At 10 am sharp, a hum emerges from the dimly lit stage. Two rappers emerge, spitting rhymes that cement the attitude of the biggest startup event in Europe:
“Live on the edge – it’s my pledge.”
Another oath that Slush abides by is its dedication to fresh perspectives. Since it was founded 10 years ago, it has largely been a student-run event, harnessing the pioneering enthusiasm of youth to fuel an impressive upward trajectory. The inaugural Slush attracted guests in their hundreds. This year’s attendee list is in the tens of thousands, some 2 400 of whom are student volunteers.
The event’s scholarly roots are immediately front and centre with the first major announcement of the day. A global education programme for entrepreneurship, Slush Academy, is opening its doors next year.
Developed in collaboration with the world’s leading universities, top-tier growth companies and VC firms, the academy will focus on internships in fast-growing startups and VC firms before scaling up to a full programme.
“It’ll be free of charge, of course,” Slush CEO Andreas Saari added.
An event for all
A theme of inclusiveness has been underlined by Slush this year, as companies look to make a global impact regardless of race, religion or gender.
Slush 2018 also strives to shine the limelight on those people who help build companies, shifting focus away from the CEOs and founders who typically attract the accolades. Nokia chairperson Risto Siilasmaa was the first guest speaker of the event, introducing the idea that all employees should feel a personal connection to their place of work.
“How do we make all players think of their company as the car they own?” he asked. “Here [at Slush] we celebrate a sense of ownership.”
The presence of the Nokia stalwart is an interesting choice. In the midst of its dizzying upward trajectory, one of Slush’s initial goals has remained the same: to remind the world that there is much more going on in Finland than Nokia.
The facts have already come thick and fast on stage. Since the company’s fall from the dizzy heights of the pre-smartphone era, Finland has produced three startups worth more than 10 billion US dollars, with a dozen billion-plus startups in the making. All with less than 0.5 per cent of the world’s population.
Across the Baltic Sea, and the population of Estonia is even smaller than Finland’s. Yet this nation of three million people has produced Europe’s youngest unicorn founder, Markus Villig. A university dropout at 19, the 24-year-old CEO of Taxify has managed to ward off significant competitors, helping the taxi industry to digitalise and reach customers in the Uber age.
“We’ve always been used to heavy competition,” he said. “But what we see is that if you manage to localise and build the best product for customers, then that platform is going to win out, regardless of how much capital the other ones have.”
Despite the focus on newcomers and upstarts, there is no shortage of big players at Slush, too. The Samsung, Microsoft and Google logos glow above the sea of suits, hoodies and casual attire shuffling in between stages and stands. Many of these companies are presenting their own startup hubs and incubators, though, underlining their commitment to nurturing new ideas.
Outside, puddles have formed on the walkway leading up to the Sauna Village, a cluster of saunas which together frame a courtyard of hot boxes. Steaming attendees fill a hot tub, the grey sky behind them interrupted only by wisps of fog. A stereotypical December day in Helsinki has delivered the event’s namesake, its title a bold ownership of perhaps the least favourable time to be in Finland’s capital.
Indoors, the groundswell of big tech ideas is acknowledged by the European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager.
“This is the kind of energy, the kind of innovative potential that Europe needs,” she said. “This is what we are thriving on. We have a long list of problems and we need people who see the problems, realise the challenges but are creative, positive in also constructing our solutions.”
Glancing around, the conversations emanating from the various stands and stages seemingly hum in agreement.
Slush 2018 continues tomorrow.