"There's so many things that I know now that I couldn't have done 2 months ago!" Pathways Demoday Showcases Variety of Ideas

The interdisciplinary programme brought together 30 teams that developed a wide range of ideas, 10 of which were showcased at the programme's final.

Question: what do a novel industrial decarbonisation solution, a service to bring local communities together through gardening, and a game to help older adults monitor their cognitive wellbeing have in common? Or a cafe that offers books, coffee, and the opportunity to talk about death and grief, a personalised solution to get you moving during an otherwise sedentary workday, and a environmentally friendly, vegan alternative to woollen scarves?

The answer: these were some of the 10 ideas selected to be pitched on stage at the final showcase for the University of Helsinki’s first interdisciplinary pre-incubator, Pathways. Hosted at the Maria 01 startup hub on March 27th to a crowd of over 50, the event was a joint celebration of the progress that all of the programme’s 30 teams – not just the ones that had made it through the programme’s semifinal two weeks prior – had made in just two months.

After an initial welcome from programme co-lead Jani Lehto on behalf of himself and fellow co-lead Santeri Tuovila congratulating every participant for having gotten so far with their ideas and reminding them that even if they weren’t on stage that evening, their solutions were all worth pursuing further, as well as quick congratulatory words from Anni Anttonen of Maria01 and Ari Huczkowski of the Helsinki Incubators, the pitches began.

One by one, teams presented their well-crafted pitches to the audience and jury, and deftly answered the questions that the three judges – Sarita Runeberg, CEO of Maria01, entrepreneur & Helsinki Incubators mentor Janne Neuvonen, and Chen Wang of ArcticStartup– threw their way. By the end of it all, it was hard to believe that just two months prior, many of the people who’d been on stage that night presenting intricate roadmaps and projected revenue models had had little more than a cursory idea of what a business model could even look like.

An encouraging experience and a safe environment to grow

"Honestly, this was an incredibly supportive, inclusive, and safe environment to learn and grow," said Dr Sunny Choi PhD, who took part in the programme with her solution Puzzlegram, an engaging co-operative game intended to help older adults monitor their cognitive well-being. "It was only two months, and at the start I was skeptical about what you could really hope to achieve in such a short time. But Pathways moved really fast, and went very deep. It helped me solidify things, and grow – there are literally so many things that I know now that I couldn't have done two months ago!"

Athanasios Christopoulos a University Masters' student in Agricultural Science who pitched City Sprouts, the urban gardening and community building solutions he's building with fellow student Tatu Leppänen, also spoke of how much the programme helped both him and the team as a whole: "This was a great entry point for me, coming from a hugely different world. We made a lot of progress in such a little amount of time," Christopoulos explained, "and the experience overall was very encouraging. At the start I was a little uncertain about our idea, but now I'm feeling confident, and the programme helped us get a clear idea of who we should be targeting and what we should do next."

For Martta Sopanen and Iina Lindholm, two University Master's students in Translational Medicine who'd joined Pathways almost on a whim to develop Vivavibes, their solution to help create personalised ways to combat passivity and lack of physical activity in today's sedentary office-based work world, the two months of Pathways had lit an entrepreneurial flame in their hearts that could have been previously unimaginable. "Honestly, I never thought I'd go into startups, but here I am!" laughed Lindholm. "I didn't even know what the possibilities were in entrepreneurship, but now we're definitely going to take this further!"

Sopanen agreed, and said that despite their idea being "really raw" when they joined the programme, the pair had gotten a good feeling about the programme which kept them going: "We joined the programme somewhat suddenly, with no real plan or idea of what we could achieve, but the programme seemed really easily accessible and the vibes were really good, and right from the first info session there was something about Pathways that drew us in," she explained, adding that "Santeri had a really unique skill in creating this zen, safe space which really helped."

For the student pair, the programme ultimately gave them plenty of concrete advice and personalised guidance, for which they were grateful "At every step of the way, we had someone there who was sparring with us, asking us questions, driving us forward," Lindholm noted, with Sopanen adding that Pathways had really shown them the way to go out and do things in practice to have a real impact in the world.

Helping researchers explore the world outside the labs

Among the programme's participants were also many University researchers, for whom the programme was an eye-opening experience.

For Dr Feng WANG, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher who took part in the programme with his team, Huhtasieni, the experience was enlightening. Aiming to develop a way to grow true morels – the "most delicious mushroom in the world" according to Wang – in a continuous, controlled manner, Wang said that despite not being selected to pitch on stage at the final, he would continue to work on his idea, and that he was greatly satisfied with the experience. Pathways, he explained, had provided him and his team with new knowledge, concepts, and ways of thinking, as well as provided plenty of new contacts and networks which had pushed him to think about things in a new way and practice previously unfamiliar skills like pitching.

Dr Baljeet Singh, PhD, who pitched his novel industrial decarbonisation solution DeCO2 on stage and garnered many intrigued follow-up questions from the judges, was also grateful for the experience Pathways had provided him, especially in developing his pitching skills. "I'd never done it before," Singh explained. "I'm a researcher, so learning how to present to the general population in a concise manner was a very new experience."

For both Singh and Wang, Pathways was also a way for them to explore how to really convert the science that they do on a daily basis into something that can really be applied to benefit the world. For Wang, taking his understanding of biochemistry to try and increase the availability of mushrooms as a delicious and environmentally friendlier alternative to meat, was part of creating a more sustainable world. As for Singh, he explained that he saw climate change as a massive problem in the world that needed solving, and that if he himself didn't take concrete steps to upscale his research into a product, it would just stay in the lab helping no one. Both agreed that Pathways had been a great experience for them to achieve their goals of creating a better world by bringing their work to the benefit of the world.

Next steps

As the final ended, most participants said that they were already looking onwards to where they should go next, with many having their sights locked on the next step in the Helsinki Incubators pipeline, the 6-month mentor-led TREMOR, Biosphere, and NEXUS programmes.

But while the teams were uncertain of where exactly they would continue, what was clear was that all of the Pathways participants had gained new understandings and connections with which they could continue, and that doubtless many of the fresh Helsinki Incubators alumni would be back one way or another to bring their solutions and create positive change in the world with their knowledge, passion, and newly acquired know-how.

More information

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!