Spirit of entrepreneurship is gaining ground in the campus area

In recent years, new routes to entrepreneurship have been opened up for students and researchers at the University of Oulu. Students and researchers are encouraged to show initiative and think in a solution-centred, entrepreneurial manner. Students, researchers and companies have enthusiastically joined common idea workshops and accelerators in large numbers.

Consider, for instance, a student at the University of Oulu in any field. Before the actual start of the studies, the student will get to know innovative thinking: the first autumn term will start with a Future Factory competition where student teams will develop solutions to current challenges.

“Future Factory has now been organised twice for new students during the orientation week. It provides the first introduction to team formation and problem-solving,” designer Mia Kemppaala says. “For instance, the winning team of the Faculty of Medicine developed a touring stem cell bus for promoting stem cell donation.”

After this, competencies can be acquired by selecting entrepreneurship as a minor subject. The 25-credit entity offered by Oulu Business School, which is open to all students, starts with the basics and culminates in how a company is established, Development Manager Johanna Bluemink says.

“Students can also choose individual study modules in minor subjects. Practical courses cover features such as teamwork, creativity, the identification of business opportunities and developing ideas into products.”

Johanna Bluemink (left), Mia Kemppaala and Simo Kekäläinen work at the Tellus Innovation Arena, the entrepreneurial hub of the University of Oulu (photo: Juha Sarkkinen).

 

Entrepreneurship was a reaction to IT field redundancies

Entrepreneurship as a minor subject was created in autumn 2015, the University of Oulu's theme year for entrepreneurship. The Tellus Innovation Arena, the most visible cluster for the current entrepreneurship and innovation culture, was also established at the same time. The space of a few thousand square metres in the main lobby of the Linnanmaa campus is bustling with students, researchers and companies holding meetings, events and workshops.

Kemppaala and Bluemink work at Tellus and follow entrepreneurial activity from the best possible perspective. However, this did not arise from nothing. An important step was taken quite early in 2011, when the wave of IT field redundancies forced us to think about how competencies acquired at business schools could promote entrepreneurship and the creation of jobs in the area. The University of Oulu and Oulu University of Applied Sciences reacted to this by establishing Business Kitchen, which is a community of researchers, students and companies currently operating at Tellus.

Business Kitchen turned out to be a success. “Many people made redundant in the IT field established new businesses, some of which have grown. Now, together with IT companies recently arrived in Oulu, they employ more people than before the wave of redundancies. So, students and researchers have been encouraged to establish businesses and become entrepreneurs,” Bluemink says. She lists other incentives as well: youth unemployment, radical change in working life, the reduction of the public sector, regional strategy, the funding of universities by means of entrepreneurship indicators...

Since the entrepreneurial focus moved on from redundant professionals to students and researchers, Business Kitchen moved from central Oulu to Tellus. It now includes a number of cooperation programmes for the university personnel and companies, such as Demola (corporate assignments for multidisciplinary student teams) and Brandathon (brand modernisation by students), not to mention the constantly changing seminars and workshops.

Valmet to license the Demola student team concept

The innovation services unit represents the most long-term entrepreneurial culture at the University of Oulu. It will help in the commercialisation of research results and new technologies such as patents and start-up businesses. This tradition has its roots in the development of the Polar Electron sphygmograph and the cooperation with Nokia in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The activities of Tellus Innovation Arena are different in nature. It focuses more on undergraduate students and entrepreneurial competencies, operating methods and networks,” Bluemink says.

This is exactly how physics student Miro Ruopsa benefited from the Demola programme. He had not previously participated in the university entrepreneurial activities and applied to the Demola Valmet team at a whim. The teamwork gave Ruopsa a new type of confidence and means of interaction. “I realised I could establish a company and make it work.”

The Valmet assignment was a digital ‘innovation bank’ for the company customer portal. A team consisting of students in physics, economics, pedagogy, industrial engineering and technical fields developed a vague idea into a concept in a few months. It is an upper-level model which Valmet will use to develop a functional digital platform.

Director Petri Lakka from Valmet's service development praises the team for clarifying the idea and for fresh perspectives. “For example, an educationalist brought forward new ideas on usability and on how people can see the issues in the background.”

One recruitment also took place: the student in Economic Sciences from the team will continue to develop the innovation bank as a Valmet summer worker. As for Miro Ruopsa, he received a feather in his cap. “It is excellent to be able to mention on my CV that I was involved in creating a concept licensed by Valmet.”

Petri Lakka, Vice President, Services Development at Valmet, who took part in Demola work, praises the multidisciplinary student team that developed a promising solution from an unclear briefing for the development of a digital platform for the company's innovation bank (photo: Studio PSV).

