Finland enjoys a start-up renaissance

Few could have predicted how quickly the Finnish start-up scene has grown over the past few years. At the centre is Slush, one of the largest high-tech and start-up conferences in Europe.

"Wang Jian, the CTO of Alibaba, said that he had always thought that Silicon Valley was the epicentre of global innovation, but after Slush 2013 he changed his mind," says Tiina Liukkonen, chief communications officer at Slush.

After walking through the Slush conference it is easy to understand Jian's enthusiasm. A company making apps to learn languages has a stand next to a biomedicine firm. Entrepreneurs pitch virtual reality goggles and recycling robots. The Slush conference, held every November in Helsinki, is attracting growing numbers of innovative start-ups. Last year 7,000 companies attended the conference while 10,000 are coming this year.

"The Finnish start-up scene is more vibrant than ever and the start-up community has gained importance in our economy," says Marjo Ilmari, director of start-up companies at Tekes. "While many of the old economic recipes for success do not work, several start-ups have targeted new, lucrative markets and built businesses which now successfully operate on a global scale."

Ilmari points out that last year Finland had the most investments in venture stage companies in Europe as measured by a percentage of GDP. This year could be even better: in 2013 venture capitalists invested in 176 Finnish companies, but this year that total was already surpassed by June.

Finnish strengths

"Finland has a number of main strengths as a start-up hub," continues Liukkonen. "We have an exceptionally strong grassroots ecosystem for start-ups. We have a high level of tech talent. We have low bureaucracy so it is easy to found a company and a highly networked society which makes things like recruiting a lot more effective. We also have the necessary mentality: we can do it, and we will."

Liukkonen credits Tekes as having an integral role in this boom, saying that many of the Finnish start-up success stories now making it big internationally wouldn't have been possible without Tekes.

"Our role at Tekes is to foster the entrepreneurial ecosystem and to make Finland the leading start-up hub in Europe," explains Ilmari. "At the early stage where there is a lack of private money our role is significant."

Once a new company has passed that early stage private investors become interested in the best ideas. Many investors come to Finland to look for the next Rovio or Supercell.

"This year there is a growing number of corporate venture capitalists from abroad attending Slush," concludes Ilmari. "I am excited about the combined force of corporations and the start-up community coming together to help each other."

Text: David J. Cord

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