Jukka Leppälahti: Challenge Finland turns problems into business opportunities


Our recently launched competition, Challenge Finland, offers researchers and businesses a new way of collaborating on innovation. Some well-informed readers may ask what was wrong with the old way of doing this. The old way, AKA the Tekes networking research model, has provided a good, modern approach to bringing researchers and companies closer together to get more out of research results. Finland has been a forerunner in this from a global perspective. But the recent public discussion on making better use of research results has been necessary.

In the business world, digitalisation means rapid change, more competition and an uncertain decision-making environment. Challenge Finland is responding by integrating corporate innovation more closely with public research. The new knowledge generated by public research is bound to lead to new ideas on how to use such knowledge. On the other hand, innovation occurs in the business sector. Challenge Finland aims to encourage companies and researchers to come together in considering their goals. What problems should cutting-edge research tackle and what innovation opportunities will it open up for companies? When key problems for customers – and possible solutions – have been identified, R&D can show us the way to the kinds of radical, new innovations which are all too rare in Finland.

Another key issue is making sure that R&D is relevant to the customer at all stages. It makes no sense to invest heavily in developing something that no one needs. The customer experience matters, but as Steve Jobs said, "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them". This is particularly relevant to entirely new innovations.

Challenge Finland has two stages. Stage 1 involves researchers and companies putting their heads together to identify problems and possible solutions with business potential. Through a simplified application process, we want to initiate a large number of relatively small-scale projects for exploring preliminary ideas. If an idea proves relevant, a consortium will be created to develop it further and commercialise it. In the first stage, this may mean discovering better, alternative approaches in cases where originally funded ideas didn't work out. Modified stage 1 proposals can then be submitted for stage 2 of the competition. Stage 2 involves bigger R&D investments, and faster progress – preferably still in close engagement with the customer. The projects making the most progress, and for which the best case has been made, will be selected for stage 2.

It is important to understand that the ability to work fast in an uncertain situation does not eliminate the need for persistence, careful preparation and high quality. On the contrary; world-class expertise and perseverance provide the basis for rapid progress and effective risk management in the face of uncertainty. A wise man once said that there is nothing as practical as a good theory.

Jukka Leppälahti
Chief Adviser, Tekes

Pia Mörk
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