Innovation diaries: the story of WUUD from research to business
How did it all start?
I was finalising my master's thesis on a new type of wood embossing method when my supervisor, professor of furniture design Ville Kokkonen, asked if the patterning process I had developed should be patented. The question was valid. Although the method which the embossing technique is based on is common knowledge, no one had yet tried to harness it for industrial production. I started looking into it. I first contacted Aalto's lawyers, who directed me to Aalto's innovation services. The patent application was deemed appropriate, and at the same time a discussion arose about the project's further development and commercial prospects. There were two options: take the research forward as a part of my doctoral studies or as a research project with external funding. The academic obligations related to doctoral studies didn't appeal to me, so the R2B funding model granted by Business Finland seemed to be the best option.
I received help with the application process from Aalto's innovation services and from professor of wood material sciences Lauri Rautkari, who had also supervised my master's thesis. When looking into the commercialization potential, we considered whether the production of embossed paneling had enough potential or if other features could be added to the product. Unfortunately I was stuck. The deadline for the funding application was approaching fast, the application was unfinished and finding a commercialiser seemed to be a challenge. I decided not to apply for funding in the autumn application round as we weren't ready yet.
In the beginning of 2022, I returned to work on the application with Lauri and Janne Raula from Innovation Services. Some new ideas emerged, and we decided to improve the weather protection and fire protection properties of the final product. Rautkari, who had a lot of experience in processing and modifying wood materials and similar commercialization projects, got excited, and we started exploring the possibilities. At first, there were many different ideas in the air, but eventually the consensus settled on exterior cladding. The goal of the project was to combine new environmentally friendly fire and weather protection treatments with an aesthetically beautiful texture. The idea of longevity interested me, because it was a perfect fit with the timeless, sustainable philosophy of wood. We set a goal of having a panel which would be maintenance-free for 50 years. According to the research group led by Rautkari, that was an entirely achievable promise.
Simultaneously Vesa Jääskö, who had previously been involved in a similar commercialization project that developed solar cell technology which could be printed on glass facades, was brought on as the commercial partner. Vesa, who has a background in design, immediately understood what the project was about, and mutual trust was born right away. We made a new application, we pitched, and we waited. In December 2022, we received a positive financing decision. Now, we have 18 months to decide how we will keep our promise.
March 2023 : Wood, wood, wood
We need wood. Different species of wood respond differently when subjected to mechanical and chemical processing, so Halvar and I set out to get test material from a sawmill at Fiskars to continue the experiments in the workshop and the lab. Of course, the material could have been ordered, but I wanted to see them personally in order to get just the right kind of material for the tests.
We chose several species: spruce, pine, larch, Douglas fir, alder and aspen. Different types of wood have different properties that make them suitable for different uses. Spruce can be used to make guitar tops because it is both light and stiff as a material, but it is too soft for a table top. Pine, on the other hand, withstands the weather, absorbs preservatives and is readily available, but its grain structure isn't optimal for embossing. In light of current tests, alder works best for embossing, but it isn't well-suited to outdoor use. Maybe it could still be used -- we'll see. My task is also to refine the embossing process to a higher quality so the print becomes neater and more consistent. If the surface cracks, it won't withstand the weather and our promise will go down the drain. One of the challenges in the project is that I need a new, bigger rolling machine and new steel pressure rollers. Bauhaus doesn't sell these; you have to build it yourself.
April 2023: "Are we the only ones who think this is cool?"
The first steering group meeting is over. A team of industrial experts was assembled during the funding process to act as the steering group to support the project on its path to commercialization.
We started the meeting with the basics: Vesa presented the project and research plan. I was delighted to see how well the steering group had prepared for the meeting, and the discussion was lively. We had a much-needed business sparring session: what does freedom of maintenance actually mean? Is there demand for the product, and why would anyone choose it? Which kind of projects produce best profitability? What kind of a fire rating does the product need? And finally, construction is above all about price - how much does it cost?
The research plan was approved unanimously. After the meeting, my head was spinning with thoughts as I went home. The wood construction industry is on the rise, but is there enough demand for aesthetics in a world where everything needs to be done cost-effectively? Slow-growing, dense wood that has been felled in winter and dried is naturally more durable and expensive. The process has to work with materials other than high quality alder, even improving the durability and properties of low-quality wood.
