The startup space to explore

How Aalto University’s campus became the hottest startup hub in the Helsinki region.
Aalto-yliopisto A Grid Mordor Kuva: Unto Rautio
Students can find jobs at startups, and the companies can take part in research and teaching projects. Image: Unto Rautio / Aalto University

Back in 2014, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a report ranking Aalto University as one of five ‘rising stars’. The report recognized Aalto University for fostering innovation, conducting independent research, and supporting entrepreneurship through the vibrant startup community on its campus. 

Visiting the university some four years later, one understands the potential MIT saw. Located less than 15 minutes from downtown Helsinki on the city’s sparkling new metro extension, the campus has come of age as a thriving hub of academic, business and social life. 

Emerging from the metro station into the newly built shopping centre A Bloc and Väre building, one has a sense the campus has become much more than a place where people go to study. There’s something special happening in the buildings behind the trees, and a big part of it is down to the 800 or so companies and organizations that call the campus home. 

‘A lot of great startup ecosystems have a university at their heart,’ says Marika Paakkala, Head of the Aalto Startup Center. ‘The campus plays a very important role in bringing talent together and spinning technology out into the business world. The startups here often say how they value being close to student life, to the research programs and the university infrastructure, and to the big companies we maintain close ties with.’ 

School of Arts, Design and Architecture moved to the campus this year, and the School of Business will complete its move in spring 2019. This will finally put all of Aalto’s core disciplines – Engineering, Business, Art, Design and Architecture – in the same location. This is integral to the university’s ethos of bringing business, tech and creative people together under several themes: Health Tech, Materials, Living, Energy, Experience, Digitalisation, and Entrepreneurship. 

The home of innovation 

One of Aalto University’s own rising stars is ICEYE, a company developing and commercializing synthetic-aperture radar technology for satellites. ICEYE’s founding partners are both Aalto University alumni, and the company has been based on the campus since they started it in 2014. ICEYE in fact grew out of a university-led nano-satellite research program called Aalto-1. 

‘Early on, Aalto University gave us help in reaching the right decision makers in Finland, as well as with conducting research and finding talent,’ says the company’s head of marketing, Mikko Keränen. ‘Back then it was crucial for us to have access to the university’s facilities, such as the anechoic chamber where we’ve tested our radar satellite instruments.’ 

‘Aalto University does a really good job of promoting the startup community and in providing facilities,’ he says. ‘The metro has been a great improvement for commutes both from the Helsinki and Espoo sides. And it’s wonderful to see the campus is flourishing with developments like A Bloc. For us, there are definitely more reasons to be here than anywhere else.’ 

Making surgery safer 

Another Aalto-based startup to watch is Surgify, a medical-engineering company developing a physical solution to make bone surgery safer. Surgify’s drilling tool can distinguish between bone and other tissue, helping surgeons avoid damage during operations, reducing pain and suffering among patients, and lowering post-operative treatment costs. 

Surgify co-founder Visa Sippola witnessed the issue of drill-related injuries while watching neurosurgeons at work as part of his medicine and PhD studies. He contacted Aalto University to help to develop the technology safer for the patients, and Surgify was soon on it’s a way to raising a total of EUR 2 million in funding. 

‘Aalto University was the logical starting point for something like this,’ says Sippola. ‘It has the best local research and engineering capability that I know of.’ 

The university provided Surgify with its first financial assistance through a EUR 20,000 grant, and several Aalto students and graduates are now part of the company too. 

‘That first grant was incredibly important at the time’ says Sippola. ‘It carried us through as the university then supported us in applying for a EUR 500,000 public research grant – which we got too. Aalto was a very valuable sparring partner through all this, helping us with our value position and the commercial aspects of our solution.’ 

Aalto-yliopisto A Grid Kuva: Aki Rask
and workshops are organised in A Grid according to business interests. Along with Aalto Start-Up Center, A Grid also houses the European Space Agency and several companies, like Fortum. Image: Aki Rask / Aalto University

Just as ICEYE has grown up on the campus, so too has Surgify. Today, the company is part of a startup community in the A Grid building – the heart of the Aalto University startup community and home to some 130 companies and organizations. Both the European Space Agency Business Incubator and the United Nations Technology Lab have offices in A Grid too. 

‘We really enjoy the technical environment on the campus, both from the academic and business perspectives,’ says Sippola. ‘There are many medical-engineering projects taking place here, and there’s a lot of collaboration between the university and all the startups. This is one of the main reasons we’re located here, as we can easily consult with experts in various fields.’ 

The heart of collaboration 

Much of the collaboration on the campus is driven by the Aalto Startup Center, founded in 1997 to bring new companies together with mentors, investors, academics and established corporations. The Startup Center reviews applications from companies interested in locating to the campus, assessing their needs and looking at what they would bring to the community. 

‘The feedback we receive from the startups here is that they appreciate us taking their individual needs into account, rather than just putting them into a program with a start point and an end point,’ says Paakkala. ‘What makes this a community is that everybody is contributing something unique. Everybody is adding value and shining in their own way.’ 

The campus also has an abundance of communal spaces for work and play, such as the 1500 square meter Startup Sauna co-working space. Open to anyone, the space is used for everything from hackathons to BBQs. There are also more than 30 lunch canteens on the campus, as well as coffee shops and restaurants like the popular Fat Lizard, an American-style bistro and brewery that’s even drawing in people from off campus. 

‘Nobody knows better than our students that campus life is both about working hard and playing hard! So there’s always something fun happening here,’ says Paakkala. ‘With a combination of students, startups and other companies on the campus, you never know when you may meet your next client, be introduced to an investor, or discover a new opportunity of some kind.’ 

Text: Andrew Flowers

This article was first published in Aalto University Campus journal in December 2018.

Aalto University campus journal

The campus development journal examines eg. what Otaniemi looks like in 2050, how to add more green to the campus as well as how a startup ecosystem works.

Read the whole journal here
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