As a country which continues to top the charts in terms of European VC investments in startups, let’s take a closer look at Finland’s essence as an innovation ecosystem – and what the world can learn from how people innovate here.

Finland is a tiny Nordic country, with a growing global footprint. In the past five years, a vibrant start-up scene has sprung up in Finland, with an upsurge in entrepreneurial activity which has earned its reputation as the startup center of Northern Europe.

From kickstarting Start-up and Investor festival Slush which now hosts +16,000 people every November, through to its strong participation in the EU Horizon 2020 innovation program as a net recipient, Finnish businesses are competing on the global innovation stage – in their own localized way.

It’s in no small part due to government support for newly formed businesses; the ‘Finnish Startup Permit’ gives high-potential entrepreneurs a foothold in the local ecosystem, which is richly patented with brand names like Nokia, Rovio, Supercell, Clash of Clans and Linux.

But in the end, this success is about people. What better way to understand what makes innovation in Finland progress so promisingly than by talking to those who make it happen? We spoke with some of the speakers on the agenda for Innov8rs Helsinki (5 Sep 2019) and other community members to find out.

Standing out

Minna Perttu, researcher and innovation specialist at Tikkurila, explains what makes the Finnish innovation ecosystem so different:

‘The Finnish innovation ecosystem is quite technical. We have many technical Universities and the VTT (Technical research center of Finland) which collaborate with organizations focused on innovation. Nokia’s collapse left many smart people looking for opportunities and an abundance of small tech companies sprouting up as a result.

This is a point in history that all Finnish innovators remember and have learned from; Nokia was the first to make a touch screen phone but missed the opportunity to take it to market at the right time, holding back a new product with so much potential because of the extra production cost.’

And a desire to be shaped by mistakes is reflected by a culture of self-deprecation:

‘The Finns are often humble. “It was nothing” is something that you can easily hear said by a Finn after getting a compliment. We don’t always even realize how good our work is.

‘When we talk about ‘innovation’, companies may fail to recognize where the true innovation lies whilst they are focusing on pushing radical new technology – which is not always the only answer.’

Irina Blomqvist, Head of Innovation Ecosystems at Avanto Ventures, explains what’s special about the start-up scene in Finland:

‘Our business ecosystem flourishes because of our R&D facilities and our education system: in Finland, school is free of charge – and that includes higher education. This gives young people – who become our IT talent pool – a strong baseline to feed into the vibrant start-up wave we see today; supported by incubators, accelerators, and government support services.

And a healthy innovation ecosystem can’t exist without a high quality of living – for Finland, this means public services supporting work-life balance.’

Pressing challenges

And how about Finland’s greatest challenges for innovation? Kristian Luoma, Head of OP Lab at OP Financial Group, builds on where Finland’s technical strength needs to be bolstered by better storytelling:

‘Finland has always been great at nurturing highly-skilled, technically driven talent, producing some of the world’s best engineers. Executing to meet technical requirements faster and better than anyone else has been our strength for years.

It is not a surprise that Finland built a company that was able to make mobile communications ubiquitous. However, where we’ve had the skills to plan, build and execute – we’ve lacked skills in storytelling, marketing, and sales at large.

Innovation today is increasingly about creating hardcore tech with a soft and appealing narrative. We’re learning and becoming better at this every year – but generally having the confidence to tell stories that attract is our greatest challenge.’

Meanwhile, Solita’s President of Playground & Business Designer Mikko Väätäinen sees an ecosystem-wide challenge in turning vision into implementation:

‘We struggle with change – and in more concrete terms, taking the learner’s mindset. We see that the ambition and investment from boards & leadership teams are there at the majority of companies, however, the connection between ambition & practice often doesn’t connect. You could label this in many ways, but I’d say this is a matter of adopting a learner’s mindset on an individual level – in order to make it a company-wide culture.’

Solution pathways

And how are Finland’s innovators rolling up their sleeves to scale ideas into business reality?

‘At Solita, we try to employ a combination of heads, hands, and hearts (data, cloud, dev, and design) so we can make a high-level vision into new services, products, and businesses’ says Mikko.

‘Our capabilities building approach in helping corporations to tap into their creative potential is typically three-pronged:

  • Transformation journey – getting growth boards and leadership to get the setup and principles right for scaling new business and staying agile
  • Talent programs – how people can make best-use of learnings, search for and sharpen the skills needed of our talent pool; such as design thinking and driving time-to-value
  • Coaching programs – we run clinics and programs around data, design, AI and agile, empowering teams to frame their innovations.’

And there is also a networking piece:

‘We try to keep the ecosystem active by connecting different parties that could benefit from one another’s learnings; individuals from different organizations but also through hosting roundtable sessions surrounding different topics, and practicing what we preach, to run programs internally which explore different innovation horizons to our own.’

We live in exciting times for embracing newness. As private equity investors and global corporations tune in to the innovation waves Finland is creating, the unique Finnish frequency for corporate problem-solving and start-up culture is getting harder to ignore, and highly desirable to learn from internationally.

A government-backed start-up support framework, well-educated world-class technical talent, and a slice of humble-pie to help learn from mistakes are just a few reasons why we should be looking up to this Nordic region.

To hear from leading Finnish brands how they are driving innovation, join Innov8rs Helsinki on 5 September 2019. More info via https://innov8rs.co/helsinki/