March 15, 2019

Five for Friday: Polar Bear Pitching

This week, the coolest startup event in the world was held in the city of Oulu.
This week, the coolest startup event in the world was held in the city of Oulu.
Julia Bushueva/PBP

A startup pitching competition held in a hole in the ice – it could only happen in the Finnish city of Oulu.

Oulu has made a name for itself as an innovative hub of great ideas and tech brilliance, as well as the focal point of rock-star posing, thanks to the annual Air Guitar World Championships. This week saw the city hosting its second globally renowned event: Polar Bear Pitching.

Here, entrepreneurs had all the time in the world to pitch their startup idea. The only catch: they had to do so standing in an ice hole carved in the frozen Baltic Sea, while it was five degrees below zero. Missed our live stream? Have no fear, you can still watch it here.

Here’s what we discovered during this year’s event.

1. Exotic warm up

After a sunny day of semifinals, where dozens of hopeful startups from around the word filled the ice hole, the grand finale kicked off with one of the more memorable examples of Finnish sisu (a particular grit and perseverance found in people from this neck of the woods).

Internationally renowned jazz pianist Iiro Rantala was up to his neck in chilly water. The name of his brief keynote: “No pain, no gain!” In true Finnish style, he had few words to share before announcing he would be performing a concert in an hour or so in front of a live audience. “This is my warm-up for the concert,” he declared.

Only in Finland…

2. The ice hole is growing

The winner of the event, Norway’s Bookis, impressed with their finesse, sense of humour, professionalism and “We love Oulu” underwear. The company’s e-commerce solution for books has also attracted attention, so too has the duo’s mantra: “Books should be read not stored.”

Polar Bear Pitching is truly growing in reach. Bookis won the sister event held in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø in January. And, following on from the Estonian firm ArtiSun that won last year, the main event continues to attract international participants.

3. Pitching is a trademark

Finns have a long history of stepping into the ice hole for recreation, with the experience certainly providing a refreshing ‘yin’ to the sweaty heat of the sauna’s ‘yang’. As for pitching from an ice hole, this is a more recent tradition. The event was founded in 2013, after Mia Kemppaala came up with the idea to push back against the downfall of Nokia that had left many in the area unemployed.

“You know one interesting thing about Polar Bear Pitching?” asked co-host Viera Karam. “The movement into the ice hole in order to pitch is an international trademark right now.”

4. Finland is the best place to be an entrepreneur

After each of the 12 finalists had dipped into the ice hole, it was Chao Tang from Arctic China’s turn to give a keynote speech. His message was simple: set up shop in Finland. Tang underlined the ease of setting up a business and persevering here: “If you give Finns trust they give it back,” he stated.

Also, it’s wise to get into the local mindset.

“When you work with Finnish partners, think from their side,” Tang continued. “It’s a wealthy country with beliefs: [Finns] think of self-value instead of just making money. You have to believe in yourself!”

5. Oulu stands out

Located 600 kilometres north of Helsinki, Oulu has found innovative ways to turn its geographical isolation into an advantage. Polar Bear Pitching and the Air Guitar World Championships are known around the world.

Another eye-catching event here is the world’s northern-most Irish music festival. Brent and Markus from the Irish Festival of Oulu stepped into the chilly water to perform a gig, whilst the results of the pitching event were being tallied by the judging panel of international investors.

“Happy St Patrick’s Day from Oulu, Finland,” Brent enthused.

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