Researcher & Founder Michael Lee: “We Researchers Produce Knowledge, But I Don’t Want to Stop There” — Biosphere experiences III

As the current batches of our incubators draw to their close, it’s time to check up on our fantastic participants and their learnings from the past six months. First off, we had the joy of sitting down with Biosphere participant Michael Lee: doctoral researcher and founder of carbon offset solution Urban Green Carbon.

Michael Lee has a wide smile on his face as he sits down to be interviewed in one of the Think Corner meeting spaces. The room’s window looks out to the scene in the café below: clusters of students and remote workers digging away at their tasks on a Monday noon, intermittently sipping coffees and chatting with a friend. 

Lee, who works as a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, has promised to tell us about his experiences in the University’s bio- and circular economy incubator Biosphere. The third round of the programme is scheduled to kick off already this spring, with its call for applications just having opened. Regardless, the current batch still has a final stretch to push through until the programme’s showcase in March. The past six months’ hard work is certainly worthy of celebration, with its many inspiring business cases such as that of Lee’s Urban Green Carbon

Urban Green Carbon, Lee explains, is a research-based carbon offset solution that specifically focuses on city areas. The digital solution integrates a carbon registry, project consultation, as well as carbon credit issuance and purchase within a single platform. Unlike most carbon markets, which focus on serving forests and large renewable energy projects, Urban Green Carbon has the goal of promoting urban sustainability, in particular. “What we realised is that urban vegetation has an important role what comes to carbon offset, and we have our expertise to measure and quantify the benefits of it,” Lee, acting as the project’s CEO, summarises.

Together with CTO Alan Fung, Lee has spent his time in Biosphere working towards the goal of applying the team’s knowledge and data into something applicable in the larger society. “We researchers produce knowledge. But I don’t want to stop there,” he emphasises. “Before even applying, I’d been looking for ways to make use of our expertise in a commercial setting. Biosphere felt like the perfect opportunity for doing this.” 

A Programme Full of Resources & Opportunities

Neither Lee nor Fung had prior experience in terms of running a business, but they soon discovered that Biosphere had a wealth of resources to ease the learning curve. “If I had to describe Biosphere with one word, it would be ‘resourceful’. The structured lectures and workshops have really helped us out. Not to mention our mentors!” Lee says.

Lee shares how the team’s own designated mentors have supported them during the length of the programme. “We were assigned with three mentors, each of whom has their own set of expertise. Peter Tutelaers has helped us a lot in refining our business model and in making our solution viable in a business sense. Tony Kouloumbris, on the other hand, is experienced in corporate strategies and he’s helped with branding our solution. Finally, Carmo Requejo has lent us her insight into client management and into understanding the players in the industry better,” he lists.

Lee also feels grateful for the networking opportunities that Biosphere has given the team, naming last year’s NORDEEP Deep Tech Startup Convention as one such instance. “We were selected to attend the event as representatives of the University. It was a fantastic chance to meet colleagues in the carbon offset market and potential investors as well. At NORDEEP, we got a lot of feedback to help us refine our model and approach.” 

Lee says that entering the business scene with a background in academia has been, despite its initial challenges, a gratifying experience. He explains that he had to adjust to having many different responsibilities: “In research, you’re in charge of one job. But as a startup founder, you need do everything yourself, from finding collaborators and customers to developing and validating your product, and so on. It requires a different set of skills, ones that you don’t necessarily have to begin with. Regardless, acquiring them is a rewarding process.”

And luckily, no one needs to go through it alone in Biosphere. As Lee says: “I think that the programme is excellent at fostering a hub for startup founders. It’s a community in which we can share resources, knowledge, and learn from each other!”

Stay Focused on Your Vision

But what’s next for Urban Green Carbon? “Right now, we’re developing our MVP to approach customers with, and building our business based on the feedback we get for it,” Lee says excitedly. Indeed, it seems that the story of Urban Green Carbon is far from being over, despite Biosphere coming to its end. What motivates Lee is the thought of doing something with a positive impact on a large scale. “Our aim is to elevate sustainability through bringing together people, businesses, and science. We hope that our digital carbon market will help make our urban areas more liveable through realising the benefits of vegetation,” he says. 

Lee’s message to aspiring founders is clear: stay focused on your vision and trust yourself. “From the very start when we were merely ideating our solution, to where we are now, approaching customers and gathering feedback, we’ve been met with a lot of challenges and uncertainties,” he says. “In this field, it is more than likely to encounter many different types of opinions, even those that disagree with you, too. But all of this, it’s part of the process. We’ve developed a lot of perseverance throughout this programme. I’d go as far as to say that it’s been our biggest lesson.”

“Besides, at the end of the day, only by believing in yourself will you have a chance to convince others to believe in you as well!” the ever-optimistic researcher concludes with a cheerful grin.

Apply by 1 May

The call for applications to the third round of the Biosphere entrepreneurship programme, taking place between 13 May and 28 November 2024, is open. 

For all solutions expediting the transition to a greener future, the incubator combines expert-led, hands-on workshops with close collaboration between teams and both Finnish and international mentors, dedicated to help you grow your solution into a venture with a global impact. For more information, take a look at the programme webpage or contact project lead Pedro Gensini at pedro.gensinimotoa[at] or through LinkedIn.

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. Interested in applying to one of our pre-incubator or incubator programmes?Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on open calls.