The rise of startup culture over the past couple of years has been one of the leading drivers for innovation in our society. Hardly anyone can have missed the success stories of companies like Uber, Netflix or Supercell. But whose problems are these and future companies actually solving? This is the question that’s bubbling under in many startup hubs around the world.
“At worst, pretty words about saving the world really hide a solution to a problem only wealthy Californians have,” says Lauri Järvilehto, the co-director of Aalto Ventures Program (AVP), the entrepreneurship education program of Aalto University.
Many investors, crucial to startups, have already started to pay attention to the matter too.
“There are many people who won’t invest in companies that don’t even try to solve actually meaningful problems,” says Järvilehto.
Securing funding can be a matter of life and death to startups, as few of them are profitable from the start and many fail before they even get the chance. The most common reason for failure lies in defining a problem.
“Sadly, there are many startups that are trying to solve a problem that its customers don’t really have,” Järvilehto says.
Goals by the UN as guidelines
There’s a connection between these two challenges in the startup world, and a solution that could help solve them both. Startups need real and important problems to solve, and their stakeholders want them to solve problems that have impact in society.
One answer is provided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The United Nations have defined 17 universal goals that help us reach a more sustainable future. The goals are further divided into 169 targets, or as Järvilehto sees it, sets of problems.
“Each of these targets provides possibilities for new business. They offer entrepreneurs a huge amount of real, tangible problems, the solving of which would benefit the whole world.”
Promoting sustainable development is one of the cornerstones of the new strategy of Aalto University. As a token of this commitment, Aalto was the first university in Finland to sign the international Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Accord. The long-term vision of the university is to guide the brain power of its students and faculty — altogether close to 20 000 brains — to working towards the SDGs.
“Aalto brings together so many extremely talented people from around the world, and if they all spend their time here working on sustainability issues, it’s going to make a difference. Also, some of them will most likely stay on that path even after their time in the university,” Järvilehto says.
Entrepreneurship as a tool
At AVP, entrepreneurship is the number one tool in solving sustainability issues. The program offers extensive entrepreneurship courses to those interested, but also helps integrate entrepreneurial skills to other disciplines. In every course, the problems solved are connected to the Sustainable Development Goals.
“Sustainability problems are not always just issues in developing countries. There are social problems for example in Helsinki, and researching and solving them is more approachable for many students. It’s crucial for students to really understand the problem, and we don’t want to make the students think a wealthy westerner can just solve all the issues in developing countries without even becoming familiar with them,” says AVP’s other co-director, Kalle Airo.
However, many solutions with the biggest growth potential aim to tackle global problems.
“We’ve seen great results for example in the Master’s Programme in Water and Environmental Engineering, as we’ve helped them add entrepreneurial skills to their curriculum. Even the best solutions won’t spread if they’re poor business,” Airo says.
AVP’s flagship course, Startup Experience, simulates the founding and running of a startup company for one semester. Since Spring 2020, the students have had to base the problem they are solving on the Sustainable Development Goals.
“Most things today could be improved when it comes to sustainability, so it was definitely easy to find a problem in this space. Working on a sustainability-related problem also made us feel energized,” says Han Cai, one of the students of the 2020 edition of the course.
“It’s great to notice that people have started to realize that sustainability can also be good business. The planet needs it urgently.”
Tommi Byman, Aalto Ventures Program