How Oulu became a thriving startup ecosystem in 3 years

    Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Tom Laine, CEO at Innopinion and Teemu Polo of Soljuva Technologies and Starttaamo

    This is your guide to Oulu.

    Many of you have probably noticed the Oulu startup buzz during past three years. Oulu companies pop up in news every now and then, Valkee here, Bitbar there, IndoorAtlas somewhere, Fingersoft breaks records, and people like Tero Ojanperä, Peter Vesterbacka or Artturi Tarjanne often find their way to Oulu, too.

    Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and a dozen other International media hang out in Oulu to find out even more peculiar little startups that all have something new and interesting to show. Names like Starttaamo, Business Kitchen, YritysTakomo, and Midnight Pitch Fest come up every now and then as activity hubs and there’s even a dedicated fund investing in Oulu-based companies, they have their own accelerators, 3D printing focused incubation programs and god knows what else!

    Nokia, the Party and the Hangover
    The years 1995-2010 were  extremely successful for Oulu. Nokia invested billions into Oulu through R&D investments to create a truly world-class engineering talent pool. Back in 2010 Oulu was starting to suffer the aftermath, Technopolis and Polar were struggling, and long gone were the fine memories of world domination plans of Elektrobit and Jot Automation.

    The city of Oulu was going through a structural change. In the autumn of 2010 Juha Liikala, Juha Karppinen and Tom Laine decided to host the first Friendtrepreneur – Ystäväyrittäjä event in Oulu. 30-40 people showed up, and they started making concrete plans to change the city for better for startups. After hours talks in sauna a ccompanied with a case of beer ended up in founding of SomePitching online business idea competition, Starttaamo startup center, and a number of other startup activities later on, even some companies and business.

    The Current Buzz
    There are a number of startup activities in Oulu that stand out in Finland and even on the Scandinavian level. Here are some of the most interesting ones.

    The SomePitching online business idea competition – a nonprofit operation founded in 2010 by a group of startup activists, namely Vesa Ilola, Tom Laine, Ykä Marjanen, and Teemu Polo. SomePitching is unique in the concept how it crowdsources a market research -type of evaluation from the general public to verify the potential of the competing startup ideas, pitched in the form of a short pitching video.

    The Jury takes part in evaluating the more complex aspects of the ideas, such as revenue model, investment potential, and technical aspects. The Jury is like nowhere else: a large group of both Finnish and International investors, serial entrepreneurs and various experts from all over the world giving direct feedback to the competing teams. Bill Reichert of Garage Technology Ventures together with South Korean, Israeli, British, German, Sri Lankan, American, Swedish and other judges make a unique combination that you can reach nowhere else for feedback. In fact, Somepitching proved to be such a great idea that the idea of engaging people like this was even launched as a startup, Innopinion.

    Starttaamo, Business Kitchen and YritysTakomo make a unique combination of entrepreneurship hubs in Oulu. Starttaamo is a nonprofit operation run by entrepreneurs and for the entrepreneurs providing peer-support, connections to media, investors and large companies, and representing the voice of startup entrepreneurs. Starttaamo member companies have raised over €20 million in venture capital since its launch, and the amount is easily doubled when calculating the public funding on top of the risk capital.

    Starttaamo hosts events such as Mobile Mondays, Socializing Fridays, Transmedia hackathons, Android Oulu events, and Fast Forward Coaching Sessions, of which many are unique to Oulu. Starttaamo and Business Kitchen have also both been hosting StartUp Sauna warmups. Starttaamo has and is often being visited by the likes of Bill Reichert (Garage Technology Ventures), Peter Vesterbacka (Rovio), Artturi Tarjanne (Nexit Ventures), and many of the angel investors and Vigos in Finland as well as global bluechips scouting for new technologies. Starttaamo is both a co-operative work space as well as a virtual community, and its memberbase includes e.g. Valkee, Vibsolas, Vuole, Bitbar, IndoorAtlas, Cyberlightning, Tosibox, Presefy, Innopinion, Soljuva, Fantastec, Kinoni, Oikian, SingOn!, Minus Degree, Mustapekka, Laturi, Helmeni, and dozens of others.

    Starttaamo was founded by a group of local startups, gathered together by Teemu Polo, who still runs the daily operations and chairs the Starttaamo Board. The current board has outstanding members from the community such as Laine (Innopinion), Marjanen (Vibsolas), Vesa Tornberg (Laturi Corporation), Jouko Kaasila (Bitbar), Marko Heikkilä (Clementia) and Sami Gröhn (Kinoni). Polo is also the local representative of Mobile Monday and runs the Fast Forward Coaching sessions, as well as a vice-chairman of Oulu chapter of the Finnish Federation of Enterprises.

