Incubator blogs: NEXUS Mentor Sam Laakkonen “Ideas do not have value – how you bring your ideas to life creates the value.”

For mentor Sam Laakkonen, being involved with NEXUS was a bit like his experience as a gallerist: helping select promising ideas and talent and being a friend who's there to help the teams involved grow towards success.

Hello, and welcome to yet another part of our series of blog posts introducing the mentors behind our incubator programmes. This post was made to promote the second call for the University of Helsinki's NEXUS incubator programme, which focuses on Deep Tech, AI and sustainability.

For other entries, you can read our interview with Satu Apukka here.

Sam Laakkonen is a man with many hats. He’s worked in the City of London, founded companies, and invested in or coached hundreds of startups. He has even had his own art gallery. Now focusing his expertise on sustainability and impact, Sam is helping our NEXUS founders to open doors and unlock the value of their ideas.


Laakkonen was born in Finland but has lived in the UK for some 30 years. He’s married to a fellow Finn and they have two children, aged seven and 13.

Starting out as a management consultant in London's financial hub, Laakkonen was soon headhunted by a telecommunication startup that secured USD 1.5 billion in Series A funding – a record-breaking milestone in that sector at the time. He later went on to join Spotify as one of its earliest employees.

Laakkonen now serves as an expert for the European Commission, overseeing the distribution of EU funding to drive innovation across the region. He’s also an entrepreneur-in-residence and lead mentor for international accelerator and investment-firm Techstars. Laakkonen has helped to guide over 250 startups and has made strategic private investments in more than 25 such companies – with three profitable exits.

“My career has been a bit like a car without a driver. I've ended up in many places by coincidence and luck,” says Laakkonen. “I'm from a family of entrepreneurs and I always wanted to be one myself, so that’s been a force in my career – especially during the early stages. I also always wanted to work with other entrepreneurs. This is why I’ve ended up doing ecosystem development to support startups.”

“What initially drew me to the NEXUS programme was the opportunity to create something from scratch that has the right fundamentals,” he says.

Learning from the art world

One of Laakkonen's earlier projects was owning and running a London art gallery, an experience that provided learnings he’s carried over into his startup and mentoring work.

Laakkonen highlights the parallels between the art world and the startup world, with both demanding the creation of hype and the leveraging of intangible value. He says founders need to bring their ideas to life in ways that captivate potential cofounders and investors.

“Running an art gallery was a huge learning curve. It taught me a lot about managing a business in a different industry vertical, and the importance of trying out new things,” says Laakkonen.

“In the traditional kind of business framework – where you manufacture something – it’s relatively easy to assign a cost to a product and then put a margin on top. But in the world of fine art you cannot base the value of something on its manufacturing costs, or on the time the artist spent creating a particular piece.”

“In art, the price is more about intangible things. It’s about provenance, reputation, and creating a name for yourself. That name can be an artist, an event, an art gallery, or an art dealer. It's a completely different way of operating,” he says.

“In a similar way to the art world, a startup founder needs to create hype that helps to attract good quality and experienced cofounders. Ideas do not really have value; how you bring your ideas to life is the valuable bit. You basically create a bigger impression of what you're doing than exists in the real world.”

Laakkonen sees the role of the VC as an extension of the parallel between the art world and the startup world, in that VCs are essentially collectors who sort through the best pieces to find interested buyers.

“A good gallerist can spot and ride trends, which is similar to how things work in the VC world,” he says. “Everyone is already investing in ideas that are trendy in the present, but a good investor has a crystal-ball ability to see what's coming next. Working in the NEXUS programme is a bit like working as a gallerist, in that you’re one of the people involved in choosing the startups that get in.”

The importance of listening

Laakkonen mentored three NEXUS startups in our last batch. One of these is Enreport, with its AI-driven digital-twin solution for reducing energy consumption in industrial equipment. Thanks to his guidance the company had the opportunity to participate in the Techstars Paris accelerator programme.