First, a prototype of a larger roller must be built. I am glad there is a department for mechanical engineering at Aalto where I can order a tailor-made steel rolling mill. It should be ready for the next steering group meeting. Before that, I'll visit the furniture fair in Milan.
August 2023: Something old and something new
The summer was busy. The steel rolling mill produced by the mechanical engineering department was completed and I was able to test it. The roll heats up a bit unevenly, which means that the thermal cartridge should be placed differently in the next version. But that's not the only challenge. Now we need to test different temperatures, feeding speeds and a bigger roll, which means that we need to build a completely new custom-made machine.
At the second meeting of the steering group, we had an interesting discussion about wood species, mainly with scalability in mind. At this point, we know that alder is out of the game due to availability, and larch is too hard for embossing, so pine and spruce seem to be best for outdoor use. In Jätkäsaari, fast-growing and easily processed radiata pine has been used, but it doesn't grow in Finland. Its availability and usage possibilities need to be further investigated. For indoors use, there are more possibilities as only fire protection is needed. Birch would be an easily available Finnish option, but it's actually imported surprisingly often. Poplar and linden would both be suitably soft and inexpensive in terms of patterning, but they too are produced outside of Europe. So the species challenge continues.
After a break at my summer cottage autumn, we'll kickstart the autumn with preparations for Helsinki Design Week in September. At the stand, we will present an interior panel made of birch, which is also on display at Aalto's Designs for a Cooler Planet exhibition. At the same time, we'll conduct market research to study demand and collect feedback from architects. Exciting times!
November 2023: How much does a factory cost?
The autumn has been as busy as expected. I've been testing out new prints and working on samples and panel walls for exhibitions with such abandon that the previous waltz was beginning to reach the limits of its endurance. I ordered a new waltz, which is due in February. The new unit has larger rollers, heating, height and width adjustments, which will make production much easier. The next goal would be to find a suitable pilot site where the panel could be made into a real wall.
On the processing side, tests are still ongoing. The wood panelling must not absorb water to avoid becoming a breeding ground for fungi and moulds, so our promise of maintenance-free surface means using impregnation. The requirement for non-toxicity, on the other hand, requires the development and testing of new impregnating agents. A solution of citric acid and sorbitol works well as a weather barrier but fire protection has proved a challenge. So far, the tested substance dissolves away with water. Another alternative would be silicate treatment, but the challenge is to get the substance to stay in the tree. So work on this continues.
However, the previous board meeting concluded that the level of completion of the interior panels is so good that it is time to start thinking about what it will cost to produce them. When the R2B project comes to an end in just over six months, we will need dedicated facilities for a prototype production line with saws, planers, grinders, steamers, storage space and a drying oven. Calculations are also needed to determine the optimum size of the line for the start-up.
Next on the calendar is the startup event Slush growth, where we hope to meet a line of investors. There are other innovation projects in the Aalto joint stand, so peer support is available: the funding negotiations will also make entrepreneurship seem like a concrete reality.
February 2024: All eyes on summer and entrepreneuship
The year has gone by quickly. This time last year, we were just starting a project and now the start-up is on the horizon. My own ideas have become clearer and I hope to continue working as an entrepreneur. Wuud has also proven to be a good choice for a name, so we are a rare project team that does not intend to change our name at the company registration stage.
Many of the checkpoints in the project's development path are already starting to show green, but the last mile is critical in establishing a viable business.
On the product side, the inner panel is starting to be ready for production, so the spring will be all about searching for pilot projects and the implementation of those that have been confirmed. There is room for more pilots and it would be ideal to include especially public spaces, why not abroad. My own wish would be to pilot a project in a cultural site or a demonstration of the art of wood construction. The new Aalto visitor center Marsio, which opens in autumn '24, is one option for testing the panel on a variety of surfaces such as counter upholstery and self-service studio walls.
For exterior panels, product development is still needed as the impregnation under development does not yet work as well as expected.
On the financial side, the size of the market is currently being worked out and the question of how to start the actual production, in-house or in cooperation with a manufacturer, is being considered. The investment in an in-house prototype plant, including the equipment required for embossing and chemical processing, would be around 2 M€.
Although the Slush event for growth companies in early December was a bit technology-focused for our product, both pre-arranged investor meetings took place and were encouraging.
One of the essential tasks is to build a network. During spring, we will also participate in the Pulp and beyond fair as part of the New Wood project and of course in the Demo Day at the Aalto Startup Center.