The northern Finnish city of Oulu is many things: the self-proclaimed ‘Capital of Northern Scandinavia’, the home of the Air Guitar World Championships and a buzzing hotbed of tech solutions that range from pioneering connectivity to health and wellness.
Yet, at the moment it could be quite simply said that Oulu is cold. Freezing, in fact, at 11 degrees below zero.
The conditions are so extreme that they delayed the start of this year’s Polar Bear Pitching semi-finals yesterday by one-and-a-half hours.
The ice hole where entrepreneurs pitch from had frozen solid overnight and needed to be recut.
“We promoted the event as being held at the coldest time of the year, and we got it,” states founder Mia Kemppaala, with a smile. “This is the coldest ever of the five events we have held.
Now, 12 startups are readying themselves to step into the hole for tonight’s final, delivering pitches that range from the next heated garment revolution, to sparking electric mobility in Europe, virtual health assistants and pain measurements. A panel of international investors huddle on a bench before them, looking for the next opportunity to enable a fledgling startup to flourish, judging both business potential and pitching performance.
The final prize: 10 000 euros and a trip to Nanjing, China’s so-called ‘mini Silicon Valley’.
The chilly pitching conditions are merely the tip of the iceberg of eccentricities on offer. Finns are among the highest consumers of ice-cream per capita on a global scale, hence local dairy product producer Valio’s new range is, naturally, on hand to be sampled.
“Finns are really crazy, eating ice-cream when its –11 degrees,” underlines host André Noël Chaker, with no small understatement.
The off-kilter combination of salmiakki and chilli provides the perfect taste for what comes next.
Rock music blasts from the speakers and air guitar world champion Markus “Black Raven” Vainiopää is suddenly bounding around the pitching area, a blur of fingers on an imaginary fretboard. His rapid movement and flailing limbs may have just as much to do with feeling the music, as they do with the practical matter of keeping warm.
Things then take a more formal turn, if that’s possible in such circumstances. Finland’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Development, Kai Mykkänen, takes to the ice hole to deliver a welcome speech.
“I want to make sure…that we are an open, international society, and that we welcome all ideas, all entrepreneurs, all startups and investors to Finland,” he declares.
From there, one-by-one the startups begin their long walk down the stairs, past the cheering crowd to take their turn the ice hole. Some enter slowly and gingerly, and others charge in like their life depends on it. It’s a fitting approach, as for some, the success of their business does actually hinge on their performance.
“Wow, that’s good,” exclaims the CEO of Russian startup TuSion, Andre Khapsasov, upon calmly stepping into the icy water. “Better than I thought.”
He and colleague Yuri Konoplev proceed to inform all about the company’s app, which can improve the cognitive abilities of the user while playing games.
Breaking the ice
Unlike in all other pitching competitions, there is no time limit at Polar Bear Pitching– only one’s threshold for extreme cold. The brave soul who comes closest to the event record of 4:53 is Cotio CEO Kimmo Collander.
“Good evening polar people, and bears,” he yells, having received a rousing response from the crowd when plunging himself neck-deep in the freezing water.
Seemingly unperturbed by the chill surrounding him, Collander spends four minutes touting the merits of a service which enables travellers to retrieve items confiscated from them by airport security.
After the dozen startups have taken the icy stage, the top three companies are chosen by the judges. Cotio makes the final cut, along with CastPrint, which produces 3D-printed solutions for patients with bone fractures.
ArtiSun is then announced as the overall winner, having found an innovative way to produce LED lighting for greenhouses.
“We are cheaper, we are more environmental, we will help to decrease light pollution and we will increase yield,” the company’s Tatsiana Pikkarainen had summarised during her pitch, which was punctuated by a sole pause to gather her composure.
This discomfort is a distant memory, however, once standing in front of the applauding crowd, with the winner’s cheque for 10 000 euros firmly in hand.
“Thank you so much everyone, and I’m ready to go in again,” she declares, unable to contain her delight.
Polar Bear evolution
The roots of the event can be traced back to 2013 when Nokia’s fortunes had just plunged. As Oulu’s economy leaned heavily on the telecommunications giant, the city faced an unprecedented challenge. Enter the innovative mind of Mia Kemppaala, who was involved at Business Kitchen, the entrepreneurship hub of the University of Oulu and Oulu University of Applied Sciences. It was decided to turn Oulu’s Arctic chill and geographic isolation to its advantage.
“Instead of hiding our differences, I thought that, ‘let’s turn it upside down and make it a focal point, the wow factor’,” she recalls. “We should put entrepreneurs in a hole, and in doing so they cut to the chase and make themselves understood. They have to talk in simple terms to get the point across.
“It’s so crazy, we just have to do it.”
Some five years later, the event has grown into an international spectacle and has attracted press including The Times, Guardian, TechCrunch, Al Jazeera, South China Morning Post and AFP.