I am a startup journalist from MENA who had the chance to attend Slush 2018 – here’s everything I learned about the Finnish ecosystem

I know, Slush18 has been over for a week and I should have sat down and written this ages ago but, honestly, it has taken me a while to get over how overwhelmed I had been with the amount of information Slush and, Finland, have given me.

Note: Brrrr..It is cold out there.

Which means, packing up and hitting Helsinki on a whim isn’t something a tourist is up for, but why can’t Finland have its cut out of the worldwide tourism industry?

Enter Zoan, a full stack VR studio working with the City of Helsinki to bring 1 Million virtual tourists this year. Yes, through virtual tourism, Helsinki can attract tourists through their VR goggles to discover, experience and shop throughout Helsinki from their very comfortable and warm living rooms.

Founder & CEO Miikka Rosendahl tells me “using VR for entertainment or gaming makes sense but we have also adapted the technology to help companies, cities, and countries to use VR for tourism, urban planning, and many other applications.”

He adds “It can bring in so many benefits besides entertainment. You can literally use VR to build cities and civilizations, you just need a little bit of imagination.”

Several Saunas and Glögi drinks later, I have discovered that The Finns are very much into living smart. That is correct, not living rough and not living quick. Hence, their interests in and dependency on; startups.

Finland announced something called Startup Permit earlier this year in April. Startup Permit allows international growth entrepreneurs to build a startup Finland. And while in Slush, Business Finland has announced its Startup Kit.

Marjo Ilmari, Executive Director from Business Finland compares the service to a kind of business ‘baby pack’. (The Finnish Baby Pack is offered by Finnish social security and contains all that parents need to start their life with a new baby).

“It takes courage to pursue your career as a startup entrepreneur. Even more courage is required if you establish your startup venture outside your home country. The package is like a starter kit for new parents, containing all the necessary maternity services and equipment for a newborn. We wanted to bring the same idea to the Finnish business world as well.”

Finland Startup Kit provides all the information about the process and services that different public and private stakeholders can offer to make settling down to Finland easier. The Startup Kit brings together partners who can help the entrepreneurs for example in finding board members and providers of banking, insurance, IP protection, health, and accommodation services.

Startups are also guided by business mentors to help new entrepreneurs start up in Finland. The entrepreneur gets the services provided by the partners when they register the company in Finland.

On a cold Monday morning, I boarded one of Arcatia’s icebreaker vessels for breakfast (you didn’t think I was going there to assist in breaking the Baltic ice, did you?) and a chance to hang out with Pekka Laurila, cofounder and CSO of one of Finland’s favorite startups; ICEYE.

ICEYE is looking at earth differently and that is the key. This groundbreaking startup designs, produces and launches microsatellites to offer commercial access to timely and reliable Earth observation data. Their own ICEYE SAR Satellite Constellation is capable of imaging any location on Earth every three hours, day and night, regardless of cloud cover.

This was quite a novel idea to me but Pekka has simplified it saying “What would you do with actionable information about every square meter on Earth, updated every single hour?”

The possibilities are endless for the planet. Think urban planning, security, tapping resources and road mapping for the future.  Radar imaging makes it possible to see the surface of the Earth through clouds and even in total darkness. Governments and businesses can now look at their locations of interest around the clock. Simply, for businesses to make better decisions, you need to have the right information at the right time. ICEYE provides easy and flexible access to Earth observation data for all its clients.

I know, space and VR are hot but you know what else is majorly hot in Finland: startups focusing on health and quality of living.

Before heading to Finland, I spent some time learning about the Finnish startup ecosystem and I discovered some interesting numbers; the most interesting of which was that the annual exports of Finnish Health Technologies were over 2 Billion Euros in 2016.

One ring to rule them all

On walking around Helsinki, you can tell how keen The Finnish people are on maintaining a wholesome life, some are wearing their Oura rings, some basically are waiting for that ring to arrive.

The sleep- and activity-tracking smart ring announced earlier this month that their funding had exceeded $20 million, which means that this December they must have raised $6.5 million. Some of their investors include Will Smith, YouTube cofounder Steve Chen; Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin; Sunrise founder Dave Morin as well as athletes Shaquille O’Neil and Lance Armstrong.

