From a researcher to an entrepreneur – practical need acted as a driver for producing more environmentally friendly construction materials

Juho Yliniemi, Assistant Professor at the University of Oulu, founded Keko Geopolymeerit Oy as a response to a practical need, and the business has grown steadily since the company was established. Yliniemi and Jouni Rissanen, the company's CEO, tell how the company was founded and how they ended up in the field.
Juho Yliniemi and a big screen with Finnish text: ”Mitä hyötyä yritysyhteistyöstä on tutkijalle ja tutkimukselle?”
Researcher and entrepreneur Juho Yliniemi.

“Our company Keko Geopolymeerit was born out of a practical need,” says Yliniemi. He had been studying the use of mineral side streams since 2013 and informing companies producing these side streams about the opportunities involved. However, no one showed any interest in the new industry. “I got frustrated about the situation and thought that if no one else will take up the manufacturing, then I’ll do it!”

The geopolymer industry has grown steadily both in Finland and around the world. According to Rissanen, it represents a subgroup of alkali-activated materials. “In Finland, geopolymers have become a marketing term for alternative binding agents,” Rissanen says. Binding agents resembling cement or ceramics can be utilised, for example, as construction materials.

A variety of substances, such as different ashes, mineral wool or mine tailings, can be used in the manufacture of geopolymers. They have a considerably smaller carbon footprint than cement, and, depending on the case, their properties may be even better than those of conventional binders.

Drifting steered by clear motivation

Both Yliniemi and Rissanen studied at the University of Oulu. Yliniemi graduated as a Master of Science in Chemistry and started working on a doctoral dissertation in process engineering. “I was the first doctoral candidate on the subject in Mirja Illikainen’s research group,” says Yliniemi. Rissanen also completed his doctoral dissertation in the same research group after studying environmental technology before that.

Both men admit that they ended up in the field almost without paying much attention to how it happened. “I drifted into studying the subject, and when I was dealing with the material all the time, I also became increasingly interested in it,” says Rissanen. “Only when you really get into something, you can see whether you have a drive for it or not,” Yliniemi adds.

However, both have clear motives for working with geopolymers. Rissanen started studying environmental technology because he wanted to work with things that would make the world a slightly better place. “In that sense, the studies were interesting, and they were a clear continuum for this topic.” Yliniemi continues by saying that there is a clear societal need for this kind of research, but also the wide scope of the sector is fascinating: “It offers many new angles and room to develop.”

Practical expert work

The company started its operation in 2020, from which time Rissanen has been working almost full-time in the company. For Yliniemi, on the other hand, the work means balancing between research and entrepreneurship. “I have to find the time for entrepreneurship from my free time. But the roles are very clear: in research, I deal with chemistry and prepare publications, whereas in the company I shovel sand, pour concrete and talk with other companies,” he says, laughing.

Both men say that, in the role of a researcher, it is easier to ignore practical issues that may turn into threshold issues when doing business. “I have also noticed that the biggest challenges of the circular economy are not necessarily of technical nature,” Rissanen points out. For example, Finland's challenging logistical conditions or the internal corporate culture may affect the willingness to adopt new technologies.

“But ultimately this is expert work,” Yliniemi says. The final outcome may be a specific piece of concrete, but its creation is underpinned by a decade of expert work. In many fields, a solid research base ensures that the implementation phase itself is quick and easy.

The research background has provided the entrepreneurs with ready-made networks, as former partners from research projects may be today's customers. Yliniemi also emphasises that, based on the mutual trust established in research projects, it is easier to discuss matters also when acting as an entrepreneur. When it comes to building a network, he says that the most important thing when finding an interesting partner is to be bold and contact them directly.

A future full of opportunities

In the early stages, Rissanen received funding from the PoDoCo programme that supports the employment of researchers. Since then, growth has been organic, even though, according to Yliniemi, they have also received some financing offers. “We have had interesting discussions, but we want healthy growth for the company.”

Business opportunities are also expected to increase in the future. For example, as the steel industry moves away from traditional blast furnaces to curb CO2 emissions, new technologies will be introduced. This means new kinds of side streams and a need for a company familiar with a wide range of materials. Replacing cement in the construction industry is also a major area of application for geopolymers.

The company will participate in the KiertotalousAreena fair, to be held at the end of May, with approximately 50 companies or other actors from different backgrounds. Rissanen would like to see as many new faces as possible in the event, and he also encourages people to come and have a chat. “And soon we will also be needing new workforce!”

Last updated: 11.5.2023