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Completing a doctoral degree alongside work – the thesis opened the doors to the product and technology development of a deep-tech company

Karita Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Jani Lehmonen have both graduated as doctors of chemical engineering from Aalto University and for them, writing a doctoral thesis alongside regular work meant long hours but was also highly rewarding.
Karita ja Jani
New doctors of chemical engineering: Karita Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Jani Lehmonen

Both Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Lehmonen have worked for many years in product and material development in forest industry processes. Now they are making their doctoral competence available to Fiberwood, a Finnish deep-tech company processing forest industry side streams into insulation and packaging materials. 

They both combine passion for continuous learning and applying knowledge with open mind and the courage to question things. In their dissertations, they carried out pioneering work in developing foam technology, which can be used in the manufacturing of various fibre-based materials.

‘The industrial and working life experience I acquired after master’s degree provided me with a strong basis for writing a doctoral thesis. Having a doctoral degree shows that you have achieved something unique which has novelty value. Companies need doctors who have the ability to apply science to product and technology development,’ explains Karita Kinnunen-Raudaskoski, Director of Technology and Product Development at Fiberwood. 

Both Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Lehmonen welcome the fact that Aalto University’s operating models for writing a doctoral thesis also apply to those who do not work as full-time doctoral researchers at the university.

‘Of course, writing a doctoral thesis alongside regular hours was hard work but you achieve results if you have the motivation and the passion for what you are doing. The employer’s support was also important. And, of course, the rest of the family learned to adapt to the situation when the daddy was again busy writing the thesis,’ adds Jani Lehmonen, Technology and Product Development Manager at Fiberwood. 

‘Karita’s and Jani’s dissertations are excellent examples of how doctoral theses produced outside the university are linked to development projects for which there are direct industrial applications and which are also scalable. Companies have woken up to this and will cooperate more closely with the university in the future. Companies have also become more willing to recruit people with doctoral degrees,’ says Aalto University professor Jouni Paltakari who supervised the doctoral studies of Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Lehmonen. 

Scientific articles and patents

After graduating from the University of Jyväskylä with a master’s degree in chemistry, Karita Kinnunen-Raudaskoski started her working career in the forest industry from where she moved to KCL Laboratory and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to carry out research work. She is also one of the founders of Paptic, a VTT spin-off manufacturing wood fibre-based materials.

‘My doctoral thesis is the result of more than ten years’ of research. It all started when I realised that the unconventional foam technology in which paper fibres are mixed with aqueous foam instead of water could be used in paper production,’ Kinnunen-Raudaskoski explains.

She collected information on foam forming and foam coating, acquired partners and purchased equipment so that KCL could start foam coating and foam forming experiments in 2005. The work on foam technology continued at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland where she created thick structures from peat and moss resulting in a product that can replace mineral wool as the substrate for cucumbers and tomatoes. 

In addition to scientific articles, the work has also resulted in patents. Kinnunen-Raudaskoski is an inventor in 19 patent families and 17 of them concern foam technologies. 

‘I completed my doctoral thesis in 2017 alongside my work as Director of Technology at Paptic. I am proud to have graduated as a Doctor of Science from Aalto University, which is known globally and which is high on the university ranking lists,’ Kinnunen-Raudaskoski says. 

Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Lehmonen are now bringing their PhD expertise to Fiberwood, a deep-tech company that processes side streams from the mechanical forest industry to produce wood-based insulation materials. Photo: Aalto University
Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Lehmonen are now bringing their PhD expertise to Fiberwood, a deep-tech company that processes side streams from the mechanical forest industry to produce wood-based insulation materials. Photo: Aalto University

From laboratory to industrial scale

After graduating as a master of science in technology from the Lappeenranta University of Technology, Jani Lehmonen started research on paper and paperboard industry processes at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Lehmonen familiarised himself with the foam forming technology in the forest cluster’s EffNet research programme launched in 2010, in which new research openings were sought. 

‘I was able to do something entirely new. I thought that this would be an excellent topic for a doctoral thesis,’ Lehmonen recalls.

He rolled up his sleeves and joined the teams developing and constructing research environments for foam forming processes at VTT.

I have always been fascinated by experimental work. My guiding principle is that what can be done in a test tube or a laboratory must also be scalable and feasible in industrial scale,’ Lehmonen explains.

As the research progressed and research projects followed each other, Lehmonen also produced a scientific article of each stage for a doctoral thesis. The work bore fruit and Lehmonen completed his doctoral thesis on industrial scale foam forming applications in 2022. For his work, Lehmonen received the Niilo Ryti Award granted by the Finnish Forest Products Engineers’ Association.

Building a pilot plant

Kinnunen-Raudaskoski and Lehmonen continue their development work at Fiberwood, which has developed a technology and a process for the production of ecological insulation and packaging materials. 

Fiberwood recently raised EUR 3.5 million in funding and is now constructing a pilot plant in Kerava. The company’s goal is to be the world’s number one manufacturer of wood-based building insulation materials.

‘In my thesis work, I developed foam forming in laboratory conditions and in semi-pilot and pilot scale. It is great to be involved in developing a full-scale production process for foam technology. I am again able to challenge myself,’ Lehmonen explains. 

According to Kinnunen-Raudaskoski, the doctoral degree has provided her with competence in the labour market, but her thirst for knowledge remains as strong as ever.

‘I just completed the Forests, Wood and Carbon course at Aalto Open University, which is highly useful in my work at Fiberwood when we manufacture construction industry products. Continuous learning also keeps you alert and sharp,’ she adds. 

Text: Marjukka Puolakka

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