Author(s): Ben Wood
A few years ago, in the dark days after Nokia's mighty mobile phone business unit had been sold to Microsoft and subsequently imploded, Finland faced a big problem. The nation had to find a way to get back on its feet and a group of entrepreneurs, led by the charismatic Peter Vesterbacka, decided to do something about it. They set up an event to encourage and promote small Finnish start-ups and appropriately named it Slush — a perfect metaphor for the short, damp, chilly, grey November days that coincide with the event.
Three years later Slush has morphed into a giant show attended by thousands of people, including investors and founders from all over the world, some of whom arrived on a specially chartered plane from Silicon Valley that brought 300 movers and shakers across the pond. The event provides a fantastic forum for aspiring start-ups to pitch their ideas and seek funding and more.
Slush is a hard event to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. With at least five concurrent streams taking place, you need to pick and choose what you want to learn about from a diverse range of successful investors and founders. For me, they included Lowercase Capital founder Chris Sacca; Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek; Atomico CEO Niklas Zennstrom; Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen; Shazam co-founder Chris Barton; and inspirational speakers such as Jyri Engestrom of Boosted; Stephanie Alys of MysteryVibe; Sangu Delle of Golden Palm Investments and Harri Hursti, a Finnish data security expert.
I felt like I only scratched the surface of the event, but what struck me was the sense of optimism and determination among the Finns involved.
The whole country is getting behind efforts to reboot the nation. This starts right at the top with the government investing huge amounts to support initiatives in fields it deems to have long-term potential. Areas being backed include ICT and telecom services, where Finland's long-established heritage can be exploited, but also numerous others. Medical and education technology, and smart cities are perfect examples of where Finland is taking advantage of its highly digitised society. It's trying to get ahead of the curve on how new technologies can be implemented using the vast amounts of data it has access to and its progressive approach toward city planning, integrated transportation, healthcare, education and more.
Other areas attracting support include the Industrial Internet, which covers, but is not limited to, sensor technology, advanced manufacturing and robotics. In common with other Scandinavian countries, Finland also has a clear desire to develop solutions that have strong environmental credentials. Efforts are being made to create innovative low- or zero-carbon energy solutions while considering ways to exploit natural resources, particularly biomass initiatives which are well-suited to a densely forested country. This extends as far as producing cotton-like material from wood that is 10 times more valuable than paper, as well as proteins from trees that can be used as an alternative to other foodstuffs such as beef.
Ultimately, it was difficult to pinpoint a single topic, breakthrough product or initiative at Slush, but there was a strong sense of purpose. It feels like Finland is making a series of bets in a wide range of areas, hoping it will reinvigorate its economy and lay the groundwork to ensure a positive future for its young, well-educated entrepreneurs. It will be interesting to visit Slush again in 2017 to see how some of the small start-ups have progressed, and whether Finland is able to pull off its ambitious reinvention.