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Slush 2021 paves the way for a better future through innovative ideas

After a year-long break, Slush made a much-anticipated comeback to ignite an era of new “entrepreneurial renaissance”.

Susanna Lehto

Creating a magical concentration of the world’s brightest business and technology minds under one roof, Slush has made a welcome comeback in Helsinki after a one-year break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Held on 1-2 December, the world’s hottest startup and technology conference brought together some 8 800 attendees from different parts of the globe, including 3 200 startup founders and operators and 1 700 investors, with about 1 000 student volunteers helping to run the show.

Despite being downscaled over health and safety concerns, Slush was the world’s largest gathering of venture capital this year, the organisers revealed, and remained the place to share game-changing business ideas, explore the power of emerging technology and innovation, grow networks, forge partnerships, inspire and be inspired.

“The past two decades have proven that entrepreneurship is the most effective way to build the future we want to see,” Slush president Mikko Mäntylä said to an eager audience following a laser- and music-filled opening show. “However, to fully harness the power of young companies in pursuit of progress, we need to reimagine how entrepreneurship works.”

Supercell CEO and co-founder Ilkka Paananen states that in order to achieve great things one should aim high. Image: Susanna Lehto

Welcoming a new era of the “entrepreneurial renaissance”, Slush CEO Miika Huttunen reminded that “all startups exist in the first place to take extraordinary risks, and, if successful, change the future beyond recognition”.

Learning from the best

To equip founders with the right tools for creating change and progress, Slush called on a star-studded line-up of guest speakers the likes of Tony Fadell, iPod and iPhone inventor and principal at Future Shape, Wolt co-founder and CEO Miki Kuusi, Tinder CEO Renate Nybor, and Supercell CEO and co-founder Ilkka Paananen. Over a two-day time, they provided insights and practical hands-on advice on how to build a success story and excel in the market.

“The best founding teams aim really high and have a crystal-clear vision of what they want to do,” Paananen observed. “At the same time, these teams are always very open-minded about feedback and they actually welcome people who challenge their vision.”

It’s busy at Aiven’s stand, with many seeking to learn more about its startup programme called Cluster. Image: Susanna Lehto

Sharing some meaningful lessons on being grateful and giving back was Aiven CEO Oskari Saarenmaa. The open-source cloud software company has transitioned from a four-strong startup based in Helsinki to a unicorn with a global presence in just a few years – largely by leveraging Slush for raising funding in the most efficient way. Seeking to give back, Aiven launched Cluster, a new startup programme aiding fresh companies to scale fast by offering access to data infrastructure, expertise, mentoring and promotion.

“Back in our day, Aiven took part in our share of startup programmes,” Saarenmaa said. “We’ll always be grateful for the help we got from the community then.”

A supportive environment is, indeed, an important component of a business success story. The Finnish startup scene is thriving, attracting record-breaking amounts of venture capital year by year, and nowhere can it be experienced first-hand better than at Slush and the multitude of side events organised throughout Helsinki.

Local startups are active players in the fields of AI and machine learning, quantum computing, space technology, circular economy, clean technology, smart mobility and beyond, sharing a crucial common trait – they are real-world problem solvers.

“With every organisation starting to use our product, we are getting a better world,” says CarbonLink CTO Jussi Mononen. Image: Susanna Lehto

Right now, one of the most critical global issues affecting each and every one on the planet is the climate crisis. Bearing in mind that impactful climate action starts with surveying the carbon footprint, CarbonLink is bringing a solution to the table.

“We provide organisations with real-time, accurate and automated carbon footprint calculations based on their existing financial data,” CTO and co-founder Jussi Mononen explained, adding that upon seeing how much carbon dioxide businesses generate through their operations, they can start shaping them into an increasingly sustainable form.

The world is also in need of tools for the prevention and early detection of some of the most widespread health conditions, which is particularly pressing now that healthcare systems in many countries are strained to the maximum.

