The weather outside gets colder, but the atmosphere at Helsinki Incubators only gets more electric. Last Monday, tangible static was brought on by a new batch of Compass participants, who fearlessly kicked off their careers in tech and AI entrepreneurship with projects covering a variety of different digital solutions—from the promotion of sustainable homeownership to uprooting toxicity in research labs. The University of Helsinki’s two-month incubator returns for its third round, now beaconed by the newest addition to the Incubators team, experienced Communication and Marketing Specialist Maila-Kaarina Rantanen.
Cozied up with some coffee and snacks, teams are first introduced to the requirements and structure of the programme, as well as its goals: “My aim is to help you gain the knowledge and skills you need to build and prove your business idea,” Rantanen guarantees the teams. “Your ideas are bound to change, and that’s a crucial part of the process. Let's all dive into the programme and make a safe space to share our ideas, give each other feedback, and learn as a group. We’ve got a lot of work to do on this journey, but if we all lean into it and use our different experiences and backgrounds to work as a team, we can grow even more together.”
Rantanen’s storyteller handprint comes across in the programme’s emphasis on pitching and communication, things she wants the teams to hone on and practice on a weekly basis: “The most valuable skill in entrepreneurship is to be able to communicate your idea effectively and be able to tweak your presentation according to different stakeholders. You need to be able to communicate clearly, authentically, and consistently,” she explains.
By now it is time to meet special guest of the evening Annika Lundström, an alumna of the previous round of Compass. Lundström was also interviewed by us earlier this autumn together with her teammate Caterina Mandalios. Since last spring when the programme ended, Lundström has worked tirelessly on her solution ReMinded, a health tech device that helps users optimise their mental performance in everyday situations, in real-time: “You don’t have to be the smartest or the one with the most experience, but you have to have one hell of a work ethic to get by in this field,” she says. “You will have to make sacrifices to reach your goals, but I guarantee you that the delayed gratification of the work that you do is one of the most precious feelings out there.”
Lundström also reassures the teams that although they are bound to face many rejections along the way, it’s always best to keep trying and getting out there, even if it means sending a seemingly endless number of emails every which way: “Actively search out for all those no’s, because there might very well be a yes waiting at the end of them,” she says.
Having a chat with the participants reveals that the programme has once again attracted the interest of many motivated and imaginative teams, such as that made up by Sanni Häkkinen and Jakub Grad, studying geography and computer sciences at the University of Helsinki respectively, and sustainable architecture graduate from the University of Tampere, Chloe Kiernicki. The trio, after winning first prize in the Nest Hackathon organised by Helsinki Think Company only weeks earlier, applied to Compass to find out whether the sustainable housing solution they came up with, Pesämuna, could grow wings as an entrepreneurial project: “Pesämuna is an app that aims to help homeowners opt for the most cost- and energy efficient solutions for their homes. It will also offer tips on sustainable living and energy reduction. We’re part of a research project with Pesämuna, but on top of that, we’re also looking into what other roads we could potentially take. None of us have experience in entrepreneurship, so getting to know the practical side of all that here in Compass is a great opportunity,” comments team leader Häkkinen.
Another participant Mustafa Munawar, a molecular and cellular biologist from the University of Eastern Finland, came to Compass to test his idea of a collaborative website where different research labs all over the globe could be reviewed by their researchers. Through the rating system, Munawar aims to bring toxic conduct to light and make labs’ working cultures more transparent, thus contributing to academics’ work wellbeing. Like Häkkinen, Munawar looks forward to getting familiar with entrepreneurship: “When I came to understand how difficult it can be to thrive emotionally in labs, I wanted to do something about it. But while I’m very enthusiastic about research, I have no experience in business. Compass will hopefully help me with that!” he says enthusiastically.
The first evening is rounded off by a “speed-networking” exercise, in which participants are given 30 seconds to introduce their solutions to all their peers, one-on-one. Something close to chaos ensues, and the small event space booms with conversation and laughter as participants panic through their turns and switch around pairs. Nevertheless, despite the challenge of it, in the end of the exercise participants have not only had a word with all their peers, but they’ve also had a go at pitching at best 22 times already. When the dust settles after the exercise, participants comment that even in the short time assigned they learned to craft their pitches towards efficiency, for example what comes to best turns of phrase to use, where to pause, and what aspects of their solution to highlight.
Maila-Kaarina Rantanen later comments on the liveliness of the exercise and the entire evening: “I’m so happy with our group! They’ve been so friendly, vocal, active, and seem visibly excited about Compass. Our teams have welcomed all the activities and the whole programme with open arms. I'm sure we’ll do amazing things together as a team!” she says excitedly.
Rantanen—together with the rest of the Incubator team—eagerly waits to witness the growth of the new Compass teams and what their solutions end up looking like. The pre-incubator will meet weekly for the next two months and learn key skills in early-stage entrepreneurship, with the goal of inspiring many to continue forward with their innovative projects. The final showcase of the programme is scheduled to take place 11 December.
Text: Maarika Korhonen