How Nokia’s falling star has led Finland to boost its startup and healthcare ecosytems

This effort to boost healthcare entrepreneurs has combined investment in the Finnish healthcare startup community with initiatives at home and in the U.S. to foster the growth and development of the nation’s healthcare ecosystem.

Note: This story is part of a series of reports on health tech companies in  Finland from a media tour for the technology conference Slush organized and funded by Finnfacts and Tekes — the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation.

Ever since Nokia began to downsize, Finland has committed to building a new generation of technology companies spanning education, energy, and healthcare, among others. Case in point? The headquarters of Business Finland, which combines Finnish trade promotion organization Finpro and Tekes, the Finnish funding agency for innovation, is located in the seven-year-old high-tech quarter of Ruoholahti. Across the street is the $2 billion gaming company Supercellthat created the hit mobile game Clash of Clans, secured seed funding from Tekes, and is one of the country’s startup success stories. The gaming industry has considerably enhanced the profile of Finland’s tech ecosystem and the country would like to see its healthcare startups enjoy a similar level of success.

To make that happen, the country has combined investment in the local healthcare startup community with initiatives at home and abroad to foster the growth and development of the nation’s healthcare ecosystem.

But Finland has some significant headwinds to overcome.

It has a small population of 5 million and is trying to compete with much larger EU economies of Sweden, UK, Germany, and France.

And in the world’s biggest healthcare market, the U.S., Finnish startups not only face stiff competition from their American counterparts, they also must navigate the complex health system. It’s tough enough for startups to find a champion at a healthcare organization who buys into their product and vision. How do you do that when you’re nearly 4,000 miles away from your nearest customer? How do you establish a network and build momentum for exporting healthcare startups?

Val Kratzman is the North American head of Business Finland, which also promotes the country’s businesses abroad and helps attract corporations to the country. Kratzman embarked on the pilot for its U.S. Discovery Tour last year bringing Finnish healthcare startups to health systems and incubators in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. Cleveland Clinic Innovations has agreed to be a strategic partner for the first of a series of healthcare startup boot camps that will be held in Helsinki in April.

There, Cleveland Clinic Innovations will do a reverse pitch to startups, educating them on their needs and giving some insight into the complexities of navigating the U.S. health system in the process. The plan is for the winners to go to Cleveland Clinic Innovations for two weeks. There will also be a couple of U.S. discovery tours later this year, including one for healthcare companies who have either taken part in the healthcare boot camp, have traction in Europe or funding from Tekes. The goal is for healthcare organizations and Finnish entrepreneurs to learn more about what they can do for each other. Business Finland is also courting venture capitalists.

Research and development is an important component of Business Finland’s pitch to attract healthcare companies to this Nordic nation.

The launch last month of a six-year, $114.6 million genomic research project is one example of the kind of R&D programs the country envisions to make the country a testbed for medical research.

Referred to as the FinnGen Study, the project seeks to collect 500,000 blood samples through Finland’s biobank network, along with the medical record data associated with each of the DNA samples. The study will identify biomarkers for therapeutic targets and diagnostic tests for diseases affecting the cardiovascular system, nervous system, and cancer, said Minna Hendolin, the director of health and wellbeing at Tekes, the Finnish funding agency for innovation, in an email.

Aside from Business Finland, the initiative is backed by seven pharma companies — Abbvie, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Celgene, Merck, Pfizer, and Genentech, which is part of Roche.  The study will be coordinated by researchers from the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University Central Hospital. BCB Medical, Blueprint Genetics, and MediSapiens are among the Finnish companies that will take part.

Kratzman, with Business Finland, said he also plans to bring a cohort of Finnish companies for the Personalized Medicine Coalition’s annual conference in Boston in November, as part of the FinnGen program.

The Finnish identity tends to be modest and low key when it comes to achievements — it doesn’t fit the self-promotional, scrappy swagger of an entrepreneur selling a vision for a company and its product.


The vibe at SLUSH 2017 felt more like a rock concert or nightclub than a tech startup event. Photo: Jussi Ratilainen

But there is an effort afoot to reverse this cultural attribute. At the technology startup conference Slush in Helsinki last month, organizers acknowledged the national reticence to brag and the quandary that poses for a nation seeking to create more entrepreneurs with a charming, tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign #BragforFinland.

That vibe was noticeable throughout the conference whose organizers have sought to establish Slush as a major technology event in Europe with a vibe more like a rock concert. Low lighting punctuated by multicolored LED lights provided a dramatic backdrop to speakers and panel discussions who presented from stages ringed in greenery.

SLUSH 2017 Photo: Petri Anttila

The event was also a forum for sharing venture capital investment trends in Europe. European healthcare companies attracted $1.46 billion in venture capital investment last year, according to a report on the State of European Tech by investment firm Atomico and Slush. Finnish medtech and health tech companies raised $64.7 million, primarily in seed and early-stage companies, according to data from

“In Europe, entrepreneurialism is now a career choice,” said Brent Hoberman, Founders Factory co-founder, in a panel discussion on tech investment.

Others pointed to Nokia as a driver of new startups.

