September 12, 2019

Do I know you?

Ville Simola is leading the charge for Europe’s biggest startup hub.
Ville Simola is leading the charge for Europe’s biggest startup hub.
Julia Bushueva

Things have come full circle for Ville Simola, the new CEO of Helsinki-based startup hub Maria 01.

A press release went out in early September declaring a bold projection: in 2023, the biggest startup campus in Europe will be run from a former hospital in Helsinki. In four short years, the release decreed, Maria 01 will grow to 70 000 square metres in size, housing 650 new operators and new jobs for at least 4 000 people.

Whilst undoubtedly exciting, this lofty goal must weigh heavy on the shoulders of the one in charge. Surely the freshly appointed CEO of Maria 01, Ville Simola, is feeling the pinch at the foot of the mountain.

On the contrary. Simola is a beacon of cool on the day of the announcement. In many ways, this is a case of history repeating itself, of him returning to a familiar landscape. A decade earlier, he had a hand in establishing the pioneering business accelerator Startup Sauna at Aalto University, at a time when Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv were the only hives of fresh business activity on the planet, a time when the word ‘disruption’ was more readily applied to a frustrating morning commute than an industry as a whole.

A handful of years later, after accelerating around 70 companies that raised around 13 million euros in funding, the corporate world beckoned. Another handful later, the phone rang. It was the now former CEO of Maria 01, Voitto Kangas, in search of his successor.

Simola’s experience in both corporate and startup industries made him a strong contender in the initial pool of candidates. After a couple of interview rounds with the Maria 01 board, he was chosen as the new CEO.

A true experiment, the City of Helsinki had initially dedicated 3 000 square metres of the former hospital to the startup cause. The buzz quickly filled out the available buildings on site, whose interior retains many of the facets of their former functions. Operating theatres, consultation rooms and waiting rooms house the companies of tomorrow – and the CEOs of today. Simola pulls up a chair in a makeshift meeting room, a surgeon’s light glaring through a small porthole in the wall.

This place is really something!

Yeah. These facilities date all the way back to 130 years ago, when the hospital was first built. Everything from ER to surgeries in different fields were handled here. We still have the morgue in its original form, which is nice and a little bit awkward as well.

Is that where you send startups that just aren’t working out?

Lots of people ask that. But, so far, we haven’t been that brutal to anybody. [laughs]

So, why did you take this job?

I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I have had lots of different roles at different organisations, but the way I work and think is very much with the entrepreneur mindset. It was Risto Siilasmaa who put it well: entrepreneurship is about having a sense of ownership. You can work at many different organisations, but if you have a sense of ownership then you can consider yourself an entrepreneur.

I had been thinking in the back of my mind that I should come back to the startup side. When I heard the vision for Maria 01’s growth, it was big. I like big challenges.

Are you targeting any particular region for the growth?

Obviously because we are close to the Nordics and the Baltics, it’s natural to co-operate with our neighbours. But we are not targeting a specific area. We want a global reach.

We currently have 48 different nationalities represented here. The ratio is around 25 per cent non-Finns. Compared to other startup hotspots, this is a pretty good number. Obviously, we want to be more international. What would be great is to get more companies to establish themselves at Maria 01. We have seen the Swedish company Voi come here with their e-scooters, and Estonian companies like Bolt – the main challenger for Uber – selecting Maria 01 as their base for Nordic expansion. Those kinds of examples I’d like to see more of.

Currently only 16 per cent of applicants are successful in joining Maria 01. What are the criteria for getting the green light?

That’s a really important question. The core of the business at Maria 01 is curation. That’s what makes it special. It’s not about having a cool facility in a central location, it’s more about selecting the right people to come here.

When talking about startups and growth companies, they need to be somehow involved in technology and have a potentially scalable business model. We want to see that the team is strong, or with a different skill set.

We also hope that the team has already closed some funding, such as a seed-round investment; it offers proof that these guys are on to something and, at the same time, hope that they will have their product ready at some stage. So, they can say they have some traction, have some customers. This is what we look for.

How does Maria 01 itself then scale up to become the biggest in Europe?