Kuopio-based Algoa Progress is doing exactly that for osteoarthritis, the most common joint disease and a leading cause of knee pain. Using physics-based modelling, artificial intelligence and visualisation techniques, Algoa can predict the risk of developing osteoarthritis or the disease progression, as well as simulate and visualise the effectiveness of treatments to support treatment planning and patient engagement.

“The best therapy is always a predictive therapy,” chairperson of the board Antti Heikkilä pointed out. “With our solutions, we could prevent 30 to 50 per cent of knee replacement surgeries.”

Freshtech is on a mission to reduce food waste from retail and households with its innovative packaging solution. Image: Susanna Lehto

With their roots deep in academic research projects, both Algoa and CarbonLink are bound to set a good example of how science-based innovation can mature into a meaningful business. With more innovative ideas constantly brewing in the labs of Finnish universities, the future is in good hands.

The University of Helsinki arrived at Slush this year with 17 exciting science-based innovations to showcase – all in different stages of the commercialisation process and ranging from the treatment of brain diseases to the world’s most sustainable mycelia-based protein, MyShroom, and solutions reducing food waste. A case in point: FreshTech.

“By using Fresh Tech, a safe bio-based pad integrated into the packaging of fresh produce, such as of fruits and vegetables, we can extend their shelf life by days and even weeks,” told postdoctoral researcher Anis Arzami. “FreshTech can benefit all segments of the food industry chain.”

Ioncell is a new technology that turns used textiles, pulp and even old newspapers into new textile fibres sustainably and without harmful chemicals. Image: Susanna Lehto

Aalto University, in turn, is delivering disruptive innovation to ease the environmental burden of the textile industry. The Ioncell technology enables creating high-quality textile fibres from wood cellulose and recycled materials. What makes Ioncell stand out, master’s thesis student Helena Sederholm explained, is that the whole production process is safe as there is no need for any toxic chemicals.

Meanwhile, the LignoSphere project finds use for lignin, a by-product of the forestry industry that is currently almost exclusively used for generating energy. A new technology developed at Aalto University is capable of turning lignin into value-added products.

“We can make surface coatings, adhesives and composites out of it,” illustrated researcher Alexander Henn. “We are also hoping to inspire change in the construction industry, which uses a lot of fossil-based chemicals to treat wood, resulting in problematic waste.”

Time for a smile: StartupRefugees is helping refugees and asylum seekers to find employment or run their own business in Finland. Image: Miikka Pirinen

In addition to calling for greater social and environmental responsibility, the importance of building a more diverse culture of entrepreneurship was once again highlighted at Slush. For Startup Refugees, a social initiative focused on the fast integration of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants into the Finnish labour market, this is self-evident. Slush marked the launch of Startup Refugees Fund, the first of its kind in Finland, supporting early-stage companies established by refugees and helping to diversify the startup ecosystem.

“We believe that refugees and other newcomers bring huge economic and human potential to Finland,” said CEO Elisa Vepsäläinen. “With the right type of support at the right time, they are able to build their own lives and harness the entrepreneurial potential they carry.”

Promoting diversity further, technology startups founded by women received their share of the limelight at Slush, too. The City of Helsinki and Tech Nordic Advocates launched an international growth programme for female tech founders, while Hormona, a UK startup helping women to take control of their hormones with its application and at-home tests, won the Slush 100 pitching competition. The startup is run by an all-female team, with co-founder Jasmine Tagesson delivering the most convincing pitch in front of the Slush expert juries and peers.

According to Maki.vc investment director Pauliina Martikainen (left), femtech is becoming a major investment category. Image: Susanna Lehto

Hormona is also a brilliant example of femtech, the innovative technology sector building solutions supporting women’s health that is now catching investors’ attention worldwide, according to Maki.vc investment director Pauliina Martikainen.

“It has become obvious in the past couple of years that femtech is becoming a hot space,” she said during a panel discussion. “Whether it’s a big or small fund, a generalist or specialist fund, everyone wants a femtech deal.”

Published on 07.12.2021