There's still some time to apply to the next round of Circulator, so if you’ve ever considered turning your sustainable idea into a business solution, now is the time to apply. If you still need some convincing, read on as we introduce you to a couple of scientists who freely admit to having little to no knowledge of entrepreneurship before they attended our Circulator 2.0 pre-incubator, but are very happy they did. We sat down with David Israel and Kim Yrjälä to learn about their experience and how it will help them make a green impact.
Circulator was the first time that botanist David Israel and University of Helsinki Adjunct Professor in Microbial Ecology, Kim Yrjälä, dipped their toes into the world of entrepreneurship. Both had ideas that they wanted to flesh out during the programme.
However, when the two got talking in the programme's first session, Israel's concept of creating, incorporating, and managing more lush green spaces and natural ecosystems in urban environments immediately caught Yrjälä's attention: "I only had to mention the words forest garden for Kim's eyes to light up. From that moment, we decided to build on the idea that gardens, parks, and whatever greenery we have out there could be presented as something very different," says Israel.
Yrjälä initially came to Circulator with his own idea of creating valuable carbon-storing biochar through biomass pyrolysis: "After meeting David and seeing the potential of collaborating on a great project like the forest garden, I decided to put the brakes on that for a while."
Israel, who has a PhD in Botany from the University of Helsinki, explains that he first heard about the Circulator programme via different email threads that he was a part of: "We scientists generally know nothing about business. What caught my interest in Circulator, and why I subsequently applied, is that it was advertised in a way that'll take you into the business world and start from zero with absolutely no prior knowledge required."
Yrjälä happened to hear about Circulator at a social function at the University's Viikki campus. He says that it sparked a newfound interest in the startup world and the possibility of making contact with others who shared his passion for sustainability and circular economy: "When I was studying at the University over ten years ago, these kinds of enterprise ideas weren't so common back then. There were no incubator or accelerator programs to speak of, so if you did happen to be interested in entrepreneurship, you essentially had to go it alone. Now that we have things like this pre-incubator, where you can get a lot of support and be attached to a wider community, it’s just wild!"
Upon meeting and agreeing to collaborate, Israel and Yrjälä could now focus on working on the idea as something that a startup could be formed from. In simplest terms, their idea of a forest garden combines the implementation and management of greener urban spaces with sustainability principles, circular economy, and technology. Israel says: "We should have more forest gardens as a whole, but incorporating them into an urban environment with its complex infrastructure is the challenge, and that's what we are trying to do with our forest garden."
Even though Israel already had an initial idea that could create business, he explains that prior to joining the pre-incubator programme, he lacked a more concrete idea of what that business would actually be: "My vision only started to develop at Circulator. And thanks to this, it's much clearer what needs to be done moving forward."
Yrjälä adds: "I, too, definitely got some tools to develop this further through the different themes we had at the programme meetings. The experts and lecturers gave a lot of ideas during the programme, and I am still digesting everything and learning how to put all the tools and ideas into practice."
Both academics appreciated how the programme was designed. Yrjälä explains: "There was one workshop I especially liked about empowering yourself to let your imagination go free. For someone like me, that was a great moment because I'm used to the scientific world, where you have problems for which you find solutions, and then you get a new problem which needs solving and so forth, often with a very measured approach. Contrary to that, at Circulator, you are encouraged to be more daring and crazier with your ideas. What can happen is that when you let go and share your crazy idea with others, suddenly what might have seemed off the wall has given way to a new solution that you hadn't considered before. For me, these are the moments to hold on to."
Israel adds: "I fondly remember the lecture on personality types where we thought about our potential customers and then categorised them into what they most likely appreciate. We then went through how to sell our idea based on this data. I thought selling my idea to a broad spectrum of people would be more difficult, and gaining confidence in this helped me tremendously.”
Academics are often quite guarded about their innovations and maybe a tad more conservative when it comes to exploring what could be done with their research. This is where Circulator really comes into its own. Yrjälä, fresh from making his own jump, fully recommends other academics to follow suit and not hold their innovative ideas so close to their chests: "Impactful science needs money and resources, and entrepreneurship is a good way of providing that. I wish more academics knew that the science they are doing could really benefit the greater society. So many great ideas and possibilities come from universities that could really do good things for the world, but they too often never go beyond being research papers."
For Israel, Circulator acted as a great demystifier: "One thing that would help scientists with entrepreneurship, or any kind of understanding of the business world, would be just to have more of these courses on the basics. For many people, including me, it was a rather mysterious thing. So, if you get familiar with the basics, it's not such a big unknown anymore, and that would help encourage people to understand the potential of their idea, and then try entrepreneurship as an option."
Circulator might begin with the programme, but it certainly doesn't end with it. Yrjälä happily says that the programme’s skilled, experienced experts still make themselves available when needed, even after its conclusion: "We had all these different experts talk to us about innovation and entrepreneurship. They’re still available for us to contact, discuss, and go deeper into the practical meanings of what they taught us. So, the fact that there is the opportunity to build on the skills with this kind of expert support, even after the programme, is a huge bonus."
Israel and Yrjälä don't have to think long to come up with what they consider their biggest accomplishments in the program: "The fact that we have enough of a unified vision and a team behind it is definitely an achievement," says Israel.
While Yrjälä is completely on board with that assessment, he also explains that there’s a more personal accomplishment in it for him, too: "I got more courage to start talking with people in the community and not just sit there quietly. Stepping into slightly uncharted waters by opening up and approaching people in a genuine way is something I'm quite proud of."
So, armed with a strong desire to make an impact and to expedite the green transition, Israel and Yrjälä are now focusing on creating a tangible model of their forest garden, in order to whip up interest in some funding.
While the term sustainable future is bandied about quite frequently, it's worth discovering from those with a science background and know-how what it means to them. Israel views it through green-tinted glasses: "For me, a sustainable future means that we’re surrounded by a lot more green, especially in cities. I don't consider fields or parks to be enough of sufficient greenery in urban spaces. Of course, urban greenery in itself is not enough for a sustainable future but it is a big part of the equation.”
Yrjälä agrees and adds that there is a big social aspect to creating a sustainable future: "A sustainable future requires more acceptance and understanding of what we have, and that we need to face these challenges with severity. The social sentiment is a bit too polarised now, and a sustainable future requires people to work together despite our differences."
Israel very concisely lays out the case for those thinking about applying to the next Circulator: "Apply if you at all can, because it will help clarify a great many things for turning your sustainable idea into a company. You have nothing to lose in any case!”
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 email@example.com or through LinkedIn if you have any questions!
Take a look at the experiences of other alumni: