At the University of Helsinki, a lot of effort is being put into innovation – business collaboration, innovation ecosystems, entrepreneurship and the commercialisation of research. The science campus in Kumpula has a long tradition in both business collaboration and innovation. In fact, development efforts are carried out by supplementing and shaping an established well-functioning model and best practices.
Santtu von Bruun, the director in charge of innovation and innovation ecosystems at the University, sees a wealth of opportunities for making the innovations and solutions emerging from the work of students and researchers increasingly available to society.
“We still have a great deal of untapped potential at the University. It’s important that we develop our innovation activities increasingly on a one-stop shop basis. Our threshold must be low, and help must be easily accessible. Operating models must be such that no silos and barriers are established between fields of research. In innovation activities too, multidisciplinarity plays a key role,” von Bruun emphasises.
“Above all, innovations adopted for use mean solutions that have been put into practice. It often also means commercialisation, or simply making a product, device or, say, drug available to people and society.”
Aiming for an innovation culture that supports experimentation and creativity
Business incubators support the development of researchers’ and students’ ideas towards viable business operations, the testing of ideas, solution-oriented thinking as well as networking with businesses. The goal is to strengthen the culture of innovation throughout the University.
“We have to establish for researchers and students the structures and high-quality support services for innovation they wish to use. I also believe that increasing internationalisation will have an impact on our culture. The top European universities in terms of research are often also pioneers in innovation. We will learn from our international partners,” von Bruun says.
Increasing cooperation also in Finland is important and topical. Santtu von Bruun sees at least Aalto University as being a natural partner, as it has extensive experience in innovation and business incubators, in addition to which the research fields of the two universities complement each other. Both are at the domestic top.
“We too now have dedicated incubator and entrepreneurship services on each campus. The Helsinki Think Company community is part of this. It provides students and researchers with help and tools for early entrepreneurship, growth into experts and societal impact. Think Company was established collaboratively with the City of Helsinki.
“Among others, 70 of our business partners contribute to these entrepreneurship services, placing their support and experience at our disposal. Also involved are funders and, of course, our own business coaches.
“In the incubators, students’ inventions often evolve into startup-type businesses, for which incubator operations are able to provide a lot of help and contacts. As for researchers, they create innovations based on their in-depth and long-term research-based knowledge, often resulting in larger and broader entities for commercialisation.”
Success founded on persevering basic research
In Kumpula, the Faculty of Science has accumulated experience of intensive business collaboration since the early days of the campus, and the culture of innovation is not a foreign idea either. A prime example is Kumpula Business Labs, operating on the campus since 2015, which offers its customers laboratory and office facilities as well as research equipment and researchers’ expertise. According to Faculty Dean Sasu Tarkoma, the laboratory services have reached customers effectively and are fully booked. Kumpula Campus also hosts the Finnish Meteorological Institute and several businesses close to the Faculty’s research fields.
“We have conducted research collaboration for a very long time with both Finnish and international businesses. Traditional domestic partners include Vaisala and Nokia – with Nokia Bell Labs, we share the Nokia Center for Advanced Research (NCAR). From among international businesses, we have fruitful collaboration in atomic layer deposition with ASM, in which context we also collaboratively coordinate the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atomic Layer Deposition.”
At Kumpula Campus, science of a high international standard is conducted. The level of research is also illustrated by the Faculty’s funding sources, such as the European Research Council (ERC), which provides funding for top-level research through rigorous screening. A total of 12 projects that have been awarded highly sought-after and esteemed ERC funding are ongoing in Kumpula. Kumpula is also involved in Academy of Finland Flagships. The Atmosphere and Climate Competence Center (ACCC) and the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI) are influential clusters of expertise that base their operations on basic research and support the widespread utilisation of results in society. In most cases, business collaboration and innovations in Kumpula stem from persevering basic research.
“Research results are not left gathering dust, that’s our motto here in Kumpula. Our mindset and approach to matters are solution oriented, and that’s an important starting point for innovation too,” Tarkoma notes.
We do not operate in a vacuum
The Kumpula attitude, manifested in the vision of the Faculty of Science, is founded on interaction and collaboration: “In 2030, Kumpula Campus is a dynamic competence cluster where the University, the Helsinki Upper Secondary School of Natural Sciences, research institutes and private sector operators collaboratively create solutions for sustainable development,” says Dean Sasu Tarkoma, and then distils the central goals into three key areas:
“First of all, we wish to be dynamic, and innovation services must be accessible. It’s important for potential partners to find us and for us to be a well-functioning entity that keeps up with the times. Late last year, the Economic Development Sub-committee of the Board of the City of Helsinki awarded more than €1 million to the Kumpula innovation campus project in 2023–2025. Together with the city and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, our goal is to create a dynamic innovation platform and cluster for AI, sustainability and deep-tech themes.
“Secondly, we are working for the benefit of the developing Kumpula region as a whole. We need more life on the campus and in the surrounding areas, that is, shops, cafés, businesses and people. It’s also in the interest of the University for the area to be attractive.
“Thirdly, I point to the doctoral path in industry innovation pilot, jointly coordinated with Tampere University and also involving the Technology Industries of Finland lobbying organisation. Besides research-based knowledge, the doctoral path produces experts for the industry with the ability to apply this knowledge in a business-oriented manner.”
Sasu Tarkoma emphasises the importance of cooperation in all activities. Cooperation is carried out in both research and development projects. In terms of the future outlook for innovation activities in the next few years, Tarkoma, like von Bruun, considers Aalto University a very natural partner. Innovations require diverse collaboration and solid connections with natural circumstances.
“Instead of operating in a vacuum at the University, we are part of society. Thanks to cooperation, we gain from the wider society a variety of datasets needed in research, among other things. We also receive feedback and information on what is going on around us. Through interaction, we identify new research topics and problems to solve by means of science and research,” Tarkoma muses.