Mentor Aline de Santa Izabel: “I Can Contribute By Showing Researchers the Possibilities Within the World of Entrepreneurship"

Welcome to another one of our interviews, where we introduce the mentors behind the Helsinki Incubators entrepreneurship programmes. This time, we would love to introduce you to Aline de Santa Izabel, expert advisor for all things tech, ecosystem builder, and shining example of research-preneurship.

Aline de Santa Izabel, who defines herself as a generalist, explorer, and lifelong learner, thinks there is beauty in the path of entrepreneurship, forged by memorable moments, both good and bad. “Back in my startup days, every achievement that we as a team had in developing our product and getting partnerships was great, but I came to recognise that the mistakes and tight spots we sometimes put ourselves in were also good experiences, eventually.”

As with all our esteemed mentors, startups that get accepted into the Helsinki Incubator programmes are in good hands with someone like Aline, who is abundantly experienced in advising startups and building the ecosystems in which they can flourish.

She is an expert advisor in Deep Tech at the European Commission's European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator funding programme. She also lectures at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and builds ecosystems at Compare Foundation with the European Digital Innovation Hub Health Data Sweden, creating development and commercialisation opportunities for digital health startups in the Nordics, Baltics, and beyond.

“Since I'm very interested in deep tech, I like working with companies that create these very disruptive solutions with new technologies and new ways of combining technologies, so that's something that attracts me. Also, as a female founder, I have seen the distinct challenges of being a female founder with a scientific and foreign background starting up here in the Nordics, so I naturally gravitate towards helping other females,” she points out.

Taking It Beyond Research Papers

Added to that, Aline also knows a thing or two about "research-preneurship". “I'm a researcher who became an entrepreneur. My professional career started in academia, and I graduated with three master's degrees in different fields: two related to science and one related to entrepreneurship and innovation.”

However, she says that she eventually wanted to make a mark beyond just academic research. “I love research and science, but I wanted to use that knowledge to find applications that would accelerate meaningful change in society.”

“That's why I went into entrepreneurship, supporting innovators and startup programmes,” she adds.

Aline’s first startup experience was in 2013 when she worked for a company developing the first symbiotic product to be launched in the Swedish market. “This was a really exciting start to my journey as it combined two passions of mine: entrepreneurship and microbiome,” she points out.

“From that experience, I saw first-hand the process of ideation to commercialisation of a science-based product. I used that as a base when I later launched my own startup in the personalised nutrition field,” she says.

Following all of that, Aline decided that she wanted to create impact at scale and support the next generation of entrepreneurs in developing their businesses, leading to her current work in ecosystem development and business and investment advisory at the EU level.

The More (Experience and Perspectives), the Merrier

Taking on a mentorship role for a university's research-based startup incubator was as natural a step as they come for Aline. She is happy that she can help researchers see a path to commercialisation, which was lacking in her university days, “When I was in academia, I didn't know I could become an entrepreneur. I didn't see that as a career path, and I could’ve started that journey sooner had I known.”

A big reason Aline is so involved in ecosystem building is that she sees it as the rock-solid foundation from which entrepreneurship can thrive. “We have problems that need smooth, disciplinary technological innovations to be resolved, and therefore, we need the help of everyone in the ecosystem, including researchers,” she says.

However, she says that one of the big challenges for budding research-preneurs is the process of investigating the business side of things. “With tech transfer, sometimes research is done in one field while the application could be in another, so we need more interdisciplinarity and a broader perspective within the university environment for that to happen.”

“University-led incubator programmes can bring that perspective by exposing the researchers to other fields and mentors or advisors in different worlds who can offer their perspectives. We are guiding the first steps and showing them the possibilities of taking that initial leap,” she adds.

Aline says that the Helsinki Incubator programmes act as a great safe space for researchers to take a leap beyond their papers and to determine whether their idea is worthy of that leap or whether entrepreneurship is for them. Additionally, even if a team decides to power on, they may need pointing in a direction different to what they expected.

“My team at the Biosphere programme had quite unique ideas, so in the beginning, they thought that the solution was good as is and that they only needed to focus on building the technology.”

“Of course, being unique is important, but it's also about the business you build around that. What we mentors are trying to do is not pick the pieces for them but rather push them in the right direction. Perhaps you should do this first. What about validating? What about testing? What about identifying and discussing with your potential customers? What about checking competitors? Benchmark your solution to what already exists and how you will differentiate. Many pieces need to be put in place, like a puzzle,” she points out.

Aline proudly says that both of her teams were successful with experimenting in validating even though one of them had to take a reality check rather than get a positive outcome straight out the gate. “I think it's good that you can see that early because when you go into these validations, you don't want only the positive; you want to have the reality, and sometimes the reality is that this idea might not be the right one to pursue. So, in a way, it's a bit like the scientific method. You test your hypothesis; in that respect, even a failure is good.”

“In both cases, seeing their progress, energy, and passion is very valuable to me,” she says.

Unleashing Confidence and Resilience

Aline, as a mentor, has also identified the need for leadership coaching for teams. “Helping entrepreneurs become confident leaders is something that’s not covered, and it’s a very important aspect. Even though some researchers are very good at presenting their findings at conferences and congresses, they feel very insecure when pitching and discussing their business ideas,” she says.

And for those who decide to take the exciting leap from the familiar world of research into unchartered personal territory, Aline has this to say: “I think that the most important thing for those who want to become entrepreneurs is to remember the importance of resilience, flexibility, agility and continuous learning because no journey is the same. Even though it's important for you to listen to others or have coaches who have more experience, you are the one in the driving seat. That requires decision-making abilities and accepting the possibility of making the wrong decisions.”

With Aline actively involved in the Nordic and wider European innovation ecosystems, she strongly believes in cross-regional collaboration. “The Nordic markets are quite small, so we need to have a larger playground by connecting and testing innovations and developing them in our regional European markets before entering transatlantic markets like the US and Asia. This is especially true when working with Deep Tech.”

“It's a good approach because we have the advantage of geographic proximity, and our markets have many similarities, such as culture, type of customer, people, and mindset. We must collaborate to provide better support and opportunities for our companies and create more visibility to our region,” she adds.

“I suppose, at the end of the day, the value I bring to all my work, including the University of Helsinki incubator programmes, is that I've been there and done it, so I understand the mindset of these researchers and other programme participants, and I understand the value of empowering them to make their own path,” she concludes.

The University of Helsinki's entrepreneurship programmes, the Helsinki Incubators, provides support and opportunities for bold thinkers in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area interested in taking their ideas and turning them into impactful ventures. Keen to join our community of curious and motivated innovators? Read more about and apply to our thematic incubator programmes kicking off this spring:

NEXUS — For Ideators in Deep Tech, AI & Sustainability. Apply by 14 April!

Biosphere — For Impactful Solutions in Bio- & Circular Economy. Apply by 1 May!

TREMOR — For Changemakers in Society, Education, Wellbeing, Communities & Law. Apply by 17 April!