The University of Helsinki’s pre-incubator for solutions in circular economy, Circulator, is fast approaching, this time for its third round already. To alleviate our excitement, we again chatted with some alumni about their experiences in the programme. First up to tell his story was Joonas Mustonen, answering the Teams call from his home in Orimattila. Mustonen divides his time between his doctoral research in applied physics at the University of Helsinki, and his day job as a research, development, and innovation (RDI) specialist at the LAB University of Applied Sciences.
Mustonen applied to Circulator with an idea that he had been brewing for over ten years but had never found the right time to begin working on it. His solution addresses the unsustainability issues of the computer industry, in which devices are built as bulky, solid entities which don’t allow the fixing of specific components easily. As an alternative, Mustonen wants to develop modular PCs, in which different components can be interchanged, worked on, and replaced: “Instead of having to buy a new computer when something breaks, you can just replace the one component. This means you can also custom-build your computer more flexibly,” he explains.
Despite having ran an event business with a friend in upper secondary school, Mustonen felt that he needed help in learning how a more science-based solution could be brought to life: “I had kept this idea for so long in my back pocket, not really knowing if it was any good. When I found out about Circulator, what really excited me was its broad network of experts, with up-to-date insight about the field. With their help, I could find out if I had a good idea in my hands and if I could make a viable business out of it. What is the context I’d be working in? Is my product needed?” Mustonen says.
Over the course of the programme, not only did Mustonen discover that there indeed is a need for his solution, but he also understood that he’d underestimated the value of his solution in a circular economy sense: “Before I realised that my idea would be a perfect fit for this programme, I hadn’t really thought of it from a circular perspective. This feels funny to say now, because now I can’t think of it in any other way!” he exclaims. “I differed from many other participants in that sense: so many others had circular economy and sustainability as their main motivations in the beginning, whereas I started with a somewhat solid business idea that ‘accidentally’ saves the world, so to speak. Talking to the other participants really broadened my horizons with my solution, and I hope that I was able to do the same to them.”
The programme helped Mustonen visualise his product better, from a rough idea to something more tangible and concrete. He is happy that he finally decided to test the potential of his concept: “It was good for me to have this external ‘pressure’ to sit down and finally write this thing out. The programme offered me a distinct forum to work on this and to connect with people who know the field inside and out,” Mustonen describes.
Indeed, Mustonen believes that the future of circular economy depends on different people coming together: “I think it is vital that we bridge the gap between those who hold the theoretical knowledge about circularity and those with practical experience around it. There needs to be dialogue between all parties involved,” Mustonen states. “Circular economy shouldn’t be something only in the hands of academics—rather, it should be enmeshed in all our everyday actions, as brought into practice. It shouldn’t be something merely ‘glued’ on top of what we do, but something that cuts across everything,” he continues. Mustonen comes back again and again to his favourite quote, an old geologists’ one: “Mente et malleo—with mind and hammer.” This, he says, describes well the mindset in which sustainable transformation should be approached: “To enact change, we need both knowledge and action. You make things happen only by making them happen.”
Mustonen advocates for a shift in the narrative about entrepreneurship: “I wish people realised that entrepreneurs are normal people who are just trying their best. I’ve been the same person as an entrepreneur and as an employee, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t make a difference to me where the money on my bank account comes from. I think it’s a harmful misconception that entrepreneurs are these superhumans who must always be on top of things, or else they’ve failed. I think we’d be better off understanding that the things we expect from entrepreneurs are unrealistic and unfair—that we’re all just human,” he says.
Right now, Mustonen has mapped several different potential paths he could take with his solution: “I’m looking into whether I’d be able to work on this as part of the lab work that I do for my day job, or somewhere else. On the other hand, I could just go ahead and create a business ID, get this show on the road”. At the end of the day, however, Mustonen wants to take some more time to consider all available options: “I’ve always been a hasty guy with the things that I do. With this, I want to be a bit more levelheaded,” he reflects.
Regardless, Mustonen finds it important that people try out things fearlessly: “My business partner at the previous company used to say that it’s always best not to know too much. If you start to think too much about all the possible scenarios that might play out, you’ll be paralysed. There’ll always be risks, that’s for sure! But if you have even the faintest idea that something might work, it’s always better to just go and try it. I don’t recommend my way of sitting on an idea for ten years before seeing if it could take off,” he laughs.
The call for applications to the third round of Circulator is open until 27 September. Read more about the programme here, or contact project lead Santeri Tuovila at firstname.lastname@example.org or through LinkedIn if you have any questions!
Also make sure to mark your calendars with an open info session held 12 September at the Helsinki Incubators' event space in Vuorikatu 3. Read more and register here to take part!