Future-proof innovations emerge from Finland
Slush is renowned for its swirling lights and music-filled opening shows.Susanna Lehto
Every November, the Slush startup event in Helsinki becomes the heart of Europe's tech ecosystem. This year, Finnish companies made a splash in a variety of industries including health, food, sustainability, work life and even quantum computing.
“This is the break of dawn,” declared Slush CEO Eerika Savolainen, kicking off this year’s event and its messages of hope, renewal and change. The sense of positivity was palpable among the 12 000 attendees, including 4 600 startups and 2 600 investors, gathered at the Helsinki Exhibition Centre.
Since its inaugural event in 2008, which attracted 250 participants, Slush has become a landmark in the tech industry’s event calendar. It has developed a secret sauce featuring a student-led organisation, relaxed atmosphere and knack for attracting big names in tech both on stage and to Helsinki in general. At the same time, it has been able to maintain its mission to create and help ground-breaking entrepreneurs.
Sanna Marin highlighted Finland's small size as one of its strengths. It's easy for everyone to meet decision-makers and collaborate with different groups.Susanna Lehto
And the 2022 edition didn’t disappoint. The two-day event offered a chance for companies from around the world to network with a record number of investors and listen to leaders from companies such as Apple, Klarna, Onlyfans and Supercell. What was clear from the outset this year is that business is changing and investors are facing unprecedented challenges. New approaches are needed across the board and the business world has all the tools to help develop them.
Early on day one, it was the Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, who projected an optimism for the future. After three crisis-filled years, Marin emphasised the need to learn from the past and to strive for technological independence and future-proof digital solutions.
“We need new innovations; we need new ideas,” Marin said. “We need new things in our society to make sure that we will not only manage and survive but thrive and succeed as well.”
Here are some of the Finnish startups that can fulfil that mission statement.
Quantum power and healthy fats
Founded in 2020, Algorithmiq is a Helsinki-based startup that develops quantum algorithms to solve science’s most challenging questions. Its first stop: medicine. Recently, Algorithmiq announced a collaboration with IBM and its drug-discovery platform, Aurora. The company believes it can significantly reduce the time it takes to discover new drugs and bring them to market.
Algorithmiq CEO Sabrina Maniscalco says the company can use existing quantum computers to solve drug discovery problems.Susanna Lehto
“We have discovered a method to combine the outcome of quantum computers with the most powerful classical method in a way that is accurate, efficient and scalable,” explained CEO, founder and professor Sabrina Maniscalco. “This makes Aurora the only platform on the market able to use existing quantum computers to solve problems that are relevant to drug discovery.”
Algorithmiq has already raised four million euros in seed funding and has ambitions to demonstrate its useful quantum advantage as early as 2023. In short, this refers to solving a problem faster than any classical computer.
Conversely, OleoFlow is at the start of its journey. Currently a research project at the University of Helsinki, OleoFlow has developed a process which transforms healthy, locally produced oils into solid fat, which the food industry can use to replace ingredients such as butter and palm oil. Think baked goods and chocolate spreads, but with higher fibre content and improved nutritional values.
Oleoflow's Anton Nolvi is trying to make food products healthier without altering their taste.Susanna Lehto
“The impact for food producers is that they can achieve more sustainable ingredients and business,” said OleoFlow's industrial R&D project designer Anton Nolvi. “What this will give to consumers is healthier products.”
Helmed by Jyrki Lee-Korhonen, OleoFlow is currently commercialising its product and plans to spin off as an independent company from the university in spring 2023.
Sustainable farming and nanosatellites
Elsewhere in the Finnish food scene, startups such as Solar Foods and Onego Bio have been making headlines for their animal-free protein creations. Yet many still specialise in more traditional agricultural food production – with a modern twist, of course. With the vertical farming business trending in recent years, Arctic Farming seeks to distinguish itself by deploying a particularly technological focus in its approach.
“Instead of selling salad to other people, we sell the technology and thus they can then start farming,” said Daniel Rotko. “Our problem that we are currently looking to solve is the quality and customer experience problem. So, we sell and lease our hardware to restaurants, cafes, hotels, where then they can provide a new kind of customer experience for their customers where they get fresh produce right next to their kitchen.”
According to the company, its fully automated technology can save up to 95 per cent of the water used in conventional farming. What’s more, the climate-controlled environment means that results can be produced throughout the year.
Other companies are looking down from even greater heights to affect change. Kuva Space, for example, uses satellite technology to observe two of the most significant issues of the current age: climate change and safety and security.
“We are the eyes in the orbit that are looking down and seeing what is happening on the surface of the Earth, with all the bioresources and human activities,” summarised CEO Jarkko Antila, “and we provide this information to our customers.”
The company currently has three nanosatellites in orbit equipped with unique hyperspectral camera technology and has growth in its sights.
“We are basically representing a new space industry. New space is also booming, as such, due to all these launching services enabling people to get more satellites up in the sky. We are looking at a hugely growing business in the near future,” Antila added.
Next-level video comms
In today’s hectic and fractured work life, you are hard-pressed to find a person who wouldn’t like to improve their ability to focus. They are all the target group of Silta Education. The startup, founded in 2021 by Johanna Vilmi and Veera Virintie, combines neuroscience and digital learning in an online programme targeted at improving our concentration skills.
“The human brain is not built for doing knowledge work and sitting in front of screens. That’s why concentration is super hard for us. The problems are not new, but they’ve gotten to a completely new level,” Virintie explained. “We don’t focus on the present moment and don’t know any more how to do one task at a time, burdening our brain and causing a vicious cycle of chronic stress.”
Behind the struggle to concentrate are various unhealthy but very relatable habits: too little sleep and exercise, excessive smartphone usage, constant multitasking and unsustainable ways of working. To counter these, Silta has packaged recent findings in neuroscience into tools that people can apply directly to their daily lives.
A crucial part of Slush is the 1 500 volunteers helping the event run smoothly.
Digital tools that improve the way we work are also the speciality of Glue. In light of the collective reliance on remote working in recent years, this Helsinki-based company seeks to bridge the shortfalls posed by current video conferencing technologies.
“What they are lacking is the true feeling of presence with others. That’s basically what we have solved with Glue,” said CEO Jussi Havu. “We have created a virtual three-dimension environment with spatial audio where you feel the same level of engagement with other participants as you have in a face-to-face setup.”
To facilitate this, users of the platform wear VR glasses for an immersive experience whereby they assume an avatar. They are also aided by a pair of controllers which mimic their hand movements. These facilitate various real-world interactive elements, such as shaking hands with other participants and grabbing accessories such as pens and writing on note boards. The mimicking of users’ head and hand movements also enables the expression of non-verbal communication.
The impact of this virtual experience has concrete real-world implications.
“These types of tools allow you to save time, money and work-life balance for the employees,” Havu added.
According to Verge Motorcycles CEO Tuomo Lehtimäki, half of the motorcycling world is ready to consider going electric. Verge hopes to convince them with a striking, hubless electric motorbike that comes with low maintenance needs.
“Back in 2018, [we were thinking about] where the energy in a motorcycle is used, it's the rear wheel. So why make chains when we can change that electricity into power in the rear rim. Then we have only one moving part,” Lehtimäki described. “A lot of people said that is impossible to do.”
Fast forward four years, and the first Verge bikes will ship in 2023. Most of the traditional moving parts like chains, belts and cogwheels have been stripped away from the bike to meet Verge’s vision.
Lehtimäki admitted it has been a long and winding road to get to this point but said it has been driven by a deeper motivation: “I can look the next generations straight in the eye and say we did our best. And we keep pushing the boundaries of that. If we can do even better tomorrow, we will do that.”