Tellus can organise up to twenty events a day

The educationalist in the Valmet team was no exception. The Faculty of Pedagogics students are Demola's second-largest group – just after the humanists! Other programmes and events also have participants from all faculties. 

The image of human sciences rejecting business has been turned upside down. “It is amazing to see that today, business partners are looking for soft skills,” Demola facilitator Simo Kekäläinen says. “For instance in the OP group team, a student in Nordic philology is currently working in the OP Lab, the development unit for new business operations.”

Demola is, of course, only a fraction of the entrepreneurial activities at the University of Oulu. Between 30,000 and 45,000 visits are made to Tellus each month, and up to twenty meetings and events of various types may be organised each day. Bluemink compares Tellus with a commercial centre where you can find a suitable service or product. As in a commercial centre, the personnel will take the customer to the right place.

In addition, the supply is there all the time; entrepreneurial and innovative culture is in itself an entrepreneurial development of new concepts and experimentation with these new concepts. Now, novelties include the Impact Camp (a team of postgraduate students taking on the challenges of commercialising innovations) and the MindBusiness study modules coaching people to think in an entrepreneurial manner.

 

Entrepreneurial activity indicators are being developed

The intention is not to turn all students into entrepreneurs. There are plenty of them: for instance, the three-year Business Kitchen idea accelerator led to the establishment of ten new companies, Bluemink says.

However, the Tellus personnel is not notified of all start-up companies originating in the University of Oulu, and it is even more difficult to measure the other impacts. For example, approximately 10 per cent of the team members find employment through Demola, Kekäläinen says, but the overall picture will perhaps be visible in ten years. Entrepreneurship has been launched for two to three years, and the indicators are still being developed. 

“However, many students have already noticed that they could do many things, for instance in the business world,” says Mia Kemppaala and states that this is evident in student organisations. “Entrepreneurial competencies are emphasised in student union activities and organisation fairs. The entrepreneurial students community OuluES has a wide range of training programmes.”

By these means, the University of Oulu is in the vanguard of entrepreneurial activities along with Aalto University and the Lappeenranta LUT, Bluemink says. “Elsewhere, the activities are more decentralised. We have the advantage of a common campus at Linnanmaa, a healthcare cluster at the Kontinkangas campus and the concentration of the entrepreneurial theme at Tellus. It helps to understand the larger theme.”

Sensor researchers research project became a business idea 

Tellus and Business Kitchen also provide entrepreneurial programmes for researchers.

“Many ‘research to business’ cases will benefit from the fact that young people with a different perspective will join,” Mia Kemppaala says. Research fellow Christian Schuss of the Electronic Circuits and Systems at the University of Oulu is a good example of this.

Research fellow Christian Schuss has developed sensor technology measuring environmental conditions. He says that the support of various development teams in the elaboration of the product idea and the business model has been a crucial factor in the progress of the project (photo: Juha Sarkkinen).

The Tekes project Simple Smart Sensors (S3) by Schuss and his partners develops technology created as a result of research into commercial products. The product is a ‘sensor card’ measuring environmental variables, such as temperature, atmospheric humidity and UV radiation, and the measurement results can be displayed on a smart phone.

The idea took off rapidly in early 2017 when Schuss and his colleagues took their technology to the Business Kitchen Venturing Research Challenge (VRC), which helps researchers in commercialising the results of their work.

At VRC, a multidisciplinary student team considered the commercialisation of the sensor technology. “The students thought it was wonderful to work with an actual case. At VRC, they have the opportunity to develop something that makes a difference,” Schuss says.

The team created the TravelBuddy product idea, a measurement application for tourists, which can be integrated with features such as air carrier and travel insurance companies’ membership cards. The idea won the VRC and the KickStart business idea competition after the VRC student team presented it there.

“As a result of winning the competitions, experts showed a genuine interest in our technology and gave us valuable feedback,” Schuss says. “The part played by the students and the feedback provided by the experts had an impact on our Tekes application. We were able to give examples of scenarios for practical use and potential end users.”

Schuss and his partners also participated in the Avanto Accelerator idea accelerator programme. “There, you can develop your business idea. I was particularly fond of the mentor workshop, where experts from various fields evaluated the idea. Avanto helped us to clarify the potential customer base and to consider different cash flows.”

 During the Avanto programme, the S3 project received Tekes funding. The 18-month Tekes project should lead to the establishment of a start-up company or technology licensing.

Schuss underlines the importance of research and business cooperation and hopes to see an increase in events similar to VRC and KickStart. “I’m an engineer, but it is crucial to understand business. At night, I study at the Oulu Business School at the University of Oulu, and I am also studying entrepreneurship as my minor subject.”

Text: Jarno Mällinen

Last updated: 6.9.2018