Four years and lots of tears – three experts tell how they succeeded in making the change

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.
Piirroskuvitus Aalto University Magazinen kansista. Kuvassa on kaksi ihmishahmoa kävelemässä, taustalla erilaisia ympäristöjä mm. kaupunki, metsä, vuoristo. Kuvittaja: Satu Kettunen.
Illustration: Satu Kettunen

Professor Michael Hummel is working towards a more sustainable textile industry. Annu Nieminen is CEO of Upright, a firm that measures the net impact of corporations, and she aims for a world where companies use their resources for good instead of doing unnecessary and harmful things. Helppy founder Richard Nordström wants to arrange services for senior citizens in a way that eases the burden on their families. A clear objective, support from colleagues and an ability to focus on actions, away from the self, are factors that alleviate uncertainty in the everyday lives of these changemakers. 

The textile industry needs new materials

Professor Michael Hummel’s field, biopolymer chemistry, likely sounds unfamiliar to the layperson. The work of Hummel’s research group has, however, been showcased quite publicly, for example at the biggest event in the Finnish social calendar, the Independence Day Ball in 2018, when First Lady Jenni Haukio wore a gown made out of birch fabric.

Hummel has developed bio-based textile fibres and now leads the new Bioinnovation Centre, which Aalto University established supported by more than €10m in grants from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation. The Centre promotes bioinnovation development, focusing on textile fibres as well as packaging materials, whose development Aalto University has lots of expertise in.

Hailing from Innsbruck, Austria, Hummel has immersed himself in chemistry since high school.

‘I had a great chemistry teacher who really understood how to inspire pupils.’

He came to Finland 12 years ago to fill a postdoctoral research vacancy, thinking that he’d spend one year here. But then an interesting project altered his plans.

At the time, corporations and universities were collaborating to explore the bioeconomy for potential new directions for Finland’s waning forest industry.

One such project was working to develop a textile fibre out of cellulose. Led by Professor Herbert Sixta, the project resulted in the creation of an ecological and sustainable fibre latterly known as Ioncell.

‘Four years and lots of tears,’ is how Hummel describes their work. Development of the research equipment alone took two years, while the other two was spent looking for a breakthrough.

‘It was really important that I got to work in a motivated team and that Professor Sixta had a clear vision and goal as well as lots of patience and trust. Members of our little team inspired one another by fostering a positive atmosphere.’

Hummel wants to contribute to the evolution towards a sustainable textile industry. Reasonably priced environment-friendly materials need to be developed, but consumption must also decrease.

‘Very little textile manufacturing remains in Finland, but there’s lots of research activity and new companies are steering development. This is why it’s so exciting to work in Finland.’

Hummel thinks it is especially important that different fields are cooperating in the effort to achieve change. For a chemist, working with clothing designers is fascinating.

‘Laboratory work produces charts and numbers, but we’ve gotten to make actual products with the textile designers. It feels very different when your work creates something you can wear and tell a story about.’

Michael Hummel

  • Work: Professor at Aalto University Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems since 2019. Director of the Bioinnovation Centre since 2021.
  • Education: completed a doctorate in inorganic chemistry at the University of Innsbruck in 2009.
  • Career: postdoctoral researcher and head of research group at Aalto in 2009–19.
  • What are you learning right now? ‘I’m learning to promote multidisciplinary work. Earlier, I participated in an EU project where it took a long time for us to even understand one another. Multidisciplinary work is rewarding because it is possible to discover fresh solutions through discussion and disagreement.’
  • What issue have you tackled at work today? ‘Today is an exciting day as we’re starting the recruitment of a new professor for the Bioinnovation Centre.’
Michael Hummel istumassa laboratoriossa. Taustalla on kuvitettu kangas, jossa näkyy koivun runkoja. Kuvaaja: Rainer Paananen. Kuvittaja: Satu Kettunen.
Portrait of Michael Hummel by Rainer Paananen. Illustration: Satu Kettunen.

Unnecessary resource use needs to end

Annu Nieminen had two passions as a young girl. One was classical music, playing the oboe and composing. The other was mathematics, especially exploring how ‘hard’ numbers could be used to solve ‘soft’ issues, i.e. major human problems.

The latter is what Upright, the firm she founded, is focusing on. Upright compiles big data that reveals whether companies are doing more good than bad.

The idea began to germinate during her student years in Otaniemi. Later, while working a day job, she felt a powerful urge to further develop her concept: a model for computing a company’s net impact, i.e. the plusses and minuses all operations as a whole have on the environment, human health and society.

In the beginning, Nieminen felt certain that somebody somewhere would already be working on the same idea. But when she couldn’t find anything similar even in Silicon Valley, she made the decision to launch her business.

The artificial intelligence developed by the Upright team searches an enormous database of scientific articles and mines hundreds of millions of information sources for data on, for example, the impacts a product’s manufacture and lifecycle have. 

‘Apple, for example, is assigned a small share of the global aluminium industry’s emissions because it is one of the users of aluminium at the end of the value chain.’

Paying customers like banks, asset managers and other organisations utilise the database, which covers some 40 000 companies, when making investment and funding decisions.

‘We felt a need to start challenging the major flows of capital. Enough guilt has already been directed at ordinary people,’ Nieminen says.

