a journey to get where we are now, and it seems the funding for the future remains our main challenge with the current freezing investor climate.”

How ironic, that plunging into the freezing temperature is helping the startup beat this freeze.

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