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Helsinki’s tech and business ecosystem in 90 days
Helsinki gives tech entrepreneurs a taste of life and business in Finland for 90 days as it bids to attract global tech startups
For the third consecutive year, Helsinki is urging the world’s most entrepreneurial, innovative and interesting people to become Finns for 90 days.
Helsinki Partners’ 90 Day Finn initiative was initiated in 2020, as a way to attract investors, entrepreneurs and tech talent to the country despite there being a 90-day threshold on visits during the pandemic. Offering structured access to the country’s renowned tech ecosystem by way of social, business and mentorship activities, each of the two cohorts so far have sought to experience Finnish life while expanding their business networks.
The result is 20% of alumni still living in the city today, a host more seeking similar residence permits with support from Helsinki Partners, and a third cohort of 15 people from around the world set to begin their 90-day adventures this year.
“The original idea was born in the middle of the pandemic when people were moving out from Silicon Valley for the first time. We, like many others, wanted to attract those experts to Finland,” said Johanna Huurre, director of strategic initiatives at Helsinki Partners.
“However, Helsinki is not at the front of mind for wider groups of US investors, entrepreneurs and tech talent, so traditional marketing was not an option. Based on our experience, Helsinki sells itself, but the challenge was how to get the people to Helsinki when there was no travelling during the pandemic,” she added.
“At that time, US citizens could come to Finland for 90 days without a visa, so we decided to invite people to test life in the country and see what they thought. We expected a few applicants, but instead there were thousands.”
Helsinki’s tech acumen was already well known, but at a time where business travel seemed inconceivable, entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers were being given a chance to explore one of the world’s happiest, most sustainable, equal and innovative cities. They jumped at the chance – and continue to do so.
“Our 90 Day Finn participants so far have been more than impressed with the city’s tech and startup ecosystems. The recurring phrase we always hear is that it is ‘a hidden gem’,” said Huurre.
Ambassadors for the city
Helsinki, Helsinki Partners and the 90 Day Finn programme certainly aren’t hidden anymore. Despite only 10-15 participants being selected to take part each year, thousands have applied for each of the three rounds so far. The lure for most continues to be the mix of technical influence and opportunity, along with the social perks of living in Finland.
Johanna Huurre, Helsinki Partners
“Our original idea was to offer an overview of the strengths of Helsinki’s business ecosystem, while providing a natural sneak peek into the Finnish way of living. However, this was compounded by giving all participants the connections needed to proceed with their business plans in Finland,” Huurre explained.
“We wanted everyone to enjoy their time in Finland to the point where they’d tell their networks about their experiences. In essence, participants would become business ambassadors, raising awareness of Helsinki’s strengths,” she added.
This initial mission relied on achieving a diverse mix of participants, not just in terms of nationality, but also their business objectives. Investors, entrepreneurs and tech specialists have all been added to the melting pot to provide different perspectives, to advise on where Helsinki’s ecosystem could improve, and to enhance the chance of forming partnerships among themselves and across the city.
Huurre added: “Each year, the programme is tailored for the group and each individual, according to what they’re looking for. This includes both business and social events, while each participant also has their own ‘Helsinki Partners Friend’ as their dedicated guide to connect them with suitable organisations and thought leaders.”
A 90 Day family for life
While there was never any doubt that Helsinki would “sell itself” to the 90 Day Finns, Huurre was surprised at how many business plans came out of the first programme – and, indeed, how quickly.
“We soon realised that we weren’t just fostering a local network with participants meeting Finnish people and businesses, but we were providing a global network with participants connecting with each other, and expanding those ideas to global prospects.
“Even the second cohort, who arrived after Covid-19 restrictions had been lifted and also had to juggle their ongoing day jobs, found time to ignite new ideas and we had to evolve to support them in this balance.”
One member of that second cohort was Damon Hernandez from San Francisco. His expertise dissects the intersection of web, extended reality (XR) and related technologies for real-world/built environment and enterprise applications. He found out about 90 Day Finn while visiting Helsinki to see a friend, then quickly identified the potential benefits of immersing himself in the “digital city” sector, while also exploring the open metaverse as a particular area of interest.
“Add that to the renowned Finnish work-life balance – and it being ranked the happiest country in the world – and that is something definitely worth investigating,” Hernandez recalled. “I arrived in full geek mode, hoping to get better connected to those in the public and private sectors who were interested in immersive technologies, spatial web, and digital worlds/cities/twins for enterprise and industrial uses.
“Helsinki Partners gave us the red-carpet treatment and helped me to establish those industry connections. However, a far greater benefit I wasn’t expecting was the opportunity to develop such deep friendships with the other 90 Day Finns. Out of the programme, I met a lovely group of locals to help with my personal and professional needs in Finland, while also making a 90 Day family for life.”
Helping companies grow
With Helsinki Partners in the final stages of selecting the 15 global Finns to join the city’s ecosystem this year, there is the expectation that the programme will expand and improve once again in 2023.
Johanna Huurre, Helsinki Partners
Each of the two cohorts so far have shared extensive feedback as to how the programme can evolve in terms of raising awareness of the city, in fostering business opportunities, and in attracting more talent to Helsinki via this mode of immersive promotion.
“The general feedback has been extremely good. Participants have felt like they’ve been able to build a business network in Finland, in 90 days, when it would normally take years,” said Huurre. “While they have a better understanding of the ecosystem and opportunities that exist in Helsinki, we also continue to learn, and we appreciate just how valuable it is to invite more diversity into this business and tech ecosystem.
“90 Day Finns have become very well known in and around the city, and we can’t wait to meet the next cohort.”
Hernandez is delighted to have had first-hand experience of both these industry and social benefits.
He concluded: “The experience has been transformative regarding my professional career trajectory. After being exposed to the opportunities for startups and companies in Finland and the business connections made, I have founded with one of the other 90 Day Finns a web3 metaverse company named Mixx Reality here in Helsinki. We already have our first local client and growing interest from others in the EU and Latin America.
“Helsinki is a great place to develop and polish a product or technology solution before expanding to other markets. There are a variety of private and government-supported accelerators and programmes in various domains for companies, the engineering talent is superb, and there are some great communities present to help startups and companies grow.
“Ultimately, the 90 Day Finn programme enriches the city by merging a network of international industry leaders, investors and entrepreneurs with an already innovative and exciting local ecosystem.”
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