A thriving cluster of life science business and research, noteworthy even on a European scale. This is the future goal for the Helsinki Metropolitan Area which Health Capital Helsinki, a joint project of the University of Helsinki, City of Helsinki, Aalto University and the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa, is working towards.
HCH will bring together experts, researchers and companies from fields important to health and healthcare. It will also help new entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. One of the project’s goals is to export Finnish competence – and attract international investors.
Experience from Silicon Valley and Helsinki
If everything goes as planned, a few years from now the Helsinki Metropolitan Area will be home to many more life science companies that are based on scientific research. A good example of such companies is Blueprint Genetics, which set up shop on the Meilahti Campus three years ago.
The history of Blueprint Genetics began in California with the postdoctoral research that Samuel Myllykangas conducted at Stanford University in 2009–2011. During his years in the US, Myllykangas, now Chief Technology Officer of Blueprint Genetics, developed a new method for genetic sequencing, that is, for determining the order of DNA building blocks.
“I originally wanted to make the methods faster, more reliable and more efficient,” he explains. “The idea of commercial utilisation didn’t hit me until later.”
Physicians Juha Koskenvuo and Tero-Pekka Alastalo, who also did postdoctoral work in Stanford, immediately came up with several clinical uses for the new method. And that, says Myllykangas, was the seed for the business.
Science follows along
Blueprint Genetics has sold rapid genetics tests to over one hundred hospitals in 16 countries. Based on the DNA of blood samples, the tests identify mutations related to hereditary cardiovascular diseases. The tests are performed at the Blueprint Genetics laboratory in Meilahti.
The company currently employs a total of 24 people in Finland, Germany and the US, and research is still at the core of its operations. Blueprint Genetics has collaborated with the University of Helsinki, the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa, Lund University and Karolinska Institutet. Myllykangas himself is Docent at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences.
According to him, establishing a research-based company is no walk in the park. As he elaborates:
“Our first business plans were quite rudimentary, drawn up based on templates we found online. Luckily, when Tommi Lehtonen came on board as our CEO to help secure funding and commercialise our operations, the company gained vital commercial knowledge.
Entrepreneurship does not put an end to a science career
Myllykangas expects the Health Capital Helsinki project to take an approach similar to the one he remembers from Stanford. At the Silicon Valley university, students and researchers were repeatedly told that the campus would offer support and practical assistance for company founders.
Myllykangas believes the atmosphere in Helsinki has improved in recent years.
“Entrepreneurial activities are no longer believed to put an end to your science career,” he notes.
The all-important community
It seems natural to build Health Capital Helsinki around strong research clusters. In greater Helsinki, the main campuses in the fields of health, technology and biological sciences are close to one another in Meilahti, Otaniemi and Viikki.
To facilitate students’ involvement, a new Helsinki Think Company location will be opened on the Meilahti Campus this autumn, and the similar existing environments in Otaniemi and Viikki will be enhanced.
Further inspiration for the greater Helsinki area has been sought in Copenhagen and Boston, where corresponding collaboration projects involving cities, companies and universities have quickly taken off. Companies fund academic research, and start-ups emerge as part of expert communities.
“The Helsinki Life Science Center is the University of Helsinki’s main project linked to Health Capital Helsinki,” says Vice Rector Keijo Hämäläinen. Currently under construction, the Center will support first-class research in the field and offer life science competence in a manner that also attracts companies.