The ring measures blood volume pulse, body temperature, and movement through several embedded sensors and then measured data is transformed into easily understandable insights through a mobile app.

Science is the future

To a MENA resident, the ring is cute and everything but the region here probably needs more healthtech startups in disease prevention, a holistic lifestyle is miles away from where we are on daily basis.

I spent a rainy (duh!) afternoon in The University of Helsinki, a hub for hundreds of startups from all over the globe that are focused on health, science and everything in between.

GlucoModicum is a Bio-Electronics start-up based in Helsinki, established in March 2018. The startup uses Proprietary technology that enables needle-free health monitoring. The founders tell me that this technology can easily serve as a platform for multiple different self-test devices and that their early phase clinical trials are to start by Q1/2019. They have raised 1.3 Million Euros so far from Business Finland and other private investors.

From the first ever insect vaccine to end threats to food security worldwide or the 1st rapid and user-friendly point-of-care (POC) immunoassay that qualifies basically any medical question, from infections to autoimmune diseases and allergies, I was inundated with health and science-based entrepreneurs all working through the massive high tech establishment of the University of Helsinki. Learn more about Helsinki Innovation Services here.

Take naps please

It is quite hard to recap what I witnessed in Slush 2018. From proper organization to an unbelievable lineup of speakers and a plethora of announcements, Slush is all about learning and inspiration.

Between interviews and media events, I was lucky enough to take a quick breather while attending the talk of Arlan Hamiltion, Founder of Backstage Capital.

In a nutshell, Arlan went to build a venture capital fund from the ground up, while homeless. Yup, she was homeless when she went to every single investor she needed to start her VC firm. She has succeeded in building the fund that is 100% dedicated to minimizing funding disparities in tech by investing in high-potential founders who are of color, women, and/or LGBT. Backstage, in 3 years, has now invested nearly $5m into over 80 startup companies led by underestimated founders around the globe.

My Favorite quote of hers in Slush 2018 was “Be prepared for the NO, expect the no even if you are a VC. Not everyone will be on board instantly and that should never stop you.”

Also “Take a nap, the worst motto I hear is ‘I will sleep when I die’. You need naps to function and you need the rest whatever it is you are doing.”

Follow her on Twitter for her fresh no BS advice.

Other Highlights from Slush 2018

Eight young researchers pitched new research ideas at Slush at the research pitching finals. The main prize, a 100 000 euro research grant, went to Sandra Jernström from Karolinska Institute, who’s winning idea strives to find a new kind of treatment to cancer. Sandra Jernström aims to find a new kind of treatment to cancer by analyzing not just the type of cancer but the composition of the tumor. That way patients could get more personalized treatment and faster results.

Also, Brian Halligan, Founder & CEO of Hubspot opened up his speech at Slush by saying “ named the word of the year – Misinformation.” Brian says, that there is a huge trust issue between buyers and sellers, which companies need to react to. According to him, we are in the age of utter focus on customer relations.

According to him, starting a business is earlier than even, but scaling is harder than ever as more people every day are opening their own companies. It could be said that entrepreneurship is blooming hard. This makes the space cluttered and harder to break through than ever before. Hence the need to be customer-centric is a most important focal point.

His final words are poignant “It used to be, that if you want to build a great product, your product has to be 10 times better. The new version of that is: Your customer experience has to be 10 times better than your competition.” Companies such as Uber and Spotify had their breakthroughs because of their simple and smooth approach towards customers. They have created a whole new playbook on how to grow your startup and scale up.

If it were up to me I would beg every entrepreneur in MENA to invest in attending Slush 2019, why? Because it is high time MENA joins Europe to learn, teach, experience and share our strong ecosystem and drive for innovation with our upstairs neighbors.

If you do decide to visit Finland for Slush and I don’t happen to be there, I sincerely welcome donations in the form of Piparkakku (a heartwarming ginger cookie that is out of this world). Oh and Coffee, and Cinnamon Buns and.….Nevermind.

Radwa Rashad
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