Researchers enjoy commercialisation the most when their findings improve the world and people’s everyday lives

Auli Toom, a specialist in education, has noticed that you can learn research skills while innovating, and Kirsi Mikkonen, who is involved in designing sustainable food packaging, dreams of one day seeing a product based on her scholarly work on the shelves of grocery stores.

An application that teaches teamwork skills at schools and workplaces, more than 60 pilots across Finland and promising markets outside Finland as well. Just five years ago, Professor of Higher Education Auli Toom could hardly have anticipated that her research group would lay the groundwork for all of this.

In fact, Toom considered for a long time whether or not to participate in the Helsinki Challenge competition, ultimately going for it as she thought it would promote her scholarly work. It soon turned out that commercialising your insights can be quite rewarding.

“The collaborative development of research and reflecting on its impact taught me a lot,” Toom says.

The dLearn.Helsinki team made it to the final, propelling them in their efforts to develop a mobile application and a competence wall that collects data. Schoolchildren and employees can use them to learn broad-based skills needed in collaboration, including interaction and conflict resolution. At the end of the commercialisation path, a spinout called TeamFluent was born. Now, the plan is to translate the product into Nordic languages and Chinese.

A dream of seeing a product based on your research in grocery stores

Innovation is an integral part of the work of Kirsi Mikkonen, who is an associate professor of food sciences in Viikki – over the years, she has submitted over 10 invention disclosures. One of the latest is for an active packaging material that keeps vegetables, berries and fruit fresh for longer and helps reduce food waste.

“It slows down the cellular respiration of plants and also prevents mould from developing,” Mikkonen explains.

Another topical commercialisation project is the cultivation of mycelia, which would make it possible to produce plant proteins while conserving energy and space by generating fungal mass in dark bioreactors.

The team of researchers has submitted patent applications for the active packaging material in Europe, the United States and Japan, in addition to which they are considering whether to establish a startup. If all goes to plan, Mikkonen’s dream may become reality in the near future.

“For a long time, I’ve dreamt of seeing the results of my research on the shelves of grocery stores.”

Path to commercialisation provides new skills for scholarly work

Researchers can gain a great deal of value from steering research findings towards the market. According to Toom, she has learned to draw up better funding applications, identify relevant networks and describe her ideas to experts in a range of fields. And the application she has developed with her team has become an important tool for academic work.

“We are able to continuously collect research data with the app.”

Mikkonen has noticed that, after the commercialisation project, guiding your work towards practical application becomes easier. It helps in changing the world. Mikkonen points out that, each year, food waste generates hundreds of billions of euros in losses, while 45% of fruit and vegetables end up in the rubbish bin in the production chain. For her, commercialisation is in fact one way of fixing such flaws.

“It’s a channel through which you can influence how things work in society.”

Innovation is more appealing when it advances your research

And how successfully can you reconcile academic and commercial thinking? Toom notes that product marketing can involve having to think about how many shortcuts you can take. That slogans need to be based on research has always been clear to her team.

“We are extremely careful about basing our arguments on research when justifying the uses and benefits of the application.”

In terms of time, combining innovation with the other tasks of researchers is not necessarily difficult, even though certain stages in the process are taxing. Toom believes that interest in commercialisation arises most effectively when you have the opportunity to simultaneously promote your personal scholarly work.

“For me, it’s worked quite well, as I’ve come up with new ideas through basic research,” Mikkonen says.

No entrepreneurial aspirations needed to steer your inventions towards the market

Both Toom and Mikkonen point out that commercialisation does not necessarily mean that researchers have to make a transition to the business world. Neither of them wants to assume responsibility for, for example, the operative management of a startup. Instead, their lives remain closely tied to everyday life at the University: research and teaching.

“It’s always been clear to me that I’m not going anywhere,” Toom says.

In the case of colleagues interested in commercialisation, Toom and Mikkonen urge them to consider whether their ideas have market potential. The leap from basic research to innovation is not always as big as you think.

“You just have to think one step further to see the potential for commercialisation,” Mikkonen says, offering encouragement.

More information
FAKTA: How to get started in commercialising your ideas
  • Ask a colleague with experience of guiding products based on their research to the market to gain first-hand knowledge about the demands and benefits of commercialisation projects.
  • Reach out to Helsinki Innovation Services (HIS), the commercialisation business of the University of Helsinki. Share your ideas and brainstorm with experts about the possibilities and the kind of funding you could apply for to develop them further.
  • Apply to join a business incubator scheme or one of the six- to eight-week pre-incubator programmes to be launched soon on the campuses to learn more about the commercial potential of your ideas.
  • Remember that you don’t have to be able to do everything on your own. HIS provides help, for example, in applying for product development funding as well as seeking managers and investors for future businesses.
  • Keep in mind that not all insights result in commercial breakthroughs. That being said, refining them can still be useful down the line.