Finnish pitching event breaks the ice
This year’s Polar Bear Pitch contest in Oulu drew a record number of international contestants.
The significance of composer Jean Sibelius to Finnish culture cannot be understated. Given that the 150th anniversary of his birth occurs this year, it thus seems fitting to officially open an important event with a performance of his music. However, when Oulu Symphony Orchestra violinist Jari Suomalainen steps into an ice hole that has been cut in the frozen surface of the Oulujoki River and commences a musical tribute to the composer clad solely in a bathing suit, you can rest assured that this is an event like no other.
Welcome to the 2015 Polar Bear Pitch.
Held on 25 February, one-by-one competitors followed this musical introduction into the same ice hole from where they pitched their business ideas. A crowd watched eagerly on the riverbank, joined by a global audience following the online stream.
“It went really, really well,” states organiser Mia Kemppaala, who first came up with the concept in 2013 as a way to support the local business community. “The 20 companies had some really classy pitches.”
One notable change from last year’s inaugural event was that 11 of the finalists came from abroad. Given that ice swimming is not an activity indigenous to many of the cultures represented, some innovative approaches were employed in the lead up to the event.
“I bought a pack of ice from the supermarket every day and put it to the bath with cold water,” explains Israeli Michal Hubschmann from competition winners Relevancy Data. The company has developed face recognition technology that first emerged in the Israeli security sector, so that it can detect objects, logos, music and emotions in videos. “We can now use this technology in the online video advertising sphere where there is a great demand for this data of the analysed video content in order to better target ads.”
The international presence this year also extended to the final two positions in the top three. However, such a chilly physical challenge was a less unfamiliar task for them, having not travelled very far to get to Finland.
“Our company is managing employees’ wellness benefits,” explains Estonian Marti Soosaar, CEO of second-placed company Sport ID. “It is an out-of-the-box solution for companies to start a wellness programme among their employees.”
Third place went to Tinitell, a Swedish company whose mobile phone for children is worn on the wrist, and also boasts GPS capabilities.
“As an entrepreneur I spend a lot of time at the office,” founder Mats Horn explains. “I welcomed the idea to go for a swim in northern Finland.”
Aside from taking up the challenge of pitching succinctly, the chief goal of participating companies is to attract investment. Several venture capital companies and angel investors were present at the event, and many more were following online.
The interest generated by the event is such that over 60 per cent of companies competing last year have attracted financing. Aside from increased success with developing tools for businesses that offer corporate fitness services, 2014’s winning team Laturi Corporation still utilise the team working skills they developed for the event. Weekly ice swimming together has become part of the company’s weekly routine, according to organiser Kemppaala.
“I admire the quality of each of the start-ups to be brave enough to face challenges and grow strong,” she states, pointing to how ice pitching reflects the challenges of entrepreneurialship. “You have to step out of your comfort zone and put yourself into the game.”
Text: James O’Sullivan