For as much noise as Finland is making in the international tech scene, they’re pretty quiet when it comes to actually talking about their success. So we’ll do it for them. Here are some thoughts from a recent trip to the digital wonderland. Not only are they making strides in hot fields like artificial intelligence, 5G, and the Internet of Things, they’re are also offering up smaller smart ideas that just might change the world. Of course, you’d never hear that from them.
Traveling to Helsinki in the beginning of December means travelling to a city that is cloaked in darkness. The polar night hangs over the streets like a cold, black mantle. Snow, though not yet fallen, looms over the horizon. No tourist is here of their own volition – and yet there is scarcely a hotel room available that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg: It’s Slush season.
In only a few years, Slush has become one of the largest events in the global tech and startup scene. 20,000 attendees from 130 countries flock to the Scandinavian capital1. They’re a hodgepodge assortment of founders, investors, and journalists; think “Burning Man meets TED.” The event is still organized by students from Aalto University, lending the expo the casual vibe of an undergraduate hackathon. Yet such an atmosphere belies Slush’s importance as a symbol of the Finnish wonder – the icy phoenix of a country that arose from the ashes of national trauma to conquer the tech world.
This turnaround was not always written in stone. By the time Nokia sold its mobile-telephone business to Microsoft in 2014, the decline of the telecom giant, who just a few years earlier controlled a cool 50% of the market, was old news. It appeared to be the death knell of a once storied leader. You know the rest: an unprecedented collapse that struck not only the heart of a company, but the heart of a nation and its people.
Landing in Helsinki today, you feel as if you’ve shot forward in time. There is no trace of collapse. Entrepreneurs share boxes of cereal and lightning-fast internet in bustling incubators. Even Nokia has reemerged as a competitive staple, successfully revamping their network and IoT-solutions businesses to be industry pioneers. IoT-capable 5G waits in the wings, with its successor – 6G – already being cooked up in high-tech R&D labs. No wonder Finland sits in third place among the world’s leading developers and users of the Internet of Things2.
Finland’s efficient digital infrastructure, however, has only been an underlying factor in their incredible success – it is the utilization of this infrastructure that has led to the country to sit at the fore of innovation. You don’t have to look far to find examples. From gaming and augmented reality applications to smart power grids, the country has catapulted itself into the global tech elite. Even transportation is becoming a service: In Helsinki, connected intermodal transportation is possible with the purchase of a single ticket, allowing users to jet from door-to-door with the touch of a button, all for less than the cost of owning a car. With the passage of the Act on Transport Service, which will take effect on July 1st, the state has set up a clear legal framework for such ventures. One enterprise making ready use of the healthy public-private ecosystem is MaaS Global, a start-up working to capture the nascent mobility market with their app Whim. They’ve evidently done enough to attract capital from Denso Automotive in Japan, an investor who, at first glance, might not be expected to tread the uncharted waters of mobility applications. Yet the alliance with MaaS Global makes sense according to CTO Kazu Matsugatani.
“We are now exploring beyond the vehicle ‘shell’ to create new value and solutions for the future new mobility society and users, and we are very excited about the potential opportunities provided by Finland’s Tech Community and Mobility Ecosystems development initiatives here”, Matsugatani says3.
Why the Word Economic Forum considers Finland the most innovative society in Europe4 is illustrated by the Innovation Garden in Espoo – it was recently selected as the “Most Intelligent Community in the World 2018” 5. Giddy startups present elevator pitches in a bisected-container of a building. Among the notable innovations conjured up here is electric car manufacturer Toroidion’s “battery swap” concept. While other e-cars would be overjoyed with a charge time of even 20 minutes, a Toroidion is ready to go in just 20 seconds or less; you simply change the battery.
When one looks at advances in miniaturization, the pace of change becomes even more mind blowing. Christian Lindholm, along with his partner Terho Niemi, reduced the disk space for wearables by an unreal 99.9% – or for scale, 1/1000th of its original size6. This results in minimized energy consumption or, in turn, opens up a virtually unlimited playground for new functionalities.
