Hello, and welcome to a series of interviews with our esteemed NEXUS mentors that we’re releasing in conjunction with the second call for applications to the mentor-driven University of Helsinki incubator programme for promising ideas in Deep Tech, AI, and Sustainability.
We’ve sat down with our mentors to discuss their own path, what motivates them to be a mentor, their experiences with the first edition of the programme, and what words of wisdom they’ve got for prospective NEXUS participants. Today, we’re talking with Satu Apukka, CXO at Kide Science, and one of our Senior Mentors for NEXUS.
While Apukka will be taking a break from mentoring during NEXUS 2, her experiences as a rotating mentor for three teams during the first programme – SilvaTrace, ValueMe, and first round winners aiC.health – proved both enjoyable and edifying, and she encourages both mentors and teams to join the programme for a uniquely rewarding journey.
“You don’t know everything, but you need to keep pushing forward to learn”
“If you ask my friends, they’ll say that I’m someone who is social and smiley, who can work with anyone and cares a lot about others’ feelings and well-being, bringing joy and positive vibes,” a warmly smiling Apukka says at the start of our discussion. “But they also know that I’m the person who’s ready to move out of her comfort zone and gets excited about learning and new projects.”
“And I’m a great chef!”
Apukka is also the Chief Experience Officer at Kide Science, an ed-tech startup offering award-winning, research-based early education programmes, where she takes care of a number of things, from sales, marketing, and customer success to making sure that the Kide office is a cosy space for the rest of the team. Prior to Kide, which she joined in 2019, Apukka had built a career in sales and marketing stretching all the way back to the mid 2000’s.
But when asked for a pivotal moment in her career, Apukka quickly points to 2015 when she joined her first startup. She’d seen that a Swedish social media influencer startup, United Screens, was looking to expand to Finland and, always looking for new and exciting projects, she joined as the first employee in the brand-new Helsinki office as the Head of Sales.
And while the position played on much of her past experience, it wasn’t without its challenges: “To be honest, I didn’t know anything about YouTubers or social media influencers beforehand,” Apukka says. But the field was a rising one in Finland, and suddenly she found herself with PR agencies and media outlets reaching out to her to explain to them what this new influencer economy was all about. “They were turning to me, expecting that I’m the expert, so I just had to accept that even if I didn’t know much, I was still the person who knows the most. I’d only been there for six months, but I had to learn fast, and just become the expert in the field.”
In addition to introducing the concept of influencer marketing to a variety of Finnish organisations and becoming a pre-eminent subject-matter expert, Apukka also had to work from the ground up, establishing guidelines for YouTubers on how to do brand collaborations, teaching them how to properly disclose paid advertisements, and so on. She also had to teach brands that influencers are professionals whose labour is something that should be paid for, and that when working with influencers, the brand has to accept that they relinquish a large part of their creative control in return for more authentic and effective marketing from the influencer to their audience.
All in all, Apukka’s near five years in the social media field taught her a lot of new skills and helped shape her and her career and make her into the expert mentor she is today. “But I also learned that I’m at my best in the startup world because there, you have to figure everything out yourself,” she explains. “You don’t know everything, but you need to keep pushing forward to learn with trial and error, and I’m the person who wants to learn new things and who’s not scared of going out of my comfort zone to start something new,” and start-ups, she concludes, offer plenty of highly rewarding opportunities for diving into the unknown.
Bringing years of experience and learning to help up-and-coming teams
Although Apukka says that, looking back, her work with influencers might have been a kind of mentoring – helping YouTubers understand brand deals and navigating the world of paid promotion – her experience with NEXUS was the first time that she felt she’d properly mentored teams. Having originally been a bit apprehensive about the endeavour, citing an unfamiliarity with the programme’s subject matter, she credits Alfonso Gutierrez, the University of Helsinki’s Senior Manager for Global Corporate Partnerships, for getting her on board: “He convinced me that I would be a good mentor because I’ve got all this experience with marketing and social media and developing operations, which is important no matter what the topic is. So, I thought ‘Well, OK, let’s try!’.”
In the end, the senior mentor is thankful for her experience with the programme. Having once again left her comfort zone, she encountered her three mentee teams and relished the experience in learning from and with them, as well as sharing her own expertise “I had three teams, and they were super different, which was of course exciting. I got to learn about all these new ideas, and it was a learning experience itself. My teams were also super open to new ideas. They listened a lot to what I was saying, and they were also open to changing things,” Apukka recalls. “We’d talk and I’d suggest changes, and the teams were really open to the ideas.”
Apukka was glad that with each team, she got to help them with different things, be it social media usage and influencer marketing in the case of SilvaTrace, service design and market research with ValueMe, or in building a showcase winning pitch deck in the case of aiC.Health.
