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There are laser beams, electric beats, recycled keyboards and even the occasional prime minister, president, prince and Nobel Prize winner. It is this mix of the influential with a party-like atmosphere that has put Finnish non-profit startup conference, Slush, firmly on the global technology map.
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Now in its seventh year, this month’s two-day event was a record-breaker, bringing together 15,000 entrepreneurs, investors and media representatives from more than 100 countries.
Slush is one of the world’s biggest tech startup events and has taken on increasing importance as Finland’s startup scene flourishes despite wider national economic uncertainty.
“It is thanks to people like you that technology and technology-related business has developed to what it is today,” Finnish prime minister Juha Sipilä, himself an IT entrepreneur, said in the Slush opening address. “Here in this room there is a world record number of early-stage venture capital investors... I am sure you will find good use for your money.”
The investors had plenty to do, with 1,700 startups from all sectors attending Slush 2015 and hoping to become the next Nordic superstar, following the likes of Supercell, Skype, Zendesk and Linux.
Turning the spotlight on startups is a welcome change given Finland’s recent struggles. Once famous for Nokia handsets (acquired by Microsoft in 2014) and its booming forest industry, the country is now in its third year of recession and is looking to the startup community to revive its growth and competitiveness.
“As businesses are becoming more service-oriented, bulk exports won’t have as big a role to play in the future,” said Hanna Martikainen-Deakins, head of industry at Finpro, the Finnish public organisation which supports SMEs that want to serve international customers.
“Startups are the ones who have the new ideas and innovations that can also be utilised by traditional players,” she added.
Mattias Hansson, CEO at online invoicing startup Zervant, was one of the many entrepreneurs at Slush with Nokia experience and has seen Finland’s startup scene evolve to what it is today.
“It has changed massively since 2010 – and for the better,” he said. “It is a lot more recognised and appreciated now, both on a national and pan-Nordic level. If you rewind to 2010, the main focus was on game developers. It’s now a lot broader, and covers all industries.
“Slush has been central for the positive development of the startup scene, both within Finland and abroad.”
Established companies look to startups
As Slush has grown from 300 local attendees to become an international event, it has also become increasingly attractive to larger enterprises – and that trend continues to grow in 2015.
Among those bigger enterprises was lift and escalator manufacturer Kone which, despite being more than 100 years old, went to Slush looking for new startup partners.
“Our vision is to provide the best ‘people flow experience’,” said Jukka Salmikuukka, director of new business concepts at Kone. “This is such a wide area that, firstly, we cannot come up with all the ideas for it and, secondly, we cannot execute everything ourselves. Startups are innovative and early adopters of new technologies, which is why we want to work with them.”
The world is increasingly digital and corporations are turning to fast-moving startup teams to keep up with the latest changes and boost innovation.
“Maybe the key impact that startups have in society is that they shape industries,” said Petri Malinen, economist at the Federation of Finnish Enterprises. “Startups help the more traditional players evolve and adapt to the changing operational environments. The more traditional the sector, the more important it is to build these kinds of ecosystem.”
Marko Lehtimäki, CEO of Finnish startup AppGyver, agrees. He has plenty of experience with startup-corporation collaboration as the company’s code-free tools for business application development – the latest of which was launched at Slush 2015 – have won customers including global giants IBM and Disney.
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“Big corporations cannot innovate as quickly as startups,” said Lehtimäki. “It may sound like a cliche, but it’s a fact based on how corporations operate.
“In a startup, we have 20-odd people who focus on just the one thing we want to solve. There are lots of misses, of course, but when a startup gets it right, that brings real competitive advantage.”
That is why many larger companies are also looking to learn a few lessons from startups. One of those to do so successfully is Finnish security firm F-Secure.
“About three years ago, we started to think we needed to stay as agile as startups,” said Samu Konttinen, F-Secure’s executive vice-president. “That is why we have created operational models for internal startups. They have become a strong part of F-Secure’s innovation culture.
“We don’t try to make everything a formulaic part of big product administration – that often doesn’t lead to disruptive ideas, but to linear improvements.”
The latest fruits from this approach were showcased at Slush 2015, where F-Secure launched its first hardware product, Sense, which is the handiwork of its internal startup team.
The router-like device acts as a single hub to protect the increasing number of smart devices in homes.
Cradle for new technologies
The launch of Sense was just one of many examples of new Nordic technologies showcased at Slush 2015. For example, Tallinn-based startup Starship Technologies presented its alternative to delivery drones, a 4mph self-driving robot that can deliver parcels and shopping bags from nearby stores.
Also popular was Solu, an ambitious Finnish startup that has created a pocket-sized touchscreen computer that runs entirely from the cloud.
As innovative as these ideas are, the big question is still whether startups can have a real economic impact on a national scale. Zervant’s Hansson is confident this is already happening in Finland.
“It’s a positive impact, and a long-term one, too,” he said. “Startups are employing a lot of people and creating a lot of jobs. Larger corporations are currently laying off people, but the startup scene is attracting top talent to Finland.”