You would be forgiven for thinking that Polar Bear Pitching – 20 startups and growing companies taking turns to present to investors while standing in a freezing water-filled ice hole – is yet another spin off Dragons’ Den-style event.
Much better looking than a Dragon
But for the Finnish city of Oulu, this now annual spectacle, which draws its participants from as far away as India and Israel, it has become one of the more visible steps towards economic resurrection, following the global collapse of Nokia’s once mighty Mobile Devices and Services Business, acquired by Microsoft in 2014.
Nokia’s reported total job losses globally were put at the time at 18,000. For Oulu specifically, 1,100 jobs were culled by Microsoft in July last year. But the actual number of people affected runs into several thousands in the city, when you include the knock-on impact among contractors, suppliers and the wider community.
The very presence in Finland of a home-grown world-leading brand like Nokia over decades, not just in Oulu, but across Finland as a whole, including significant operations in the capital Helsinki and other cities, enabled the evolution of an ecosystem made up of suppliers, sub-contractors and an almost purpose-built industrial and educational infrastructure designed to churn out and house highly skilled workers within a network of technical facilities, research and development centres and other locations.
But for the relatively small city of Oulu and its 250,000 inhabitants, the reaction and the resulting challenge has been refocused into an opportunity – and the community has very big ambitions.
The city has begun wooing global companies to invest in its local businesses and relocate into vacant facilities and utilise an available pool of employees, not to mention tapping into a supplier network of established wireless communications companies.
But it is Oulu’s SMEs and technology start-ups – many being set up by ex-Nokia staff – which are driving economic growth in the region, with some 400 (and counting) new companies starting and maintaining trading in the past two years alone.
Oulu: Quick facts
- Oulu: population 250,000, with an average age of 34, making it the youngest region in Finland
- The world’s first GSM voice call was made in Oulu in 1991
- At least one billion Nokia and other handsets and devices designed and developed in Oulu are still in active use globally
- Companies based in the city are collaborating and leading the way testing and developing next generation 5G mobile devices
- The University of Oulu is establishing the world’s first public 5G network as a test environment for researchers, companies, students and R&D organisations
According to Juha Ala-Mursula, executive director of Business Oulu, the organisation responsible for the region’s economic development and inward investment, the Nokia job lay-offs – described at the time by Finland’s prime minister Alexander Stubb as “very, very difficult from a human point of view” – were a major blow to the city, but the legacy is beginning to deliver positive results.
“We must not forget that Nokia is still here with its networks business,” he said, “but we are left with talented people who used to be part of the handsets division, and there are many startups fast emerging alongside larger players in the wireless communications sector which remain based here.”
“This legacy is like a gift that keeps on giving for our region because these are assets which are already attracting overseas investment from China, the UK and the US, and thanks to The University of Oulu and Oulu Applied Sciences there is good availability of skilled employees and potential for our future.“
He added: “We are creating a new ecosystem for growth and all the elements are coming together – our infrastructure, our existing network of growing companies and our leading education centres – to help us pick up, move on and meet new challenges and goals.”
And Oulu is getting a lot of attention which is helping the city share it’s “open for business” message with the world, helped in part by an unlikely focal point for entrepreneurial endeavor – a polar bear, the furry-faced mascot of the Polar Bear Pitching event, known locally is J-Bear (event volunteer, Jason Brower).
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Polar Bear Pitching is an annual event based on the Finns’ love of all things frozen (ice swimming, ice fishing, plunging into ice cold water for no logical reason, etc).
The event is organised and delivered by a team of enthusiastic volunteers who give up their free time to plan and run the annual daytime pitching activity, which is streamed live online and open for free to several hundred public onlookers. After the ice cold plunging is over, there is an evening event of hospitality, networking and keynote speakers, as well as a finale awards presentation ceremony for the day’s best pitches.
This year, as last year, the US ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, officially declared Polar Bear Pitching open for business – while taking the cold plunge.
The event founder Sari Paivarinta, herself once a Nokia employee and now CEO of her own company, SPP Concern, leads the team.
She said: “Polar Bear Pitching is all about creating rock stars from within our startup community, encouraging entrepreneurs to be inventive and courageous with the reward of a chance to shine within an increasingly international spotlight.”
On first look, Polar Bear Pitching could be seen as simply fun, but serious business is said to be done – for example, the organisers quote that two thirds of companies taking part last year received funding from investors.
For Business Oulu, however, it is proving to be a winning shop window attraction. In just two years, on top of a number of international participants, the event attracted an eager global media attendance.
Guardian reporter Matthew Jenkin takes a chilly plunge on behalf of one of his small business readers, dogoodforbusiness.com
The UK’s Guardian newspaper even dispatched one of its own reporters, Matthew Jenkin, to pitch a business idea submitted as part of a competition among its small business readers. After a few minutes up to his waist in ice-cold water, he confirmed what all onlookers suspected. “It was so cold I couldn’t breathe,” he said, “but then it got easier.”
So why do startups, who this year were competing for a maximum of 20 pitching places, with four times as many in the queue trying to take part, want to brave stepping into a polar bear-sized ice hole in sub-zero temperatures?
One of the participants, who travelled from Israel to take part, and who was the eventual overall winner of the event, with a first prize of consultancy time for her company donated by business experts, made a point that will resonate with entrepreneurs and the inhabitants of Oulu alike.
“This is a good reminder to all entrepreneurs throughout the world that no matter what challenges you face, you must just get on with it and see it through,” Michal Hubschmamn, CEO of RelevancyData and a former Israeli long jump champion, said.
For the city of Oulu, whether it is laying down ice hole business challenges to the world’s start-ups, or rebuilding its economy in life after Nokia, the Finns have a saying which perfectly sums up the prevailing mood: “sisu” – which when translated into English means “determination, bravery, resilience”.
Eric Woollard-White is co-founder and director at Thirty7 Productions.