With our focus and company portfolio. Most of the companies here at the moment are early-stage companies and investors. For the future campus, in addition to these, it will be growth companies, scale-up companies or large companies with R&D, so there is a clear link with the startup scene and tech.

Have you brought any learnings from Startup Sauna to this ambitious plan?

Back then, of course, a lot of things were on a small scale, but definitely the mentality, the culture etc. are the same. It helps that coming here I know many things are the same. In terms of scaling it is a lot bigger here. I see my corporate background being a really good basis for that. Having more structure in place and having things in place that enable the growth. I am combining both ends with this job.

What is it about startups that excites you?

At the end of the day it’s about – it sounds naïve – changing the world. Startups can change the world. What Uber is doing for the taxi business, what Airbnb is doing for the hotel business, what fintech companies are doing for the banking sector, it’s huge. It all comes down to the startup culture. I think that any company entering Maria 01 should have and does have the potential to change the world. That’s what excites me.

It’s also really cool to hear the growth stories, which takes me back to my times at Startup Sauna. I remember back then we toured around and found this really cool team in Tampere, of two guys and a guitar. They were pitching a music entertainment game that they would sell to kindergartens and stuff like that. A really cool team. We invited them to the Helsinki region, and during that eight-week programme it was amazing to see the team’s mindset grow. We took them to Silicon Valley to meet some investors. After this, they decided not to do door-to-door sales, they decided on digital channels. The company is now Yousician. Roughly 30 million euros in sales and 100-plus employees, and they are the number one music education game. Seeing these kinds of stories and people growing, that’s really cool.

Let’s change tack for a moment to some more personal questions. Do you have a morning routine?

I should answer that I wake up at 5:00 am and do a workout [laughs]. I actually used to do that. I was preparing for a triathlon. I did my first Ironman last year. After that, I’ve been feeling kinda empty. [laughs]

My routine is pretty much reading the paper, having coffee and breakfast, taking the kids to kindergarten, and heading to work. What I’m trying to do, after this initial hectic period is over, is have two mornings a week to go for a run or to the gym.

Being from Helsinki yourself, what do you like about the city?

Well, if you look at it from the Finnish perspective, Helsinki is The Big City and some people don’t want to drive their car here as they feel it’s too crowded. It is a city, yes, but it has more of a town feel, really. If you want a quiet environment, you will always find it here. That’s what I enjoy most about being here: a town-like city. Everything is easy to access. With every company you need to meet or place to go, you can be there in 15 minutes.

“Idea is king – execution is King Kong.” Where did you get your favourite motto from?

It comes from the Startup Sauna times. There was a lot of stuff to do with limited human resources. It was just ‘execute, execute, execute’. If you have all these great ideas and then don’t make them happen, they mean nothing. Part of it is having the courage to try out things – even if some of them will fail, not being afraid of that.

Does Maria 01 have a motto?

Yes, the tagline we have at the entrance is ‘Not a hospital’. Actually, when Maria 01 started, there were a lot of people coming here and needing care and to see a doctor. It was a problem. Some of them were badly hurt and we had to call the ambulance to come pick them up and take them to a real hospital.

Startups have three years to prove themselves at Maria 01 before they must move on. Why?

We believe in a sense of urgency, so we adapted a similar rotation model as Startup Sauna. This doesn’t apply only to the startups, but to our team as well. We want people to move forward. After three years, the startups have often grown to the extent that we can’t physically accommodate them anymore. There are 20–30-plus people at these companies. It’s really hard to find them space here.

This is the path we want to facilitate. If we keep everybody here forever, I think that the curation aspect would not be there. For the investors to see that companies have been here for five to ten years and are not moving forward, definitely the quality would not be there anymore.

Maybe if startups realise that their idea is not a 100-million euro business, but could still be an OK business, they can ask themselves if Maria 01 is the right place or is there another place to do business. We don’t want to create startup zombies either, and this is the best way not to.

So, should 100 million be the goal of every startup then?

That’s just a number. If you think about the startup scene in Europe in general, few companies have reached the billion-euro threshold. We have some unicorns, mostly in gaming, in Finland. The right goal should be to aim for that, aim for the billion. But still, reaching the 100-million mark is a pretty good effort.

Interview and text: James O’Sullivan

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