Helsinki Incubators alumni OptiWood: “I really hope that this could change something in the forest industry”

Welcome to another entry in our series of interviews introducing Helsinki Incubators teams & startups. This time, OptiWood’s Dr Jiri Pyörälä & Tommi Niinimäki spoke to us about how their participation in Compass got the otherwise busy duo to regularly sit down, think, and develop their wood-analysis solution together.

In addition to being a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Forest Science and a senior fellow at the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute, Jiri Pyörälä, Dr.Sc., is, along with long-time friend Tommi Niinimäki, a co-founder of OptiWood. With their wood-quality prediction solution, the pair were one of 12 teams that took part in the third edition of the Helsinki Incubators’ Compass pre-incubator for early-stage ideas in Deep Tech, AI & Sustainability.

The team’s solution addresses a problem that Pyörälä explains most sawmills face today: unable to determine wood quality before harvesting it, sawmills see over half of the wood from trees they cut end up in secondary use as pulp for paper and cardboard, or simply burned, partly because wrong trees were chopped down. This, he says, is a problem from both a business and a sustainability angle, and one that OptiWood are eager to solve.

Their answer? An AI solution, based on Pyörälä’s doctoral dissertation, that processes massive 3D point cloud datasets created by laser scanners mapping the forest around them to predict the wood quality of individual trees in a forest. This way, he summarises, sawmills can optimize the selection of trees to be harvested: “I really hope that this could change something in the forest industry.”

As Pyörälä demonstrates the laser scanning technology that is so crucial to OptiWood’s technology, he explains that right now, scanners can be mounted on drones to provide a far wider scanning area for sawmills to prepare their operations, and eventually, he envisions scanners being mounted onto forest harvesters themselves, providing loggers with near real-time information and insights.

From preliminary idea to forming a company – in just 2 months

Despite only being two months, Pyörälä and Niinimäki agree that Compass really helped the two to progress in leaps and bounds in developing their idea, which at the start of the programme was still in its infancy.

“We only had a very preliminary idea of the business model when we started,” Pyörälä explains. Yet in the span of just a few weeks Compass – which he described as a “real lightbulb moment” – not only helped him and Niinimäki validate their idea and refine it into a solution with a workable plan and clear next steps, but also gave the pair the confidence and capability to take OptiWood forward by themselves.

At a personal level, he added that the programme made him step outside of his academic bubble. Thanks to Compass, Pyörälä says he gained a new perspective on what the research he’s conducting looks like to the outside world, while also teaching him useful new entrepreneurial and business terms, ideas, and methodologies, calling the experience “enlightening.”

Adding to Pyörälä’s sentiment, Niinimäki, who had some prior entrepreneurial experience from time spent in East Africa, zeroed-in on the programme’s value-add being with its many speakers and on-call advisors: “We got to hear many things from experts that we don’t have our own connections to,” he explained. These experts, who he said would normally be very difficult to get the kind of access that Compass provided, gave the team insights that helped them develop their business model and the belief that theirs was a good idea, worth going forward with.

Yet the biggest encouragement came at the end of Compass: at the programme’s demo day, Pyörälä’s OptiWood pitch was chosen as the best in the programme by the event’s jury. Not long after, OptiWood Technology Oy was established.

Interviewed a while after the final, the pair reflected on what comes next. “The immediate goal now is to find the first potential customer,” said Pyörälä, with Niinimäki adding that the pair would also focus on further refining how the service would best serve the needs of sawmills while making it easy for them to use it.

An invaluable experience for researchers and non-researchers alike

Looking back at their experiences with the Helsinki Incubators, both OptiWood co-founders agreed that their time with the programme was one that truly helped them along their journey, and one that they would whole-heartedly recommend to others.

Speaking to fellow researchers, Pyörälä said that if you’re looking to explore if your research could be turned into a viable business, the Helsinki Incubator’s programmes and their clear framework could offer the necessary support: “If you’re in need for structure to develop your idea, or need help to define and refine it, the programme can definitely help you there,” adding that “this weekly programme really forced us to think about this and make weekly progress.”

Niinimäki agreed, saying that it had been interesting as a non-academic to follow how the programme helped people like Pyörälä understand how to take ideas that have been developed for a long time in academia and model them into businesses that can really benefit society. In addition, he felt that the programme was right for just about anyone interested in creating something impactful: “If you have an idea, or even if you don’t have an idea, the Helsinki Incubators are a really good place to really model your business and really get validation for the whole idea.”

More information

The University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes, the Helsinki Incubators, provides support and opportunities for bold thinkers in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area interested in taking their ideas and turning them into impactful ventures. So if you're keen to join a community of curious and motivated doers, read more about our thematic incubator programmes and apply to make a difference:

NEXUS — For Ideators in Deep Tech, AI & Sustainability. Apply by 14 April!

Biosphere — For Impactful Solutions in Bio- & Circular Economy. Apply by 1 May!

TREMOR — For Changemakers in Society, Education, Wellbeing, Communities & Law. Apply by 17 April!