Incubator Blogs: Searching for the circular world at the Arctic15 startup conference

Circular economy is a field of growing importance. But what is it? How do different actors play in it and what can companies, both research based and otherwise do to further it? In this blog, the Helsinki Incubators team shares some of the insights relating to these questions they gained from attending Arctic15.

The Helsinki Incubators team recently attended the Arctic 15 conference to learn more about circular economy (CE) and create meaningful connections with the CE community. With a mixture of speed-dating, digital matchmaking combined with 1-on1 meetings, keynote speeches, and workshops, attending the conference proved to be well worth the effort. The team met and connected with dozens of entrepreneurs in the CE domain, learning just how businesses should prepare for the oncoming shift in our economy from linear to circular.

At its core, CE is a model of production where the amount of primary resource extraction is kept to a minimum, and an emphasis is placed on recycling, refurbishing, and reuse. In addition, CE avoids generating waste, seeing that instead of seeing things as reaching the end of the line and getting thrown away, they loop back and keep feeding the circle. That circle, the C in CE, consists of recycling materials, refurbishing products, reusing them, maintaining them, and sharing them. All of this minimises the need to use our limited resources to produce more goods that’ll be piled on the trash heap after only a short time in use. For more information about CE, we were recommended the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s website by experts at the conference.

Circular start-ups & their potential for change

As we spent time on the conference floor, two CE start-ups, Elmery and Packoorang, stood out. In the following paragraphs, we’ll address which part of the cycle they’re working on, and how a transition to CE would affect their business.

First, we spent some time at a workshop with Mika Paalanne, founder of Elmery. Elmery is working with a new technology to refine mining products while minimising the waste resulting from the refining process. Our insight into their business model was that while their solution (a mix of software with existing machinery) will be great for the environment, they’ll also be replacing a handful of other machines in the refineries. As Elmery’s customers get rid of this equipment, where should this equipment go? Perhaps a new company could acquire these old machines to re-use or recycle?

Packoorang was well represented at the event, as they were constantly explaining at their booth how their reusable packaging works. Their laptop-sized consumer mail bags can be used for a minimum of 100 times to deliver clothing, food, and other goods by mail. Their bigger packaging works with EUR-pallets and can be used for over a thousand times, which compared to traditional packaging methods significantly reduces the amount of plastic waste generated. As a CE company, Packoorang takes their products back after use and works to maintain them and prolong their lifecycle. The company’s vision is to eventually create an international packaging system where retailers and delivery companies use the same standardized reusable packaging. But for now, Packoorang is still selling packaging systems to individual companies, tailoring their packaging to fit their individual needs, and providing custom branding on them – though they hope that this will soon be a thing of the past and that their packaging will get to be in broad interorganisational use.

Theoretical & practical insights

We also followed a fascinating panel discussion at the conference’s keynote program where Marvin Henry, a lecturer & researcher in CE at Utrecht University, shared his insights on the different roles actors in CE have, focusing on three groups: pioneers, conveners, reinforcers, and mentors. As he explained, these three groups are crucial in developing CE. Pioneers are the ones bringing the new technologies to the markets and giving new opportunities for the system to work with CE. Examples of pioneers can be found in the form of the previously mentioned Elmery and Packoorang. Conveners on the other hand help existing actors as well as CE newcomers find each other, focusing on facilitating connections in the new system, with the example given by Mr Henry being a theoretical marketplace for CE solutions. What of the reinforcers? Their role is to create public understanding of CE and accelerating the adoption of CE solutions, and Mr Henry pointed to Spark Sustainability, a start-up whose goal is to help people understand the carbon impact of actions. Lastly, mentors help and guide actors to adapt to CE.

In that same panel discussion, Jori Ahvonen, CTO of Swappie, explained how their business had to make a strategic choice to focus solely on remanufacturing iPhones, and specific models of iPhones at that. Remanufacturing is the process of rebuilding a product, in this case an iPhone, to the specifications of the original manufacturer using a combination of reused, repaired, and new parts, either to fix a customer’s phone or to create a new one. The reason behind Swappie’s decision to focus solely on a limited ranges of iPhones was that in a remanufacturing factory, the quality of incoming materials varies greatly, and therefore so does the quality of products coming out of it. Because of this, operating the factory comes with a lot of complexity. To reduce complexity, the company had to make the choice to decline remanufacturing other products.

Lessons learned

After two days of attending the conference and working hard to better understand CE, we came to understand that CE needs actors that are extremely good at doing a very specific thing such as refining minerals or remanufacturing phones, but that these actors alone cannot create the circle. This is why we need active conversations in society to encourage and make it easier for the next actor to take their product or material and step forward towards CE.

Therefore, when building a circular company, there should be an understanding in the business model that communication and cooperation within the circular community is and should be ever-present. As such, it should be understood that no one business should be taking on too big of a piece to chew when it comes to the closing the circle, and remember that it is a community effort.

We would like to thank Alisa Mick, founder of the Mixi association focused on CE, for hosting the CE keynote track. We would also like to thank Helena Sustar for hosting the circular economy workshop. And of course, the team at Arctic 15 for organising a good conference once again!


Incubator Blogs is a platform for members of the Helsinki Incubators team to discuss interesting matters relating to the various themes covered in our programmes as well as entrepreneurship in general.