In 2008, Nokia’s fall from grace threatened to topple the Oulu economy, as the telecommunications giant haemorrhaged employees from its operations there in the wake of its declining fortunes. However, in typical Oulu fashion, the local economy dusted itself off and set about flourishing in other sectors.
“Nokia brought a lot of knowledge to the city,” explains Juha Ala-Mursula, executive director at local regional development office BusinessOulu. “It diversified the ICT sector into many areas: financial software; cleantech and the circular economy; and health and life sciences.”
The knock-on effect of the latter in particular has ignited a hive of activity in Oulu. Leading the charge in this healthy direction is OuluHealth, an ecosystem which brings together various actors from public and private sectors and local academia to accelerate innovation that meets the needs of the healthcare sector.
“There are more than 500 health and life science companies here,” says OuluHealth’s network director Noora Jansson. “People in Oulu are not afraid of technology. If you always play it safe, you achieve nothing.”
OuluHealth takes a three-pronged approach to developing local enterprises: business development, a testing environment and scientific research.
“There is a big bioscience community and a medical faculty here in Oulu,” Jansson explains. “Our hospital district is very open-minded. They are willing to try new things.”
Given the pace that the industry is evolving, the local cluster is keeping a firm eye on the future at all times. One significant OuluHealth member is the Centre for Health and Technology (CTH), an R&D and innovation hub, which connects researchers and entrepreneurs to develop the healthtech solutions of tomorrow together.
“It’s a two-way highway between industry and academia,” says Maritta Perälä-Heape, the centre’s director. “We have a strong multidisciplinary university with competencies in ICT and healthcare.”
One of CTH’s core strategies for growth is strengthening its international alliances. The centre’s presence in the Nordic Test Beds and the European Connected Health Alliance means that Oulu is at the forefront of the digital agenda at a European level.
“We are continuously building up healthcare services,” Perälä-Heape states. “We see where the need is and initiate programmes and go forward. This is the way we are working in Oulu.”
The innovative solutions from Oulu being taken to the world cover a wide range of health and wellness needs. Companies such as Ōuraring and Polar are leading the charge in the local wearables offering, whereas the likes of Medanets are harnessing technology for more traditional avenues of healthcare provision.
“We noticed that nurses are filing reports twice,” says CEO Juha-Matti Ranta. “For example, they first record a patient’s vital signs on paper and then again to a computer when back in the office. We solve this with a simple mobile app integrated into the one system.”
Given the wireless expertise on display, it’s somewhat unsurprising that the company’s founders have a background in Nokia. Also, less likely to result in jaws on the floor is the fact that the company is on the cusp of a significant international presence.
“When I started here six years ago, we were building something that was nice to have for nurses,” Ranta states. “Now I think it is something that is a ‘must have’. “We are Finland’s market leaders, we are getting Sweden next and then the Nordic countries.”
A new reality for the industry
The pursuit of healthtech solutions in Oulu is also not restricted by such bothersome aspects as physical space.
“In Finland, we have long distances to travel and we need some kind of technology to remove them,” explains Peili Vision CEO Jussi Auvinen. “So, we are building technology that enables occupational therapists, speech pathologists and neuropsychologists to treat patients in virtual reality.”
By harnessing the cutting-edge technology, healthcare professionals can access direct analytics of the rehabilitation process, allowing them to measure progress completely online with exact data.
“We are a value-based company,” Auvinen states. “We are really helping people and our solution will save costs in hospitals. We have a good future ahead with a really scalable product. After its launch next year, we can really push it to big markets abroad.”
Whilst Auvinen is busying himself with the possibilities of virtual reality, he has a solid grasp of the reality of the local healthtech scene in the here and now.
“What is good about Oulu is that it’s easy to talk with other entrepreneurs and collaborate,” Auvinen says. “Even though someone might say we are competitors, we don’t see it that way. If we build things together, we can all gain.”