Multicultural. Multi-talented. Multifaceted.
These are all words that could be used to describe the latest NEXUS cohort, an impressive group of 18 teams comprising over 60 founders working with a wide range of ideas: from innovative sustainable building solutions to empowering health tech products; from digital platforms that improve quality of life to creative applications of deep tech and AI.
But above all, the best words to describe both the teams and their mentors were passionate and energetic.
Indeed, even after several days of intense kick-off activities including workshops, discussions, and pitching, the mood among the NEXUS 2 crowd was ebullient.
"Of course we're excited!" laughed Emmi Korjus and Emma Kynkäänniemi, who along with their third co-founder Ida Nikkilä, make up the Three Mushketeers. As a team comprised entirely of University of Helsinki graduates with master's degrees in food science, the trio had decided to join NEXUS to further develop their ambitious idea for mushroom waste processing after successfully completing the university's Germinator programme for food system innovations.
"Scaling up is an urgent next step for us," Kynkäänniemi explained, and the team hoped that their NEXUS mentors – a key reason for applying – would help them achieve this goal. But the team was also optimistic that the programme itself would be of great help to them as well: "We really like the structure of NEXUS," said Korjus, adding that they believed it would provide just the right amount of pressure to push them towards finding their first customers and growing onwards from there.
Among other teams, the mood was equally enthusiastic: “We love it, man, we really love it here!” exclaimed Luis Alejandro Mantilla, an exuberant Latin American filled with infectious positive energy who, along with his two co-founders Devontay Cross and Kenneth Medina and their digital laundry platform KLiin, had high expectations for NEXUS.
Together with Cross, he listed all the things they hoped to achieve by the end of the six-month programme: more developed technology, new connections, a better understanding of sales and marketing and, of course, securing the resources they'd need to expand their operations – globally. "But most of all," added Cross, a charming Kentucky native, "we're here to learn from all these beautiful people."
"While the first edition of our Deep Tech, AI, and Sustainability programme was a launching pad for many promising stories," said NEXUS Programme Manager Andres Peña Archila, "thanks to helpful feedback from our alumni and mentors, the second edition comes with many improvements to ensure that NEXUS 2 will be the birthplace of even more successes."
Chief among these improvements is the programme's new hybrid incubator-accelerator approach, which splits the programme into two halves. In the first half, teams will focus on validation and product-market fit, refining their propositions and strategies, before being encouraged in the second half of the programme to fly the nest and seek out their first customers and grow with the market.
To help teams achieve these ambitious goals, the programme now comes with a more target-oriented structure with clearer checkpoints along the way. "By always having something to work towards," Archila explains, "we hope to keep the teams' momentum going" while guaranteeing that they don't miss any of the crucial steps to successfully enter the market.
As for the programme's mentors, whose contributions during the first round of NEXUS were instrumental in much of the teams' development, Alfonso Gutierrez, Senior Manager for Startup Corporate Partnerships at the University of Helsinki, assured that "our commitment to providing teams with world-class mentors has not changed."
"We are honoured to once again be blessed with nearly 50 mentors from across the globe, many of them returning for a second time to NEXUS," Gutierrez continued. "These corporates, founders, VC's, and other professionals have all signed up to share their experience, networks, and expertise with our NEXUS venture teams pro bono. We are grateful for our mentors' contributions to helping them reach their full potential."
"In fact, we found that for some teams, the mentors were a key reason to apply," Gutierrez added. "Some even asked for specific mentors by name!"
For many of the participating would-be entrepreneurs and eager startup founders, the new NEXUS had immediately resonated as the place for them.
"As soon as I saw the programme, I was interested," said Chris Petrie, a University of Helsinki doctoral researcher and co-founder of Kwizie.ai. The affable New-Zealander and his co-founder, Andrei Laperie, had been working on their AI-copilot for turning videos into online learning experiences all year, and when the opportunity to join the programme presented itself, he instantly knew that taking part was the right step for his team.