“It seems so simple,” asks one of the audience members. “Why didn’t anyone else have the idea?”
“It took five years of my life and another two of Tiemi’s life” Lindholm politely responds.
“Not so easy,” says the audience member.
“Not so easy,” echoes Lindholm, patiently awaiting the next question.
Other startups have benefitted from the Finnish government acting as a catalyst, be it through public initiatives for founders, the creation of research and startup communities, or guidance in seeking out angel investors. Even as early as 2013, in the thick of the economic crisis, former Nokia employees had founded approximately 400 new companies that accounted for up to €25,000 per employee. This wasn’t just a flash in the economic pan, but a lasting development – 90% of those companies are still active in the market7.
ICT experts are now highly sought after by international companies looking to invest up north. This not only applies to professionals in the Helsinki metropolitan area, but also to innovative hotspots like Oulu. Situated within the endless expanse of the Arctic Circle’s birch and pine forests, this seemingly austere city of some 200,000 residents is considered the “Capital of the Arctic.” An average age of 38; more than every third citizen possessing a university degree; one of the “13 smartest places on earth”8 – these are but a few of the highlights on Oulu’s laundry list of accolades. It’s a city you’ll want to make note of.
“In Oulu, the public sector interacts with developers of infrastructure, software, and ICT applications in an open ecosystem”, states Petri Karinen, Senior Advisor of Business Oulu. “All of us believe in the power of digitalization. It’s at the core of virtually every start-up idea – from AI applications to creating private highways for the IoT to developing closed-cycle solutions for industrial waste. And, because we’re nature-loving people, we even digitalize our forests and enable forestry operations to operate at higher efficiency with a lower eco-footprint.”
The sooner startups leave the incubator and connect with partners – both in Finland and abroad – the better. One such example is TactoTek® – a name that only Finns are able to pronounce with the proper amount of bite. The company has long been an actor on the international stage. Having spun-off from VTT, Oulu’s start-up and research center, TactoTek is a global leader in the development of injection molded structural electronics (IMSE™) solutions. If, for instance, you look at one of those ultrathin wood trims found in the automotive industry, nothing would lead you to suspect that there are hidden control elements lurking within.
“Only by touching the surface or simply by waving at it do the controls become visible, back lit by LEDs. After an interaction with the user, they move back just as discreetly”, explains TactoTek’s founder and mastermind, Antti Keränen. Undergirded by ideas and patents like this, the company just recently closed $23 million in funding – with leading automotive suppliers, including Faurecia, Plastic Omnium and Nanogate, having gotten in on the action.
There’s one thing, however, that neither Kärenen nor any other Finnish founder, entrepreneur, or government official would do, and that’s brag about their own brilliance. The reason why is embodied quite neatly by a cartoon popular among Finns. It depicts a speaker announcing a Finnish developer-mastermind named Mikka at a tech event. “Mikka’s innovation will change the world,” shouts the speakers. Meanwhile, Mikka seems to sink into his notebook out of shame. “Behold the revolution!” continues the speaker, even louder than before. And as the speaker finally hands the stage over to Mikka, he creeps instead towards the door, whispering, “Oh, forget it. It’s really nothing worth talking about.”
So, the Nordic innovators still have a bit of work to do when it comes to selling their own brilliance. But they don’t have to hide it – after all, they’re ranked fourth in the world for their economic digitalization9. And if, as a German visitor, one thinks of the protracted approval processes and waning startup community in our own country10, you’d be forgiven for become a bit abject. But in reality, we should be inspired by the speed, determination, and transparent lack of frills these “little guys” making big waves in digitalization; little guys like Estonia, Latvia, Israel – or, as we’ve now seen, Finland.
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- Secondary source: Deutsch-Finnische Handelskammer
- Deutsch-Finnische Handelskammer
- Own figures by KoruLab Oy
- Business Oulu: Invest in Oulu
- Deutsch-Finnische Handelskammer
- „Noch nie gab es weniger Gründer“, http://www.genios.de/presse-archiv/inhalt/NN/20180530/1/nuernberger-nachrichten.html