Ways to measure the responsibility of companies already exist, but they are susceptible to describing a firm’s PR efforts instead of its core business activities. A fossil energy company can have outstanding administration, a good workplace culture and give money to admirable charities, but that doesn’t alter the fact that its main product is destroying the climate.

Nieminen would like to remove all unnecessary resource utilisation from our world. She provokes people to change: what can you do better with your time and passion?

Sometimes, the message hits a company’s sensitive spot.

‘But the people in these firms are smart. Everybody would much rather add value than destroy it.’

Nieminen finds that her work has benefited most from her classical music studies and from learning to overcome the tremors and pressure felt when a concert performance or skill demonstration is about to begin.

‘I’ve learned to think that I just channel the music, this piece wants to be played through me. As an entrepreneur, I’ve sometimes felt dread about what we’re doing, too. In such moments, I bring to mind that we have a message that must be heard, let’s see where it takes us.’

Annu Nieminen

  • Work: founder and CEO of Upright since 2017.
  • Education: M.Sc. (Engineering) specialising in information networks, graduated from Aalto in 2009.
  • Career: consultant with McKinsey in 2010–13, CEO of Kasvuryhmä in 2015–16 and since then a member of Kasvuryhmä’s board of directors.
  • What are you learning right now? – ‘I’m exploring patience: finding the courage to look a few years ahead, not just a few weeks. I’m also learning to lead with questions and trust, without knowing everything about everything myself.’
  • What issue have you tackled at work today? – ‘I’ve thought about future uses for Upright’s data and ways in which employees might take advantage of our information on companies’ net impacts when choosing a workplace.’
Henkilökuvassa Annu Niemisen kehoa peittää osittain valkoinen kangas, jossa on piirroskuvituksena värikkäitä graafisia elementtejä. Kuvaaja: Rainer Paananen. Kuvittaja: Satu Kettunen.
Portrait of Annu Nieminen by Rainer Paananen. Illustration: Satu Kettunen.

Family carers for seniors need a partner

Richard Nordström worked in the finance sector for a decade, but when his mother’s health took an unexpected turn for the worse, Nordström found himself taking up a new role as carer for his parent.

It was difficult. Both the local authority and private service providers almost always sent a different carer, and the flow of information to the family was weak. Nordström’s own life was hectic, he’d often rush over to take care of his mother’s everyday issues with morning coffee in hand and sometimes finish the day googling for information in the small hours.

‘I immediately recognised that there was a clear need for change. I felt that a specific party should act as the family carer’s partner from start to finish and provide guidance in a situation that almost everybody is experiencing for the very first time,’ Nordström says.

He’s always wanted to build something meaningful, and his lived experience provided the impulse for leaving the world of finance behind.

‘I think that if I hadn’t taken the plunge to become an entrepreneur then, I mightn’t have had the courage later either.’

At the end of 2018, he founded senior service firm Helppy, which provides its own domestic services as well as guidance for arranging other necessary at-home services.

Helppy’s hourly employees, helppers, are personal assistants or health care professionals who perform tasks they are qualified to handle.

‘Two-thirds of this assistance is helping with everyday chores at home and running errands: basic stuff that senior citizens can find difficult after their functional capacity begins to deteriorate.’

Home care services usually operate based on optimised route planning, which often means that elderly care recipients are visited by different carers each time. Helppy strives to match carers with seniors living in the same area. A large share of its helppers work on a part-time basis serving two or three familiar clients. The company’s digital app enables the client and their next of kin to keep track of the services performed.

They now have some 300 clients in different localities, but Nordström’s vision is big. Helppy is being financed by the Icebreaker Fund and two angel investors, and it intends to further develop its technology platform. There’s a big need for senior services, but the fact that different countries have arranged their care services in disparate ways makes the situation more challenging.

Throwing himself into practical work has helped Nordström in his effort to enact change and tolerate uncertainty. After establishing the company, he spent almost a thousand hours assisting three seniors alongside his mother, doing household chores, accompanying them on visits and keeping them company.

‘It showed me what the actual daily grind of this work is like.’

Richard Nordström

  • Work: founder and CEO of Helppy.
  • Education: two Master’s degrees from Aalto, industrial engineering and management in 2008, business and economics in 2009.
  • Career: financial industry positions with Goldman Sachs 2009–13, McKinsey 2013, Boston Consulting Group 2014–18.
  • What are you learning right now? ‘Among other things, I’ve been learning about recruitment. Team building is one of the most challenging tasks. You need to find people with the courage to create change and who can live with some uncertainty.’
  • What issue have you tackled at work today? ‘Working with our CTO, I’ve been planning a portal for family carers that enables them to take care of all of their responsibilities handily and with maximum efficiency.’
Richard Nordströmillä on kuvassa yllään Helppy-firman logolla varustettu sininen collegepaita. Nordströmin taustalla on kangas, johon on kuvitettu ihmishahmoja ja käsiä. Kuvaaja: Rainer Paananen. Kuvittaja: Satu Kettunen.
Portrait of Richard Nordström by Rainer Paananen. Illustration: Satu Kettunen.

Team building is one of the most challenging tasks. You need to find people with the courage to live with some uncertainty.

Richard Nordström

Text: Terhi Hautamäki
Portraits: Rainer Paananen
Illustration: Satu Kettunen

This article was published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 29, October 2021.

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