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Where the tech things are: Entrepreneurs in Finland

The annual Slush show draws 17,500 from around the world to entrepreneurship festival – highlighting the role of universities in building a tech culture in Europe

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HELSINKI – “Hi, I’m Felix from Baqend and we make the Internet faster!”

Thus began one of hundreds of start-up company sales pitches on stage here at a massive entrepreneurial conference, called Slush. Felix (apparently nobody in the modern tech world bothers with last names) heads a small German start-up, Baqend, spun out from the University of Hamburg, that claims to have cloud software to make Web pages load 15 times faster; and he wants your money – or at least, the money of the 1,100-plus investors milling around here, all looking for the Next Big Thing.

About 17,500 company founders, investors, corporate executives, students, media converged in Helsinki on 30 November and 1 December, for what has grown in less than a decade into one of the world’s most unusual annual celebrations of entrepreneurship. From small beginnings with the student entrepreneurship society of Finnish university Aalto, the Slush conference (so-called because of the weather here at this time of year) has ballooned into an international meeting point for people trying to create, buy or sell businesses.

It was, as the welcome banner at the entrance to the vast conference hall here proclaimed, the ultimate place for the “bad-ass” techies of the world to meet.

Slush is so well-known now in the tech world that Finnair scheduled a special non-stop flight from Silicon Valley to Helsinki, so that all the super-eager, super-smart and (some might say) supercilious American VCs can get in and out super-fast. Joining them were the tech industry’s rock stars: co-founders of Spotify, Skype, Supercell, LinkedIn and other famous tech brands.

So, too, came the geek-chic tech entrepreneurs, in designer eyeglasses, expensive jeans and t-shirts (ties are strictly for squares), from around Finland, but also Moscow, Seoul, Austin and other exotic places. With sales pitches practiced and business cards at the ready, they crammed into a darkened, black-light conference cavern stuffed with technology and multiple pitching stages.

The university as catalyst

As a tech show, it is not on the scale of SXSW (South by Southwest) in Texas or the grand gatherings of the mobile phone or consumer electronics industries, but for European entrepreneurs hunting seed money, Slush has become a Mecca.

How or why is partly the result of a gradual, bumpy rise in European tech ambitions generally and also an object policy lesson in the role that universities can play in igniting tech clusters. Though not yet on the scale of Stanford in Palo Alto or MIT in Boston, Aalto in Helsinki has emerged as one of the most productive schools for entrepreneurship in Europe. There are no formal legal ties to the university, but the Slush event is still run by a student society, and it is managed and staffed by 2,300 volunteers, mostly Aalto students.

The university was founded only in 2010, through the merger of three other Helsinki institutions and from the start has promoted a ‘hands-on’ educational philosophy that requires many students to learn by doing, combining technology, business and design.

In its Design Factory on campus, near the former offices of a now-shrunken Nokia, about 1,500 students a year develop new products and services as class exercises – and not all of them are tech. On one day, a group of six young Aalto students gathered around a table festooned with post-it notes as they tried to develop what they called a “social innovation” project. The idea was to help the elderly stay connected in society, by setting up a programme to bring them into schools as teaching assistants in cooking and woodworking classes.

“We want to rethink the course of ageing, to bridge the gap between the young generation and the old generation,” said Sara Pacifici, an exchange student in the group, from Italy’s Bocconi University. And yes, she also has a start-up company planned – though it is separate from this classroom project, for which the group is scrambling to prepare a presentation to their professor in a week. Pacifici is planning an online “concept store,” she says, though what that might be is apparently under a non-disclosure agreement for now.)

Start-ups and saunas

The students going through this year-long course often design products or services for companies that agree to make relatively modest contributions to the programme. Some go on to the Startup Sauna building next door, to refine business plans (yes, there is a real sauna inside the building to stimulate the grey cells). Others move to the school’s start-up incubator to get ready for market.

In all, Aalto has generated nearly 1,000 start-ups. And the Aalto method, led by a faculty group including machine design professor Kalevi Ekman, is being cloned around the world, with satellite Design Factories in Shanghai, Seoul, Geneva and eight other cities.

Though prominent, Aalto is no longer unique in Europe, as the Slush show highlights. Many of the young, hopeful entrepreneurs who came here are from universities elsewhere in Europe: Twente, Hamburg, Milan, Moscow and beyond. Some are successful globally, for example, Stockholm’s universities have been, for their size, among the most productive in the world.

One upbeat study by VC firm Atomico, released at Slush, showcased European prospects, saying 2016 will break the record for tech funding, with $13.6 billion invested in 2,825 deals. According to Atomico, which is led by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom, there are now more software developers in Europe than in the US, at 4.7 million versus 4.1 million, and five of the world’s top 10 computer science departments are European. Though the fact that four of them are in Switzerland and the UK, and may consequently be excluded from EU R&D programmes, might give pause.

“We are seeing more [tech] hubs,” in Europe, said Zennstrom. While previously the focus was on London, Berlin and Stockholm, now Paris, Munich, Zurich and Lisbon are taking off. The encouragement for smaller ecosystems “is getting better and better,” he said.

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