Maria 01 just announced they have a new CEO on board to lead the startup campus into the new era of expansion. Busy times ahead for Ville Simola, who is back in the startup scene after several years in the corporate world – yet we still managed to catch him for a quick interview to gain more insight on what the future holds for Maria 01.
How did you end up coming back to the startup scene and becoming the CEO of Maria 01?
Ten years ago, I started my career on the startup side: first with Aaltoes, the student movement that brought the term startup into Finland. Then I was the co-founder of Startup Sauna and after that I worked at a startup, and finally for the past four years I was at the corporate side bringing lean methodologies, design thinking into these large organizations. Then in the spring, Voitto, the former CEO of Maria 01 reached out to me and asked if I would be interested. It was perfect timing as I was already thinking how great it would be to come back to the startup side eventually.
Did you miss the vibes of the startup world?
It was a truly great experience to see how these big organizations worked. The first one I worked at had 8000 employees, the second one 4000 globally. But towards the end, I started to feel that it would be great to be back, to feel the real startup spirit, the energy of doing things. So the pieces came together as I continue at Maria 01.
What are your plans for the future in this new role?
Maria 01 is in a very interesting place right now. Back in the days when it was founded in 2016, this was just an empty old hospital building. In three years it grew into the largest startup campus in the Nordics, scaling from 0 to 120 companies, 11 000 members and 20 000 sqm. There is a lot to do with scaling the operations, recognizing we became a huge player and making sure we are in good shape to scale.
This is the main theme, because by 2023 we will have a new part of the campus ready, with new buildings, new facilities, on 70 000 sqm for 4000 members and 500-ish companies. This future campus is a huge step for Maria 01 and impacts the whole ecosystem in general. Having this 70 000 sqm in the heart of the capital is a big deal. We will be the largest startup campus in Europe.
When growing, actually tripling in terms of size and number of members, we want to make sure we can keep the same culture, the same community spirit, the feeling of belonging that makes Maria, Maria. There will be a more diverse pool of companies joining: more growth companies, scale-ups, larger companies from the tech field at the campus with us and keeping the same culture in this changing environment is key for us.
How do you see the role of Maria 01 evolving?
Ever since 2016, the focus was on bringing members in, setting up operations, building this community around it. In the future, we should have a more visible role, not only in terms of what is going on inside the campus, but spreading the messages more broadly about what is going on in the ecosystem. Maria 01 could have a very important role in this, being in the forefront of the startup ecosystem in the Nordics.
How do you see the current state of the ecosystem in Finland?
10 years ago, when I started my career on the startup side, there was nothing going on, grassroot activities only. We had some companies, but it was very hard to raise funding. Founders were thinking in a local scale, and now coming back, it has changed a lot. The trends I’m seeing are very positive. The amount of companies, investors, possibilities for partnerships – the situation is very good now. Helsinki is gaining international recognition of being a hotspot especially in the Nordics, but globally as well.
And we are in the news, as Finland became the number one country in Europe when it comes to VC investments relative to GDP. So things are looking bright – of course there is always room for improvement, because once you stop someone is taking over. But I would say there is a lot of good things going on right now.
What do you see as the main challenge for early stage startups and growth companies?
For both early stage startups, growth companies or scale-ups, the general challenge is access to talent. This is the biggest problem to solve. Everybody wants to hire the best people and the amount of talent locally is limited. This is a challenge for all.
For early stage startups specifically, the challenge used to be the access to investors but I don’t see that as a problem anymore. Now it’s more about finding the right advisors, those senior people with enough experience to help you grow faster and make the right decisions, to support you as mentors, board members, advisors or however it works best.
What would be your advice for them to overcome these challenges?
For early stage startups, my advice is to find the right people. And how? It is a matter of matter of going out there, being persistent on finding your mentors, those people who will help you out. Be super active. Not only on a local perspective, but globally. From early on, find people globally to help you on your journey as mentors, advisos, board members.
When it comes to talent, it is a very tricky question, as we need several parties to solve this, all stakeholders have to be active about coming up with solutions. In order to get talent to work in Finland, a lot of things have to be improved: making it easier to get a startup visa, minimize bureaucracy and such. Although it has been improving, there is still a lot to be done on this side.
And we all need to think about how to make Finland in general a more attractive place to work and live. People do realize there are great companies coming from here, but what else is there? How can we market it as a good place to live, raise a family, work?
Can Maria 01 also take initiatives to help tackle these issues?
Around 25 percent of the population at Maria 01 are non-Finns, and that’s already a pretty good number. We want to facilitate diversity, not only within our own team, but the whole community. There are great initiatives from ecosystem players residing at Maria 01, for example The Shortcut is doing excellent work by helping people acquire the skills that are crucial in the startup world and meet the right people and companies, network and find a good match eventually.
So it’s not only about what us at Maria 01 do about it, but all the ecosystem players, our community members doing their fantastic work – and we are doing our best to help them.