Mentor Iiro Salkari: "My greatest impact is to help startups understand the competencies they need to move forward."

Welcome to another edition of our interview series introducing the mentors behind the University's Helsinki Incubators entrepreneurship programmes. Here we meet Iiro Salkari, Head of Portfolio at Vaisala Xweather and strong advocate for having the right team at the right time.

Iiro Salkari has an extensive background in industrial engineering research and a heart that beats for technology-based startups. Still, regardless of industry vertical, he insists that a big factor for success is having the right people involved, whether from the research labs or the more wheeling and dealing customer-facing roles. All cogs in the machine play a vital part.

He says that it was while at his previous job at VTT, Technical Research Centre of Finland, that he developed a longing for more practical involvement through commercialising research results through spin-offs and technology licensing, “Even though my background was in research, I found that I was itching to be more hands-on, so business development was a natural progression.”

This led to a focus on smart industries, new energy systems, and how existing companies could better utilise research results to grow their business or by spinning IP and technologies out through VTT spin-offs.

Salkari explains that for each case, an analysis was done on what the less risky path forward would be, “We wanted to determine whether an existing company would be willing, and able, to commercialise the research results from our teams at VTT, or if we would need to create a spin-off company whereby the company needed to be built from scratch. A big deciding factor, in any case, is the maturity level of the startup.”

Being open to unforeseen pivoting

Existing companies are optimized for business they are in, and even if they are open minded and willing to find new growth pockets, the challenge is that the existing business defines targets, ways of working, processes and culture. Making necessary changes for the new business is challenging and a huge effort, and when choices need to be made, prone to remain subordinate to current business.

“Back in time we drove growing industrial services, including product life-cycle and maintenance services, with digitalisation as the key enabler. While many participants, most of whom were from the manufacturing industry, understood the business opportunities, they knew that new change management would be required, which they thought would be difficult to implement.”

“When faced with any challenges, many will revert to doing what is comfortable. This is especially true for those of us with an engineering mind,” he adds.

Today, Salkari drives growth of Vaisala Xweather, which is data- and solution-as-a-service subscription business at Vaisala. In this work he has been using and verifying many learnings form the past experience in industrial services, but he has also learnt a lot new on what it takes to grow new business.

From these experiences, Salkari says he has developed a very good understanding of how to help startups guide potential clients through the inertia of adopting new solutions, especially for larger corporations.

This is where he circles back to the people aspect and the need to have those in the team who can guide these conversations, “It’s best to have in your organisation, in addition to the technical capabilities, people who can drive this mindset change with the customer, especially when you start to scale,” he adds.

With a natural inclination towards technology-based companies, Salkari points out that a strong technological foundation to work from is crucial for these kinds of startups, “If you have that, and there are many companies, even big ones, that don’t, then your company has an unfair competitive edge, which is hard for other companies to replicate.”

Getting as much as you give

Salkari says that the most enjoyable part of being a mentor lies within the intersection of a startup’s maturation process and getting the necessary resources in order to make strong leaps forward.

Helsinki Incubators represents Salkari’s first time as a long-haul mentor, so even though he has previously been involved in early-stage mentoring, he values what he calls the symbiotic and reciprocal relationship between a mentor and the startup team that gets to develop over a longer period.

Even though Salkari has extensive experience working with technology, he knows when to guide his teams towards outside help, “I can’t always contribute to that aspect for the teams I mentor as it may be outside my specific area of expertise. Therefore, I consider the greatest impact I can make is to help startups understand the competencies they need to move forward and connect them with the expertise they need,” he says.

This is a very fulfilling experience for him, and the insights he has gained from working with different teams have been invaluable.

“As a mentor, I get pleasure from guiding them towards aspects they may have overlooked or areas where they need to enhance their skills. In saying that, observing the teams in action provides me with great practical knowledge, transcending just theoretical understanding. It’s become clear to me that real-world applications bring many challenges and nuances that can't be found in textbooks,” he explains.

“I've discussed with other Helsinki Incubator mentors about their experiences here, and we all agree that our time here is incredibly fulfilling. Unlike the slower pace and less visible impact in larger companies, mentoring startups offer rapid progress and tangible outcomes, which is immensely rewarding,” he adds.

Where do you fit in the market, and do you fit?

Salkari explains that some great lessons were learned during the programme. In particular, was the importance of talking to potential customers early on, “I think it’s really helpful to imagine if you would invest in the technology or develop your product without finding out if it’s a good market fit because it’s a lot of work done in vain if not.”

“The team that I mentored at Biosphere had their challenges, but what they did right was that they approached and started discussions with potential customers and investigated promising go-to markets early on. From the feedback they got, they determined that they needed to make some changes to what they originally envisioned,” he adds.

Salkari says this leads to an important point that any startup should consider - build resilience and don’t let failure or knockbacks demoralise you, “It's crucial to remain humble, particularly when faced with challenging customer feedback, as it presents good growth opportunities. Challenges are inevitable, whether from initial customer interactions, pitching to investors, or simply accepting that there may be someone better at doing something in the team than you. These encounters demand resilience and adaptability.”

Salkari happily explains that the Helsinki University Incubator programmes are well designed, have clear structures, and hold different kinds of events that provide opportunities for networking and great discussions with other mentors, “They are valuable contacts, and who knows what you need at some point in your professional career? Additionally, a network contact I make may indeed be a useful contact for one of the startups in the future as well. I also love that you get to work with a very diverse group of people; not all inventors are the same.”

Finally, Salkari greatly admires Finland’s entrepreneurial spirit and how it’s evolved over the last two decades, “It’s great that in Finland, there's so much more of this kind of entrepreneurship thinking today than there was maybe twenty years ago. It can be seen from the many young people encouraged to participate in the startup teams and how the universities or research organisations are participating,”

“For me, entrepreneurship means always being ready to become better. It means always increasing your understanding of what creates value for your customers and persistence. There are no quick wins in this game, so you need to have persistence. So, I hope that from my experience, any impact I can bring with mentoring will also help in that spirit,” he 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 doers? 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!