A chemistry student already found his dream job during bachelor's studies
Joona Kontinen works as an innovation chemist at Sulapac, a Finnish startup, which develops biodegradable composites made of wood to replace plastic. Kontinen completed his master’s thesis while working at Sulapac.

The research presented in the thesis is part of a project that resulted in straws that contain no microplastics. The project was announced at Slush in 2018, while the product was released to the market a year later in 2019. The straw production still continues, with ever-growing demand.

From medicine to chemistry

Chemistry was the only option when Joona Kontinen applied to study at the University of Helsinki. When in his second year at general upper secondary school, he was still planning to pursue studies in medicine. Giving the matter some more thought, Kontinen realised he did not want to work as a doctor. However, he was interested in medical product development. Indeed, he wrote his bachelor’s thesis on drug vehicles at the Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry. When Kontinen became aware of the slow progress of medical product development from innovation to production, he decided to switch to materials chemistry, focusing on polymer chemistry. Conveniently, a job offer from Sulapac came at the same time.

In his summer job of 2018 as a laboratory technician in the Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry, Kontinen had the opportunity to carry out analyses related to Sulapac’s products and got to know Antti Pärssinen, innovation director and co-founder of the company, who is also a graduate of the University of Helsinki.This opened a door to the company.

Work and studies support each other

Combining a full-time job with studying can be done when there is mutual support.

“You learn better when the topics of your studies have a connection to your practical work,” Kontinen says.

This was also reflected in his examination results. During his bachelor’s studies, he passed his courses, but at the master's level he started getting top points. The compulsory minor subject studies included in the degree, though, caused him stress when his interest was already clearly directed at product development in polymer chemistry.

Soon, he will have obtained his master’s degree certificate, with a doctoral thesis as the next goal. His employee has a favourable attitude toward postgraduate studies.

Converting plastics factories into producers of biodegradable materials

Currently, Kontinen is contributing to the development of entirely novel materials that comply with current legislation.

“The law sets specific criteria for materials that come into contact with food,” Kontinen notes.

Cosmetics packaging and other products produced by Sulapac are entirely microplastics-free, and they can be disposed of using industrial composting processes. When burned, their combustion residue is cleaner than that of plastics. At the same time, their reuse is also being investigated. Sulapac has no factories of its own, and one of the criteria for its materials is that they can be utilised in production lines designed for plastics.