"To make something worth using, you have to get out into the world, get into the community and connect with the ecosystem," Petrie explained, saying that after so much time spent developing their product on their own, he believed NEXUS would empower his team and provide them the necessary support to continue working on growing Kwizie. "Everyone needs a tribe, you know? Building a startup on your own is a hard thing," Petrie continued, explaining how many of the processes involved in setting up your own venture could feel daunting. "But I think having the backing of the University will make me braver."
Ville Karinen, a self-described "eternal student" at the University of Helsinki, also said that the decision to join NEXUS with his co-founder and nephew Robin Karinen was a very easy one to make. They'd previously been worked on developing their solution in the broader Helsinki startup ecosystem, but were looking to continue that work in a more well-defined setting. Like Petrie, the elder Karinen said that he appreciated the chance to get peer-to-peer support within the NEXUS community, but what really drew him and the younger Karinen to join the programme was its impressive mentor list, the opportunity to expand their professional networks it offered, and NEXUS' well-defined roadmap. "We're really looking for a structure to keep developing our MVP and refine our business proposition," said the elder Karinen, "and the checkpoints and such in NEXUS are really good for us, they give us a clear way to keep moving forward."
The teams were not the only ones excited for what the programme would bring. Following initial meetings between the teams and mentors on the first day and pitches on the second, mentors across the board were clearly enthusiastic for what they felt was a promising batch of teams and eager to start collaborating with them.
"I'm honoured to be here and to have the opportunity to work with these entrepreneurs, because I really believe in the potential that they have," said a bubbly Leticia Rayas, one of the new mentors for NEXUS 2 and an experienced startup advisor. "I'm looking forward to helping them develop those skills and help them make the best businesses that they can in order to make a difference where they are, and in their communities."
Equally eager to helping the teams was Gabriele Garavini the head of venturing at Scania Group. "I'm very excited to be here and to help!" he said, before adding: "I see a lot of very interesting ideas at different levels of maturity – but with very motivated teams." For him, having worked with entrepreneurs and startups for 15 years, the biggest factor determining a startup's success is the team's passion, something he was delighted to see the fresh batch displaying plenty of. "The ideas can always be tweaked, but not the team's culture!"
And while mentors were happy to see the broad range of ideas on display, they were also hoping that the teams would be able to fully take advantage of the opportunities that the programme would be offering them. "NEXUS is bringing together all these people that have exciting ideas, and connecting them with people that can help them achieve reality," explained Samuli Salmela Head of Digital Transformation in the European Region for DB Schenker, referring to the programme's strong focus on mentoring.
"At the same time, they're building this great bridge between corporations and startups," Salmela continued, saying that he looked forward to seeing how the teams would leverage these potential connections to tap into resource and knowledge-rich ecosystems to develop and grow their ventures.
For returning mentors, like Mia Uitto, Senior Marketing Partner at Nordea, the new batch also showed an interesting contrast to the programme's first cohort: "The teams are much more advanced than last year," Uitto observed. "It'll be very interesting to see how many teams we can get to the funding and scaling up stage this time!"
After an intense week of kick-off activities, the 2nd NEXUS cohort has already started the programme proper with their first workshops. We'll be sure to check in with the teams and showcase some of the promising teams throughout the upcoming 6-month period, but if the excitement of the teams and the confidence of the mentors is anything to go by, it won't be long before you hear some exciting developments from this group.
In the meanwhile, we invite you to get to know the teams a bit better at this link, and encourage you to connect with all our talented founders on LinkedIn if you're looking to know more about any of their projects.
NEXUS is the University of Helsinki's mentor-driven Deep Tech, AI, and Sustainability 6-month incubator programme designed to help teams with crystallised solutions in those domains to turn those into scalable, fundable global startups. The 2nd batch is currently on the way, with the programme's showcase scheduled for 29 February 2024.
For additional information on the the NEXUS incubator, please contact:
Andres Peña Archila, NEXUS programme manager
Potential mentors, corporates, CVC's and investors interested in partnering with NEXUS, please contact:
Alfonso Gutierrez, Senior Manager, Global Corporate Partnerships