    While Starttaamo is a nonprofit operation run privately, Business Kitchen is a fruit of cooperation between Oulu city, Oulu University and the University of Applied Sciences. Business Kitchen and OuluSES who are actively running their operations at the premises, arrange events such as Uprise and StartUp Challenge. Business Kitchen’s office space is also used by the local Demola operations, and is actively involved in Oulu GameLab and Oulu Cloud Lab operations, too, through the UAS-ties.

    The local incubator also operates aside Business Kitchen premises. The incubation program is currently in its second batch, run by serial entrepreneur Eero Kaikkonen. As Business Kitchen is focusing on students and company-university relationship, YritysTakomo then again drives the unemployed engineers towards employment or to team up around new business ideas. YritysTakomo has successfully span out almost a hundred companies to date which of some are considered growth-seeking startups and some more traditional businesses. Probably the best known of the YritysTakomo companies are FilmMe Group and Spektikor. YritysTakomo and Spektikor are ran by Kari Kivistö, an ex-Nokian himself.

    Midnight Pitch Fest, Polar Bear Pitching, Starttaamo Startup week, and GameSpring are the leading startup events in town. Even though there are a number of small events run for smaller groups around certain niches, the new Midnight Pitch Fest especially has taken the city by the storm. Midnight Pitch Fest was run for the first time last summer, and it immediately attracted over 1200 people. BTW, the Slush success was the midwife of Pitch Fest: the original idea came from Juuso Nissilä, Valkee’s founder, at the Helsinki airport after Slush 2012. A small group of Oulu startup people including the likes of Ville Heikkinen, Tom Laine, and a half a dozen others, ended up having beers at the airport and wondered how come the great events always take place in Helsinki. And what started as a semi-serious punchline to do a huge startup event in Oulu in the middle ofa midsummer night, soon became reality.

    Polar Bear Pitching was arranged last month for the first time, and it immediately gained major media coverage both in Finland as well as across the globe. Pitching from “avanto”, a hole in the ice, is unique, that’s for sure! Getting some of the investors like Tero Ojanperä to dive in, was not just unique, but epic! And media coverage from Reuters, MTV, YLE, TechCrunch and many more were making sure this was not a one-off event, next year will surely be in the plans. Looking back to the media coverage the event received, it’s surely one of the most successful startup marketing acts in Finland to date.

    GameSpring was founded in 2011, with the first event taking place March. GameSpring is a showcase event for Northern gaming companies, with International guests especially from other Nordic countries. GameSpring is taking place this year at April Fool’s Day, speakers are soon to be announced. The event was originally founded by Tom Laine with the support of Business Oulu and later the University of Applied Sciences. This year Oulu GameLab and their headcoach Jussi Autio has taken a more active role in setting up the event.

    The secret Oulu ingredients
    The companies coming from Oulu often do things in their own, special way. There are companies like Wantlet (RIP) and Innopinion who have gone to ring the Nasdaq closing bell, Valkee is making headlines all over the world with its unique approach, IndoorAtlas is using earth’s magnetic field for indoor navigation, Zef Solutions is building social voting systems for all major elections globally, Bitbar’s client list includes the likes of Google, Pinterest, LinkedIn, ebay and Evernote, Innopinion was just having lunch with HM the Queen of Sweden after doing a successful crowdsourcing campaign for her, Fingersoft’s Hill Climb Racing was just about a 1-man effort a fair year back and is now closing in on 200 million downloads, iLoq is among Europe’s fastest growing companies and disrupting the locking system markets across the globe, and the list goes on and on – there are a number of exciting startups bubbling under that we’ll be soon hearing from. There are also several new funding rounds being and having been raised by Oulu-based companies that you’ll soon be hearing about.

    And there’s more. Socializing Fridays and Njetwork Inn, Oulu Wellness Institute, and Northern StartUp Fund, to name a few. Oulu has a unique flavor and has certainly benefitted a lot from great circumstances. After all, there’s similar craziness in the city since a long time, just think about the Pumpeli Gaala music video awards and Air Guitar World Championships! Or perhaps its like Jouko Ahvenainen from GrowVC Group wrote just the other day in Facebook, there’s just something strange in Oulu and the people.

    The Plea
    While Oulu has certain flavor, there are activities on-going to spread similar ecosystems through lessons-learnt elsewhere. E.g. the European Comission is really pushing effort to creating a thriving startup ecosystem across EU. We strongly believe in networking and creating opportunities, and are happy to lend a hand if there is one needed. Come and meet us in Oulu!