In each case, Apukka says she was happy to see the teams listen to her and take on her advice when building their projects, but wanted to point out that hers was more of a collaborative approach than a rigid top down one: “With mentoring, I don’t want to say that I’m right, or that my opinions are the right ones. That’s not the point.”
“You know, I really love the sentence ‘sharing is caring,’ and for me, mentoring is about sharing. Talking about the topics, sharing our ideas, solving problems together, and moving forward.” Apukka pauses. “Mentoring is sharing, and sharing is caring. I’m the kind of person who wants to learn, but I want to share the learnings with others as well. Why shouldn’t I share the knowledge and expertise I’ve gotten to others? Like, I think that’s how the world works, through sharing.”
But mentoring is also a two-way street, and the sharing of ideas flowed in Apukka’s direction as well: “The teams also gave me a lot of feedback, and that was really valuable for me as well,” Apukka describes, saying how the experience allowed for her to keep growing and satisfying her voracious appetite for new knowledge.
She also adds that mentoring included other benefits for her as well, such as letting her develop her leadership skills, grow her networks by connecting with other NEXUS mentors, and by introducing her to new professional opportunities. One such opportunity came earlier this year, when Apukka was invited by fellow NEXUS mentor Sam Laakkonen to give a presentation at Cambridge University, something she says was “definitely something I didn’t expect!”
“Don’t try to build the 100% perfect presentation or product!”
Shifting towards the future and the next batch of NEXUS participants, Apukka mentions how she’s looking forward to seeing what kinds of teams join. Asked what kinds of teams she’d like to see, Apukka answers that her focus isn’t so much on what the teams are doing, but that they’re ready to do it: “It would be lovely to see teams who are already a little bit further in their journey, past the one-page idea. They already have something unique and an idea of what they’re going to do, and they’re ready to start the journey,” Apukka explains.
“I feel that those kinds of teams who are there and are so enthusiastic, like ‘we’re going to do this, and now’s the right time to move forward with full force!’ are the kinds of teams that I like, and the three teams that I mentored in NEXUS were like that, they were all really eager to grow,” she continues, although she adds that an eagerness to grow isn’t the only thing that the teams need to succeed. Teams should also not get bogged down and be ready to constantly test and fail fast and take full advantage of the access and opportunities for feedback that NEXUS offers them.
“I feel like even with my teams, they were trying to build the best presentation, the best product, and only then share it to the mentors,” Apukka laments. “But I believe that the first version of the product, or pitch, or anything isn’t going to be the final version. You need to test the product and features all the time, because you’re never really ready, so it’s better to share earlier, and get comments and feedback and then build the next version.”
“I’m always saying that 80% is ready enough, really. Don’t try to build the 100% perfect presentation or product! It will take too much time,” Apukka continues. “Just ship it and get the feedback and comments, and then do editing and create the next version. And make use of all these international mentors and connections in all these different fields!”
“With social media, it’s not something where you just post one thing and then you start seeing big growth”
Apukka also has advice for all of the future NEXUS teams and anyone else reading: “Definitely focus on building your network, because you never know what might come from that. You will definitely need help, advice, feedback, and comments from others and your network can be a great source for that,” Apukka explains, before adding that networks can also help with facilitating growth through partnerships. “It might not be the best idea to build everything yourself, and you could partner with another company to then grow together, and your networks are the best way of finding those partnerships.”
The social media and influencer marketing expert also has advice regarding that field as well: “Social-media nowadays is super important. And it’s not just that you need to have those accounts, but you should be active there,” Apukka explains. “And not just as a company, but also as a person. Especially in the early years, investors are eager to find out more about the team behind the product. They are mostly investing in the product and the team, and that’s one thing that social media is really good for: bringing that information about the team behind the product.”
“Of course, I kind of understand why people sometimes think that they don’t want to share too much on social media, or that it takes too much time, because with social media it’s not something where you just post one thing and then you start seeing big growth. That’s just not how it works, you need to build your presence there by posting there regularly, and yes, it takes time,” Apukka says. “But for us at Kide Science, we see that a lot of people have heard about us through social media because we’ve been posting there regularly and organically as both ourselves and our company. So you should be getting on social media, but to because it takes time to see those benefits, it's good to start sooner than later.”
“It sound like a long programme, but you’ll get really good insights and grow a lot!”
Closing things out, Apukka explains how the thinks that anyone even remotely interested in the programme, be they prospective venture teams or people interested in becoming mentors, should really consider getting involved. While the programme may be six months long, the pay-off is well worth it: “It sounds like a long programme, but you’ll get really good insights and grow a lot!”
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 start-ups. The call for the programme’s 2nd batch is currently open until 13 August, 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