Kyunghyun Cho, Associate Professor at New York University and an alumnus of Aalto University School of Science, has made a significant donation of 30,000 euros to the Department of Computer Science. His donation will be distributed as scholarships to female computer science students from outside the EU.
Alumnus of the Year 2021 Petteri Koponen: a never-ending interest in studying new things has served me well as a start-up entrepreneur and investor
Petteri Koponen, a venture capitalist at Lifeline Ventures, has been named the Alumnus of the Year for 2021 at the Aalto University School of Science. He has established four companies, including Jaiku and First Hop, and he is currently the Chair of the Board at Wolt and Varjo.
‘I started my studies at Helsinki University of Technology in 1990 before it merged into Aalto University. I was on the fence about the programme but, in the end, I chose applied physics, as it offered a wide range of studies from nuclear physics to economics. As a student, I was a little interested in everything and did not make determined progress in my studies. It is funny to be named the Alumnus of the Year without ever graduating’, Koponen says.
From applied physics, Koponen applied for a research assistant position in the Telecommunications Software and Multimedia Laboratory and stayed there under the guidance of Olli Martikainen and Arto Karila for two years.
‘As a research assistant, I was given enormous responsibility and an opportunity to learn new things in a quick pace. The first project was to develop a software for a network switch made by VTT. I understood roughly a quarter of what was said at the first meeting.’
With the supervisor’s trust even an inexperienced person can do, learn and achieve almost anything.
Martikainen and Karila had a lot of experience from the industrial side, and they were confident that even those with less experience could learn quickly.
‘I learned important things. With the supervisor’s trust even an inexperienced person can do, learn and achieve almost anything. The ability to find the right people and give them responsibility are possibly the most important things in a supervisor, and the desire to learn might just be the most critical factor for success. The experience left me with a permanent need and interest to study new things, and it has served me well as a start-up entrepreneur and investor.’
‘Aalto should get as many students as possible involved in research. This way they could really test themselves by doing something more difficult with researchers and professors than in the basic courses.’
While working as a research assistant, Koponen also lectured a course on object-oriented programming. It was then that Heikki Saikkonen discovered that Koponen himself had never completed the course.
‘I completed the course by lecturing it.’
From entrepreneur to Google employee to venture capitalist
Koponen established his first company First Hop in 1997, and it was sold in 2008. The company focused on commercial research and training related to demanding Java programming language applications, eventually progressing towards subcontracting and selling software products. Koponen established the second company, Exoven, together with Janne Kalliola, to whom he eventually sold his share.
In 2006, Koponen established the Jaiku service to compete with Twitter. It was then sold to Google and, as a result, Koponen ended up working for Google for two years.
‘There I got my hands dirty, first in mobile products for a year and then in the development of new business activities. The work was intensive and practical, out of my comfort zone. Yet again I got the opportunity to learn, concentrate properly and get as many things over the finish line as possible. In many ways, Google is an ambitious pioneer.’
After Google, Koponen established Lifeline Ventures together with Timo Ahopelto, and they are still entrepreneurs in the same company.
Lifeline Ventures invested in Wolt in the first investment round in 2014, and Koponen has been the Chair of the Board at Wolt since 2018. Koponen lists a few conditions that pulling off a similar success story requires.
‘A substantial need is important. In some way, it must be possible to see that it is a multi-billion dollar market. In addition, the founders must have some kind of unique competence, but at the same time, its significance should not be exaggerated.’
Identifying a good idea is not always easy even for Koponen; about half of the start-ups they fund fail. However, at the time of investment, there is always faith in the company and its team.
‘A start-up must be at the top in its own field and employ people who are quick to learn regardless of age. Typically, many entrepreneurs establish several companies because they have learned important skills. In the end, there is nothing miraculous about building a world-class company as long as you have a good enough idea and right attitude.’
Over the years, Koponen has been in contact with Aalto and also participated in the Aalto fund-raising team.
‘I have often thought of completing my studies. It is still a possibility.’
Get to know alumni of the School of Science in 2018-2020:
Alumnus of the year in 2020 is Kyunghyun Cho, in 2019 Tuomas Sandholm and in 2018 Annu Nieminen.
Sandholm, the Alumnus of the Year at Aalto University School of Science 2019, was recently named among the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of the year in the United States
Many entrepreneurs and researchers set their goals based on a realisation that something needs to be done differently. The change they envision might be a new product or material, or it can be a new way to do things. Implementing change isn’t always easy, however, and it demands a stomach for uncertainty, say Professor Michael Hummel and entrepreneurs Annu Nieminen and Richard Nordström.