Reading: A perfect storm – Aalto University’s methods in creating conditions for entrepreneurship reserve room for chance10 min
A perfect storm – Aalto University’s methods in creating conditions for entrepreneurship reserve room for chance
When it comes to creating the best possible grounds for entrepreneurship to prosper, Aalto University has managed to create fertile ground as Europe’s most vibrant startup platform.
This article is a part of Slush’s and Aalto University’s cooperation for the Fall of 2020.
Every year up to 100 companies are founded in Aalto’s ecosystem and half of all Finnish startups that originate from universities hail from Aalto. A thriving community of entrepreneurs has been formed by the fearless collision of disciplines and ideas, creating unexpected encounters. Cross-campus collaboration, hands-on experiential programmes, workspaces, mentorship, and incubation services are some of the tried and tested methods to create successful grounds for entrepreneurship. The path to entrepreneurship is always unique and often found with a drop of chance.
In Aalto’s case, the intention to influence students with unexpected mindsets, learning methods and skills is very strong. Students are encouraged into directions they themselves may not have foreseen possible on their own.
To kick off a series of interviews that highlight the entrepreneurial mindset of the Aalto University ecosystem as a whole, three alumni share their experience and their way into entrepreneurship.
Karoliina Hovi, Hovi Creative
Arriving from a field of commercial fashion, Hovi had acquired substantial experience as a trend forecaster in the relentlessly fast-paced fashion industry prior to arriving in Aalto. After studying textile design at university of applied sciences she worked as a designer and trend forecaster for eight years. “My position was somewhat glamorous in many ways, there was a lot traveling. I had a lot of responsibility and worked alone a lot.”
Raised as a devout supporter of sustainable lifestyle, the fashion industry started to create a conflict of values for Hovi. “At some point I realized I couldn’t keep on doing what I did. I had somehow ended up in commercial fashion where sustainability, quality and ethics of the supply chain were not focal points in operations at the time. It was on the top of my mind that Aalto was one of the best schools in Finland, so I took a break and decided to apply there.”
New ground, new mindset
Hovi enrolled in a multidisciplinary MA programme, with a major in international design business management (IDBM) which focuses on the leadership of design and in the understanding of a variety of design methods. “I had heard a lot about IDBM. During the program we conducted a year-long industry project in teams. Coming from an industry as individualistic as fashion, it was a big change for me to work in groups.”
The shift from a high-pressure career that didn’t feel quite right anymore to studying felt good to Hovi. “At first, I compared myself to the other students. I was older and had quite a bit of professional experience. I thought everyone was young and naive, but in the end I realized that perhaps I was the one who was a bit set in their ways and in need of fresh ideas. I gained so many ‘aha-moments’.“
To want something enough is the start of it all
Entrepreneurship was something Hovi had never considered. “I had been quite risk-averse before going to Aalto.” Although Hovi never used any of the entrepreneurship services at Aalto, an interdisciplinary summer project with a course mate sparked new attitudes in her. “We created a wearable electronics project, a skirt that alleviated women’s menstrual pains by transmitting infrared waves. With such an inspiring concept, that time was when I first thought I could actually give it a shot as an entrepreneur.”
During her second MA year, Hovi had a baby. Working on her thesis with a newborn baby and two-hours of night sleep was a challenge but also a highlight for Karoliina. “When you really want something, you’ll just have to find a way to get things done.”
After graduating, Karoliina worked as a freelancer and decided to start her own business. “Right away after the decision I got hired into a steady job. However, my time off from work life, independence and the will to take matters to the next level and help businesses to act more responsibly had made me realize that I couldn’t make such a big difference working for someone else.” A year and a half ago, Hovi Creative was founded, and against all odds, Hovi found herself as an entrepreneur.
Meaning through entrepreneurship
Envisioned as a provider catering to all needs related to corporate responsibility, Hovi Creative offers sustainability strategy, sustainability communication and training services for companies. Her approach combines the competencies of strategic sustainability, design thinking, and trend-forecasting. “The skills I gained in strategic design combined with strategic sustainability at IDBM and Creative Sustainability programs are the core competence my business is built around. It’s quite a rare combination globally and my angle in providing consultancy in corporate sustainability.” For Hovi, it’s meaningful to help corporations to employ responsibility in their field of business. “Sustainability is not just a necessary evil but a domain full of possibilities.”
Tuomas Tikka, Reaktor Space Lab
As the sole institution in Finland offering a Master’s degree in space science and technology, Aalto University was one step closer to a lifelong dream of Tuomas Tikka. “I always wanted to participate in a space-related project. It’s a form of modern exploration.” After graduating with a Master of Science in Technology in 2012, Tikka started his Ph.D. studies at Aalto. Soon after that, the Aalto-1 satellite project commenced. “All of those studying in Aalto got a chance to get involved. I did all kinds of things: System design, testing, project management and quality management.” Although there has been strong space expertise in Finland for decades, an independent space mission was yet to be achieved. Aalto-1 marked the historic flagpole of being the first satellite built in Finland.