“Some say the best thing to happen to health technology was Nokia [downsizing],” said Kari Kataja, the program manager for healthcare initiatives called “Bits of Health” at Business Finland. “It freed up so many people with expertise in different fields of technology.”

Disior Bonelogic, a healthcare startup exhibiting at the conference, fits that description. Founded by ex-Nokia and Microsoft software engineers, the company’s focus is clinical decision support for orthopedic surgeons and plastic surgeons to plan the best insertion points for bone implants to mend fractures. Some hospitals in Finland have already deployed its technology but CEO Anna-Maria Henell wants to expand the business to the U.S.  It’s a reflection of the kind of companies that Kratzman of Business Finland is talking about.

Another company at the event, Nightingale, received a CE Mark from European regulators last year for its blood biomarker analysis platform, which uses nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to detect biomarkers associated with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A company spokeswoman said the diagnostics company plans to apply for FDA clearance once it has set up some studies in the U.S. Like many of the Finnish companies at Slush, Tekes was the company’s first external source of seed funding.

VTT, Technical Research Centre of Finland — a research and development institute, is another source of healthcare innovation and part of the startup ecosystem in Finland. Combinostics, which uses a mix of  MRI medical imaging and machine learning to pinpoint subtle changes in brain atrophy that lead to dementia, is a spinoff of VTT. Ironically, the management team was absent from Slush because the company was busy making its debut at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference in Chicago.

Prior to Combinostics, CEO Lennart Thurfjell worked for GE Healthcare for 10 years. His company was also part of the U.S. roadshow led by Kratzman. Although there is no shortage of competition in the AI-enabled medical imaging space, Thurfjell said Combinostics’ advantage is the combination of imaging data with clinical data from the patient. He dismissed the notion that Finns’ penchant for understatement posed a challenge for Finnish startups. Thurfjell happens to be Swedish.

“I think entrepreneurs should be very skilled and Finns fit that picture. If we think about the area we are working — Finland has excellent scientists and developers. For [healthcare] entrepreneurs, that’s critical,” Thurfjell said.

The path to building a stronger entrepreneur ecosystem that not only makes use of this skilled workforce but also provides the foundation these professionals need to lead successful new businesses requires another kind of partnership. That’s where StartUp Health Finland comes in. Backed by Finnpro, StartUp Health Finland is adopted from the same model that’s helped health tech startups develop their business and gain access to healthcare organizations and investors in the U.S.

Buddy Healthcare is one of the companies that has participated in StartUp Health Finland. The business provides a software program for clinicians and patients to communicate as they prepare for surgery and supports remote monitoring as patients recuperate.

“From the pre-op phase, we have been able to reduce [patient] no-shows by 50 percent,” CEO and co-founder Jussi Määttä said. “Before deploying our product, hospitals would have an average of three phone calls per patient. After deploying our product, they had 0.5 calls from patients.”

Määttä acknowledged that the U.S. has proven a difficult market for the company, not only because of competition from rival businesses but also because of the red tape involved in hospital decision making. Nonetheless, he said the StartUp Health program helped him shape his pitch and vision for Buddy Healthcare and to mature as a business.

While the U.S. has been a tough nut to crack, outside of Finland, partners in Germany and the U.K. have proven more receptive to the company’s approach, Määttä said. He highlighted some milestones from the past year including the rollout of its program for adults focusing on plastic surgery, orthopedics, and joint replacements. Oulu University Hospital has adopted its program for pediatric surgery while Orton Hospital deployed its joint replacement surgery module. Määttä said he still plans to revisit the U.S. market when Buddy is more established in Europe.

Meanwhile, he is very optimistic about the future of entrepreneurship. Määttä observed that young entrepreneurs in Finland tend to have the advantage of a more international perspective. They have studied abroad and worked for international companies even before they have graduated from university.

But an entrepreneurial ecosystem is not built on the backs of talented entrepreneurs alone. A big part of that culture is mentorship and incubation. 

 A Tekes healthcare initiative called Clinical Entrepreneur encourages clinicians to take paid leave from their jobs to help mentor healthcare startups. It is modeled on a similar program in the U.K. with the National Health Service.

Maria 01, a former hospital, is an incubator and shared workspace in Helsinki. Photo: Stephanie Baum

The startup scene in Helsinki is punctuated by some interesting incubator spaces that reflect the city’s history. One is Maria 01, which was the first public hospital in Helsinki but is now a shared workspace and incubator that’s home to 85 startups, including behavioral health startup Meru Health. On a tour of the facility, Maria 01 CEO Voitto Kangas pointed out that the incubator has even preserved the dated medical equipment that remains as fixtures in each of the rooms. It’s one of several shared workspaces funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

“Helsinki could be Europe’s largest technology center,” Kangas said.

The media tour highlighted the steps that Finland is taking to achieve that goal by investing in startups broadly and in healthcare startups in particular. But to become the powerhouse it seeks to be, it will have to convince large companies in Europe and the U.S., as well as foreign investors, to buy into that vision as well.

Featured Photo: 4kodiak, Getty Images