An entrepreneurial researcher takes action and creates something new

When a researcher thinks like an entrepreneur, they can create something truly groundbreaking. Both Jaan Praks and Elisabet Lahti have exemplified this in their work at Aalto University.
Elisabet Lahti and Jaan Praks
As researchers Elisabet Lahti and Jaan Praks exhibit the principles of entrepreneurial thinking almost completely. Photo: Kalle Kataila / Aalto University

‘In a way, an entrepreneur is also a researcher, and research has an entrepreneurial spirit. Like an entrepreneur, a researcher has to have the ability to engage in long-term work and the courage to venture into an unexplored area. That means climbing towards the top of the mountain without knowing what you’ll see when you get to the top,’ says Elisabet (formerly Emilia) Lahti. Lahti completed an award-winning doctoral thesis on sisu (a Finnish word meaning ‘perseverance’ or ‘grit’) at Aalto’s department of industrial engineering and management. She now organises trainings on sisu and has also written a book about it in English.

For Jaan Praks, a professor of space technology, ‘an entrepreneurial way of thinking brings added value to society on market terms. Entrepreneurs and researchers are united by the desire to create new things and services, but researchers follow more abstract motives instead of seeking financial benefits like entrepreneurs do. Entrepreneurs and researchers must both have the ability to reform and take action.’

Praks played a key role in the creation of the Space Technology Research Programme at Aalto. It was established when the first Finnish satellite was built at Aalto, and since then it has continuously created new companies in the sector. The best-known company that grew out of the programme is Iceye, which employs 600 people and has received international investment.

It all started in 2009, when Praks was given the responsibility of organising the space technology course. He brought together a large group of experts to renew the course. 

‘After the course, we had an active group of students who wanted to do more. That was the start of the special work that led to Finland's first satellite. The Aalto-1 satellite was launched in 2017 and became the first satellite in the Finnish space register. Aalto-1 is still in space and working,’ he says.

Praks got funding for the satellite project from Aalto, which had only recently been established. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the Finnish Meteorological Institute and other universities were also involved. Aalto is now home to Finland’s only degree programme in space technology, which has three professors.

Resources must always be considered

For Praks, an entrepreneurial way of thinking also means always thinking about resources: things grow as far as resources allow. Research and education mainly rely on domestic funding, but space companies have access to international funding, allowing them to invest and expand more quickly than education. 

‘The demand for space experts increased faster than we could react. Fortunately, Finland’s investment in space research has also increased significantly. The Aalto programme definitely opened a path for the field to grow. New start-ups are on the way, and we want to offer an education that produces the experts which companies need,’ says Praks.

Elisabet Lahti originally studied psychology in Tampere and the US, so a doctoral dissertation in industrial engineering and management wasn’t an obvious next step. The choice was made thanks to two Aalto professors: Professor of Practice, Entrepreneur Philosopher Lauri Järvilehto, who introduced the idea of the dissertation, and Professor Emeritus Esa Saarinen, who supervised it.

‘Aalto’s department of industrial engineering and management is a pioneer that enables cross-disciplinary and creative thinking. For me, it was important to be free in such a way that the idea of “sisu” wouldn’t be too limited, but rather the concept could limit itself,’ says Lahti.

Although researchers and entrepreneurs should have a strong vision, serendipity also plays a role in creating new opportunities. Lahti met Järvilehto in the US when she gave her first talk at a conference on positive psychology. She had only been invited because another speaker had cancelled.

‘When you take an entrepreneurial approach to life, setbacks become opportunities. That’s a simple idea, but when it’s brought into everyday life, it makes a radical change. Curiosity is also at the heart of it.’

Just a matter of setting off

According to Lahti, sisu and an entrepreneurial way of thinking have a strong connection. Sisu is associated with an action mindset: daring to venture towards something that is still invisible, or noticing a development point that could be different. 

‘Throughout history, all of humanity’s developments have been based on the courage to venture into the unknown and possibly fail. Similarly, a little daringly, I dived into studying sisu. The point was to just set off and trust that things will fall into place as long as I kept moving forward,’ says Lahti.

Both Praks and Lahti exhibit the principles of entrepreneurial thinking almost completely, says Kalle Airo, who is responsible for promoting this way of thinking at Aalto. The starting point is to take the driver's seat and control what can be controlled, while recognizing that not everything can be. The principles also include the flexibility to deal with uncertainty and surprises, as Lahti described. 

‘A basic principle is to set off with the means and resources available. There’s no point in waiting for the perfect opportunity. At first, you aim for outcomes that are accessible with these resources,’ Airo explains.

In her doctoral thesis, Lahti noticed that sisu can also be negative if it’s interpreted as letting yourself repeatedly run into a wall. Praks agrees that entrepreneurial thinking calls not only for persistence and determination but also for knowing when it’s pointless to beat your head against the wall.

Competence and realism are necessary

‘The growth of a market is essential for a company's success. A researcher also has to be able to assess whether there’s demand and funding for their ideas. Resilience and creativity will take you far if you also have the know-how. Ideas must be based on science and realism,’ says Praks.

For example, the success of Finnish space start-ups began with the knowledge that a market existed. There was a lack of certain types of satellite images. According to Praks, as a small society, Finland isn’t able to experiment with everything with a ‘go and see’ attitude, so a more profitable approach is needed. 

‘We don't support every idea. The fact that not all new ideas can fly is part of the lives of both researchers and entrepreneurs,’ he says. 

One advantage Finland has is agility, says Praks. Good initiatives can very quickly become new breakthroughs in the field of technology and science, because funding is also agile. In this context, sisu means the perseverance to try again with an improved concept.

Text: Heidi Hammarstén

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