Even wastewater treatment plants need fitness tests

The entrepreneurs behind Toihan Oy used to work at the Department of Forest Products Technology and have now found their niche in the forest industry.
Toihan develops new laboratory-scale process solutions for industry needs.

Establishing a business is actually quite simple: all you need is competent people, a functional business idea and customers.

‘Sakke and I met when we were working at the Department of Forest Products Technology, in Olli Dahl's Clean Technologies research group. The group was an excellent environment for developing each other's ideas, and when the message from the industry was that there could be a demand for our competence, we decided to go into business’, says Heikki Hannukainen. Hannukainen and Sakari Toivakainen established Toihan last summer.

Toihan is a two-man engineering and consulting company that specialises in solving problems related to the wastewater treatment of the pulp and paper industry. The regulations concerning the environmental performance of industrial plants are constantly tightening, so there is a demand for problem-solvers.

‘Our basic product is a wastewater characterisation that is used to analyse the fractions of a wastewater treatment plant. The characterisation helps us examine the functionality of the processes in a thorough manner: to determine why the water has specific characteristics, where it is generated, and what could be the best treatment solution. Our work is like performing a comprehensive fitness test on a treatment plant’, Hannukainen describes the company's approach to solving customers' problems.

‘Adding a new facility to a treatment plant can be expensive, and a debatable solution from an environmental perspective. It often makes more sense to improve the efficiency of existing processes’, Sakari Toivakainen adds.

Doing business under the roof of the university

Toihan has rented its business premises from the Department of Forest Products Technology of the Aalto University School of Chemical Technology. This has provided the company with access to the diverse equipment in the department's laboratories. Toivakainen and Hannukainen praise the department, school and university for the positive and unprejudiced manner in which Toihan has been welcomed.

‘Startup businesses are a relatively new phenomenon in our field, and this is the first time the department has rented out its premises to a business. Naturally, the collaboration required some background work and a set of rules had to be determined, but everything has run smoothly.’

According to Professor Jouni Paltakari, the deputy head of the Department of Forest Products Technology, bringing students, research, and business under the same roof is a step in the right direction.

‘The department wants to encourage researchers and students to try their wings and apply and commercialise new ideas’, Paltakari says. 

Heikki Hannukainen and Sakari Toivakainen from Toihan commend the close collaboration between industry and Professor Olli Dahl's research group.

Since Toivakainen and Hannukainen have been able to use the arsenal of equipment available at the department, it has not been necessary for them to make any expensive investments using risk money. The entrepreneurs emphasise that the success of a company like Toihan mainly requires human capital: competence and ideas that they have accumulated during their studies and research careers. Toivakainen and Hannukainen are constantly developing new plans and business ideas. One of their ideas is to modify the early stages of the treatment process in such a way that biodegradable waste would be the only waste type reaching the actual treatment plant. This would decrease the amount of chemicals needed and could enable recycling water back into the process. This would be a major development, particularly for countries located south of the equator.

Another promising idea is related to online measuring.

‘Spot measurements only tell us what the situation is at a given moment. A more continuous graph would reveal when changes take place, when the water is sufficiently clean and so forth. In this way, plants could be run in an optimised manner and the desired treatment result could be achieved with a lower total energy consumption.’

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