University of Helsinki Research-Based Solution DP-Tec: “Now It’s Time for Us to Contribute to the Society”

The duo behind Biosphere alumni team DP-Tec, Wenzi Ren and Shushu Liu, want to see stronger dialogue between academia and the outside-world markets. In this interview, they share how their mindsets shifted when they bravely set out on a path in entrepreneurship.

The discoveries and innovations deriving from research are at a far more advanced stage than the outside world realises, or indeed, gets access to. Witnessing this untapped potential of academia was what inspired Wenzi Ren, researcher in Forest Pathology at the University’s Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, to act.

“What a big pity,” she recalls her concern. “There are so many cool ideas that would thrive in the outside world. So I thought: well, why won’t I lead the way?”

The rest is history. Ren teamed up with friend Shushu Liu, who’d received her doctoral papers in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Aalto University, and who had a knack for AI and machine learning. Now they’re sitting in the Helsinki Incubators event space in front of cameras, sharing the story of DP-Tec, their solution that uses a combination of molecular and AI technology to scan pathogens in trees. Based on Ren’s recently defended doctoral research, the technology promises a way to predict and detect rampant diseases in forests early on, thus protecting the environment while also saving forest owners’ resources and money.

“I read an article one day at work discussing the use of AI in microbiome analysis for human disease detection. I then talked with Shushu because she’s an expert in computer science and we got to thinking, we should do something like this in forestry,” Ren explains.

The team spent six months taking part in the second round of the University of Helsinki’s Biosphere incubator programme, aimed at solutions tackling sustainability issues in circularity, bio economy, and a range of other fields. For Ren and Liu, who had no prior experience in entrepreneurship, the programme felt like the perfect place to begin. 

A Change in Mindset

The team’s big mission for their time in Biosphere was clear from the onset: to make their research market-applicable and more customer-friendly. “At the beginning of the programme, we were thinking of the solution with a researcher mindset,” Ren recalls. “But we were soon advised by our mentors to contact real people in the industry, like farmers and foresters, to gather information about what the actual need is out there.”

This transition in mindset is what both Ren and Liu name as one of their biggest learnings in the programme. Liu explains that they’ve been constantly urged to review their idea from the market perspective. “Like OK, how are we going to start selling this for real?” she asks. “We were pushed out of our comfort zone with the customer-contacting. It’s been a huge learning process, and very different from what I was used to in research.”

Ren agrees with Liu’s take and makes a point about the programme’s focus on communication skills, in general. “I was trained to speak confidently and loudly in front of people. Investors included,” she underlines. “And, as you know, investors and customers don't have much time for you. You must be able to structure your idea and express it within three minutes. The three-minute pitch was a valuable skill I acquired in the incubator. We trained it in almost every workshop.”

She adds that the self-confidence in public speaking along with the methods learned are skills that will stay with her whatever happens to the DP-Tec project. “I think they’re good not only for advancing a startup, but also for my lifelong career. Even in the research field, I think I’ll get a lot out of these techniques,” she says optimistically.

Confidence to Respond to Real-World Needs

A shift from academia to entrepreneurship is no small feat, but Ren and Liu are strong in their belief that it is what the world needs more of. “We do research to make the planet a better place; not just research for its own sake,” Ren says emphatically. “Joining Biosphere provided us a chance to get to know what the market needs. What the society needs. With that knowledge, we can adjust our direction in research, and create positive circulation between the two.”

Liu nods in agreement. “The whole programme restructured my thinking about my work. When I was in academia, I kept asking, ‘What is this useful for?’ Research is an important task, but you might never see it become tangible reality. You have to live with the fact that publication might be the end of it,” she says.

Indeed, the programme opened Liu’s eyes to finding new meaning in her work. She explains that through being connected to the outside market, a researcher can select the right challenges to tackle in the first place. “The beginning matters. The question matters. You’re not jumping into some ancient research problem that you don’t believe in and for which you’ll never see the results for. So, yes, now I have the confidence to select the problems that I’m genuinely motivated about, because I have that knowledge of what the world needs.”

Ren chimes in: “Yes, publication is very important, but so is transferring what we learn to the market. It's a kind of social responsibility for us. We’ve been trained and educated for so many years. We’re the ones with the cutting-edge knowledge; now it’s time for us to contribute to the society.”

Not In It Alone

Throughout the programme, DP-Tec received personalised guidance from the two mentors assigned to the team, Aline de Santa Izabel and Júlio Pinho. Ren and Liu are grateful for the mentors’ time and devotion towards their project. “They’re so friendly and supportive. They had their own work and projects, but still found the time to check up on us and suggest meetings. I even felt bad at times, when I couldn’t keep up with their enthusiasm due to my own busy schedule,” Ren shares.

Liu says she noticed the same, and comments on the helpfulness of the checkpoints that the mentors set up for the team. “It was great to have those checkpoints to reach and having someone push you to commit to a steady flow with work.” 

In addition to the mentors, both Ren and Liu name each other as sources of valuable support throughout the programme. “It's good to have a teammate. Wenzi is the one who keeps pursuing,’” Liu says. 

Ren smiles: “Shushu gives me a lot of support because, you know, sometimes you’re exhausted. You don’t want to do anything. But Shushu says, ‘Let's go. Let's have fun! Why not?’ I really need someone like Shushu to activate me.”

Freedom to Innovate, Through Working Life Stability

The conversation returns to the importance of carrying research results over to societal application and having more dialogue between what is needed and what can be innovated. Though fully recognising this, Ren and Liu make the important note that researchers require a stable working environment for this to happen. “If you don't have enough financial support for doing your research, you live your life in panic. You can't focus on the research, let alone contribute to society,” Ren explains.

Liu adds that entrepreneurship programmes like those at Helsinki Incubators are also still relatively foreign as a concept to many people in academia. “There are many who’d like to transfer to more industry-focused work, but simply don’t know how to. I’d definitely say that a programme like Biosphere is a good starting point for getting out there, and more people should know about it!” she says.

Apply By 1 May

This batch of Biosphere fostered the growth of many inspiring and promising teams like DP-Tec, now facing a new chapter in their entrepreneurial journeys after the programme’s finish. Endings are always bittersweet, but luckily another round is just around the corner. The call for applications to Biosphere 3 is currently open, until 1 May!

Inviting applications from all brave thinkers, doers, and innovators in the fields of bio economy, circular economy, and sustainability, Biosphere 3 will offer another group of promising would-be entrepreneurs half a year of support, mentoring, and guidance with the goal of turning ideas into impactful ventures.

So, if you’re passionate about creating an impact and want to develop a solution that addresses a sustainability issue big or small, be sure to check out our website for more information about the programme and send in your application by 1 May. For more information, you can also contact programme manager Pedro Gensini at or through LinkedIn.

Biosphere Team DP-Tec | Helsinki Incubators