Helsinki startup safari

Few months ago I had a chance to join the participants from the Turbiini Pre-Startup Program on two day city safari to explore the Helsinki startup ecosystem. We hoped that the city would reveal the community that helped give birth to global brands such as: Rovio, Supercell and Slush.

If you followed Finnish media in recent years, you have no doubt noticed the presence of “startup fever”. It seems that all you need to succeed in Helsinki these days is a good idea and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone. There is certainly no shortage of organizations willing to help you get your idea of the ground. I wondered if there was a common theme that was present in the Helsinki startup ecosystem; one that could be identified as a secret recipe for the city’s startup success. So I went on a group tour to find out.

Our group visited a total of eight organizations over the period of two days. On the first day we would visit: Microsoft Flux, NewCo Helsinki, Maria 0–1 and Techcode. The second day we focused mostly on organizations which were based around the Otaniemi campus of Aalto University. There we visited: Vertical Accelerator, Startup Sauna, Fab Lab and Aalto Startup Center. There was of course many more awesome places we could have gone to, but in the end our list had to be kept short. So the organizations were chosen based on their importance to the local startup scene and our ability to reach them.

The organizations we visited were a mix of privately and publicly funded organizations all of which offered some sort of co-working space, hosted events and provided startup education. While all the places offered some sort of long-term space rental contract to teams, in most cases there were other services for startups that were free of charge. The type of benefits offered for startup teams differed from training programs to community events. Some places like Vertical Accelerator and Startup Sauna had an application process that handpicked teams to reach specific target goals. Other places like NewCo Helsinki and Microsoft Flux offered a more freestyle option for working.

Each of the places we visited aimed create the conditions where people could meet in a physical space and share ideas. Also the hosts of each organization regularly interacted with each other to discover the best practices for improving their space. It seemed like everyone understood that they were a part of a larger startup ecosystem that functioned as a sum of many different parts. While each organization functions on its own, the knowledge sharing enables the entire ecosystem to prosper. One common theme that emerged from our two day adventure was the importance of community.

Due to its strong technology sector and a dynamic workforce, it seemed inevitable that Helsinki would emerge as a magnet for regional startup talent. However, if you talk to any of the startup community veterans they will tell you that success did not happen overnight. Although the technical expertise was always present in the city, the community aspect had to be built from scratch. Although it is almost silly to try and to pin-point the exact birthplace of the Helsinki startup ecosystem, many would agree that it occurred somewhere in the vicinity of the Aalto’s Otaniemi campus. There the visionaries of Startup Sauna and a mix of public-private investment helped to sow the seeds for the future community. The contribution of numerous other organizations also helped to grow the local ecosystem into what it is today. It goes to show that it really takes an entire startup village to raise a unicorn.

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