“The quality of the entrepreneurs, their concepts and their innovations was very high in the last NEXUS programme. I’m proud to have seen the teams create something that works. Having two teams from Finland get into an international programme like TechStars is a great result for NEXUS,” he says.

“When the teams started with NEXUS, they were not of the calibre of entrepreneurship needed to join TechStars. But they really grew during our programme,” says Laakkonen. “What I liked about those three teams is that they had the ability to listen. Sometimes entrepreneurs do not! Being able to listen and take criticism are fundamental qualities in order to become a better entrepreneur.”

“As someone who has been in the startup industry for quite some time, it’s easier for me to open doors than it is for a younger startup founder. I made a ton of introductions and we managed to get some good traction – both in terms of investment and getting through to companies that potentially could be customers or pilot partners,” he says.

Laakkonen underscores the need to bring entrepreneurs some structure amid all the risk they face. He says incubator programmes provide a supportive environment to accelerate growth and help founders minimise mistakes. Founders also need support in navigating the huge amounts of information they receive from everyone around them. This includes advice from friends, family, other entrepreneurs, workshops, and other mentors.

“Entrepreneurship is basically a hunger to identify and solve problems. Risk taking is a huge element too. Helping founders to navigate this risk and the huge amounts of data they receive is a tangible way for a mentor to guide decision making,” says Laakkonen.

“In my opinion, a mentor is basically a knowledgeable friend that startup founders can go to for help. The challenges that founders go through are not unique to them. All entrepreneurs experience the same issues and problems. Having someone as a mentor who has been through similar challenges can provide invaluable support and guidance. So being a knowledgeable friend is my primary role.”

AI-driven sustainable impact on the horizon

In recent years Laakkonen has shifted his focus towards sustainability and impact, driven by the belief that technology can play a vital role in safeguarding our planet. He has become a strong advocate for leveraging technology to drive positive change.

“Sustainability is obviously a theme at NEXUS, and that's something very close to close to my heart. I would like to see an impact angle to every single company that joins the programme,” he says.

“We need entrepreneurs and startups to understand sustainability and how to incorporate it into their business models. It’s becoming increasingly important to recognise the impact that you, your business, and your products are making in this world.”

Laakkonen also expects to see a rise in the number of applications and business models that leverage AI for the common benefits of impact and sustainability.

“There are people smarter than me who understood the importance of AI more than 20 years ago. Now it’s emerged as a megatrend,” he says. “So much stuff will be happening with AI driving new kinds of products and technologies, so it would be good to see an emergence of responsible AI directed at our common sustainability challenges.”

Hard work pays off

Laakkonen has a simple and clear message to teams joining the NEXUS programme: Expect to work harder than you ever have in your life.

“If you want to create something successful, then you need to work extremely hard. Probably harder than you’ve ever worked before,” he says.

“Participating in an incubation programme or an accelerator is a lot of additional work to what you’re already doing with your company. Sometimes it’s difficult to manage the full workload, so I think startups should go in with the expectation that they will be busier than they ever have been.”

Laakkonen says the work of a mentor can be frustrating at times, but that the reward is worth it.

“I’ve actually been getting a lot more out of the experience than what I've been putting in,” he says. “You get to work with very intelligent young people and cutting-edge technology. This helps me as a professional to stay on top of my game.

“It's very rewarding when they succeed, and you know you've been instrumental in making that happen.”

More information

NEXUS is the University of Helsinki's mentor-driven Deep Tech, AI, and Sustainability 6-month incubator programme designed to help teams with crystallised solutions in those domains to turn those into scalable, fundable global startups. The call for the programme’s 2nd batch closed on 6 August 2023, and the programme will run from 21 August 2023 to 29 March 2024.

For additional information on the the 2023 NEXUS incubator, please contact:

Andres Peña Archila, NEXUS programme manager

Potential mentors, corporates, CVC's and investors interested in partnering with NEXUS, please contact:

Alfonso Gutierrez, Senior Manager, Global Corporate Partnerships