Layer cultivation and palm oil substitutes – new food innovations from Viikki laboratories

Vegetable fats that replace palm oil and cereal products that strive from the brewery industry, are developed for Finnish dinner tables. All the campuses of the University of Helsinki will soon have better opportunities to generate breakthrough inventions, thanks to new innovation investments.

The ovens are heated, measuring cups have been placed on the edge of the sinks to dry, and there is a stack of chickpea cans on the counter. We are at the Viikki campus process laboratory, at the University of Helsinki. The place where, for example, the horse bean ice cream Härtelö, sold in grocery stores, has originated. In the future, an increasing number of new food items may arrive to the Finnish plates from here, Viikki.

Professor of Practice, Reetta Kivelä, who is also known as the developer of pulled oats, says that a new innovation laboratory will be completed on the campus in spring 2022, where research and student teams can test their promising ideas.

“The teams will receive the keys and can come there at any time,” explains Kivelä.

Innovations that revolutionise the food system are now urgently needed, to reduce the harm to the environment. Food causes over 20 per cent of the climate impacts of consumption. Only housing has a greater impact on the climate.

Ideas promoting cultivation and food production are developed in the pre-incubator

The "testing laboratory", which will soon be completed, will be part of the Viikki Food Design Factory, a home for sustainable food innovations, which will be built on the campus with the support of the City of Helsinki. Viikki is a brilliant place for innovation for several reasons: Connections to the food industry are strong, various fields of science from biotechnology to forest and environmental sciences are represented, and the offices of Syke, Luke, and the Finnish Food Authority are also located in the vicinity.

"If somewhere there is a deep understanding of the food system, it is here," says Laura Forsman, Director of the Viikki Food Design Factory.

Four seeds of innovation have just been planted in the brand new Germinator pre-incubator, a programme, where 15 teams from different parts of Finland applied for. What do you think about vegetable fats, for instance, which are planned to become substitutes for palm oil? What about new type of layer cultivation of tall plants, or the production of various raw materials using by-products from the brewery industry, or ultrasound?

“Even we were surprised of the high level of the proposals.”

The students are offered a tailored course called "Minustako muutoksentekijä?", where one hundred participants have already registered, both law students and humanists. The aim is to create an insight that one can use one's own competence to drive food production in a more sustainable direction.

"We are not tied to this system, but we can influence it ourselves," emphasises Forsman.

The themes of innovation platforms are developed with researchers and students

Viikki is not the only place where the preconditions for invention and brainstorming are raised to a new level. By 2024, the University of Helsinki will set up similar innovation platforms at all its campus locations.

“The goal is to have strong innovation ecosystems running on each campus in a few years' time,” says Irina Blomqvist, in charge of the project.

On part of the campuses, the focus is on enhancing existing activities. For example, the Academic Medical Center Helsinki already has a start-up community called Terkko Health Hub, which has supported over a hundred companies on their journey to the market.

Another one at a good pace, is the Health Capital Helsinki ecosystem of the University of Helsinki and its partners, which strives for Europe's leading edge in life sciences and health technology, brings international investors to meet research teams, and refines start-ups in the Health Incubator Helsinki programme.

New innovation platforms will be built on themes that are part of the strengths of the University of Helsinki. Their mapping is under way and here researchers and students play an important role.

“Everything is done in close cooperation with the faculties,” says Blomqvist.

Finland has good prerequisites for developing plant-based inventions

Sustainable food system has been selected as one theme, in Viikki. Professor of Practice Reetta Kivelä believes that Finland has good prerequisites for producing plant-based inventions. For example, oats have been studied persistently and consumers are also keen to test new products.

Kivelä and Forsman think that everyone ought to be interested in what is happening in Viikki. Companies can access the latest research data through the ecosystem. Scientists, on the other hand, will be given the opportunity to commercialise their inventions, for example in a pre-incubator such as the Germinator.

“If you have a brilliant idea to transform the food system, please join us,” encourages Forsman.

    Innovation platforms process research for the benefit of the society and business life
    • The University of Helsinki will set up research-based innovation platforms for all four of its campuses, by 2024. The university is investing a large sum in the platforms. Additional funders are being sought from both Finland and the EU.
    • The aim is to enhance the impact of research, i.e. to produce, for example, university-based start-ups, and to make scientific discoveries available to various parties in the society.
    • Ecosystems are created around the innovation platforms, where higher education institutions, companies, the public sector, and other actors meet. These ecosystems solve issues related to various themes, such as sustainability, circular economy, and artificial intelligence.
    • The University's Inno team, the University of Helsinki's commercialisation company HIS, and the entrepreneurship society Think Company, are responsible for the development of smooth services for research teams and partners.