The first beep out of space
For Aalto-1, a great deal of help was found through the collaboration of minds from other disciplines. “For example, alumni in physics helped us tremendously in calculating formulas and simulations.” According to Tikka, the greatest challenge in the project was that no one had clear instructions on how to build a satellite. “As a graduate student, I traveled to a lot of conferences and other universities to gain knowledge.“ The experience remains in Tuomas’s memory. “The build-up, the launch and that first beep from space… I was thinking: We managed to do something that actually worked.” The team of like-minded satellite builders decided to start a company. Soon after that, Finnish consulting company Reaktor scouted them, the newfound venture became one of Reaktor’s portfolio companies, and Tikka was appointed as CEO.
Spectral imaging, space weather and telecommunications have been at the heart of Reaktor Space Lab’s operations so far. After founding the company in 2016, they first built their own satellite, Reaktor Hello World, which will have its second anniversary soon. For the past two years, satellites ordered by ESA (European Space Agency) have been under construction and about to be completed.
University campus is a special asset
The six-person team has its headquarters at A-Grid, Aalto’s new Startup Center in Otaniemi. They have also joined the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre’s accelerator and share the space with other startups. Coincidentally, the building was previously the very same facility where Tikka started studying electrical engineering 14 years ago. “Working in close vicinity to the university is a great asset and we’ve gained so many valuable contacts from Aalto. We’re also close to VTT, Technical Research Centre of Finland, with whom we are working on many joint projects and where we can rent for example measuring and testing equipment. We don’t have to acquire all the testing instruments ourselves, which would be a massive investment.
Out of the world projects can solve big problems
As an entrepreneur, Tikka would like to see his company bringing something valuable to the globe. “It’s been a positive finding after talking to many big, global corporations that against what one might think, they’re not these completely rotten organisations. The people we’ve talked to have been genuinely interested in finding better solutions together for making Earth more sustainable.”
So far, Tikka and his team have already taken part in groundbreaking – or out of this world, one could say – projects. “It’s been great to be able to do things in space no one else has ever done. As a small and agile company, we don’t have to spend decades building a satellite, such as the bigger traditional space companies in the US, China or Russia.”
Anttoni Aniebonam, Veri
Until 15, football equaled life for Anttoni Aniebonam. An injury led Aniebonam to experience what it’s like to be deprived from one’s health. With a surplus of free time at his disposal, he started to prepare for medical school. During his prep time, Aniebonam’s interest however kept diverting from medicine to business solutions that helped people reach a better state of health, and he became an entrepreneur at a young age. “I was building a platform for influencers to sell their nutrition programs. I arrived at Aalto University’s Startup Sauna originally because I was in need of more capable team members to solve issues in scalability.”
Trial, error and all things learned
Aniebonam was newly appointed Aalto Entrepreneurship Society’s (Aaltoes) President when he founded Kiuas accelerator program with his team. “At Kiuas, there are loads of ongoing programs as entrepreneurship shouldn’t be tied into some timing scheme offered by accelerators.” Currently, as an MA student in Life Science Technologies, Aniebonam started initially with a major in economics prior to his transfer. After his first year at Aaltoes, he was offered two options: Either work at Facebook in Silicon Valley, or learn something completely new in China. Aniebonam decided on a venture in China.
The plan was to launch Kiuas in China, as there was huge potential there. During his six months in the country, Aniebonam however learned among many other things, that the concept of a student-driven non-profit organisation was out of place in China. “It’s a country where short-term wins are a lifeline” Aniebonam counts Aalto’s support as immensely important. “It would not have been possible without their help. We never would’ve been able to get into the rooms we got to if it wasn’t for the connections from Aalto.“ Although Kiuas launch in China didn’t go as initially planned, Aniebonam had his next move underway.
What can blood sugar tell about health?
During the months in China, Aniebonam shared his living quarters with his best friend, Verneri Jäämuru. He had also experienced health issues in the past, and the two friends started talking about health and investigating untapped chances in preventive healthcare. “We devoured everything related to metabolic health by going through research studies, podcasts and testing out tons of products related to quantifying human metabolism.” The idea is to avoid things usually considered ordinary: brain fog, food coma, weight gain and crazy cravings. Stabile blood sugar has proved to alleviate these symptoms.
After coming back from China, they decided to deep dive into the field at a major scale. “The first version was built in the summer of 2019 in San Francisco at the office of Meru Health, my previous employer.”
Veri is a metabolic health wearable working together with a mobile app allowing its users fast, objective biometric feedback on their nutrition, exercise and other lifestyle habits like sleep and stress. The company’s vision is to take 1 million people off the path of poor metabolic health by 2022.
A university course helped with the first funding round
Aniebonam considers Aalto as a key asset in forging his path as an entrepreneur. “In all things related to the startup ecosystem, Aalto has always trusted and defended us, allowing us to realize our visions. It’s exceptional and something I value a lot.” Aniebonam initially enrolled at AVP’s (Aalto Venture Program) startup course, and the value of the course proved to be far beyond what he expected. AVP and the connections made by the program helped Veri tremendously in gaining their first round of investments. In summer 2020, the company closed its €230 000 pre-seed round and is now on its way to changing how health is perceived in modern society.