1. Find and embrace your quirks, aka “own your weird”
In the work with startups in the clean-tech ecosystem, support organizations often try to cover all bases and provide a wide range of support to those who knock on our door. But in reality, we may not be equally skilled and able to help with everything. In her keynote talk, impact tech expert Katariina Hielaniemi highlighted the need and advantage of being clear about our strong suits and quirks, and using them in the best way possible.
Even peculiar circumstances can be made into advantages — take the example of Fifty Years, which is a Silicon Valley Venture Fund that “backs founders using technology to solve the world’s biggest problems.” They used the lack of a formal office to their advantage by inviting founders they were considering funding to stay overnight at their home base. This enabled them to forge close relationships with founders, get to know them from another angle and pave the way for successful collaborations.
The form or shape of “your weird”, your special power or skill as an organization is worth identifying, amplifying and communicating with the outside world. This makes it clear for those seeking help when to come to you and in turn, helps you serve them at your best. Indeed, joining forces to complement your strength can also make for a strong basis for collaborations with others working in the ecosystem.
2. Create a culture for the academic and startup worlds to interact more deeply
The joining of forces between the academic and startup worlds was also discussed in our event. The main point is that in order to solve the biggest challenges of the 21st century, we need the input of not only entrepreneurs, but scientists and researchers working on these issues. To harness science to solving big problems, a lot more is needed than just the commercialization of research.
That is because in order to create productive interaction between the academic and startup worlds, there needs to be common culture and lots of getting to know each other better.
Students and researchers in many universities and polytechnics have already done a lot of great work in fostering a culture of academic entrepreneurship. Similarly, a lot of interest at the moment is directed towards innovation ecosystems where the idea is to facilitate cooperation between companies, research institutions, municipalities and even the civil society at large. Indeed, one of the key lessons in the event was that solving big societal challenges requires connections between not just the usual, but also the unusual suspects, like students, NGOs, social movements and SMEs.
3. Discrimination and the lack of diversity in the startup world must be addressed now
Whether we are talking about startups in general, or the impact scene in particular, the statistics are quite clear – not all who try are given a chance to succeed. The disparity is particularly striking when it comes to the gender makeup of the teams who get funded. Even the Nordics, which are often lauded for their progress in equality, are currently failing.
This report on Nordic startup funding showed that for every 1 euro of VC investment in the Nordics, all-female founders get less than 2 cents, leaving the rest for all-male founding teams (88 cents) and mixed teams (11 cents). Gender inequality is not the only problem. Those with international backgrounds also face discrimination and racism across the BSR in all areas of life and business, making their success an anamoly rather than the norm.
These issues point to cultural and structural challenges which require reflection and action from supporting organizations, and coordinated effort and accountability to remedy the reality reflected by the bleak statistics.
4. Don’t do work that someone else is already doing
In the end, one of the most important takeaways from the event must be that there is already a lot of great work being done to help startups and to build innovation ecosystems all across the Baltic Sea Region. The problem often seems to be that people and organizations do not know or have visibility what kind of work is being done in other organizations. This can be an issue related to at least communications and networking. First of all, it can sometimes be difficult to find the incentives for communicating about the work you are doing – especially if the work is still ongoing or if you are working on niche subjects with seemingly limited audiences. However, it would be very important for organizations to incentivize communications, because it can make a huge difference for others who are interested in what you are doing.
For example, lack of knowledge among investors is currently limiting impact investments, which in turn is slowing down the impact scene, Katariina Hielaniemi explained. This is why we all share the important task of discussing the potential for smartups and consumer cleantech in the Baltic Sea region.
On the topic of events and networking with others, the current situation can seem especially challenging. However, there are already pretty good ways to host events online, and better ones are being developed all the time. Especially now, with many sectors struggling because of social distancing measures, it is crucial that those working with startups keep in touch with each other.
We believe that startups and innovation will play a key role in how we adapt to and, ultimately, suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. For that to happen, though, startups will continue to need mentoring, funding, acceleration, incubation, academic partnerships, corporate venturing, legal assistance and piloting testbeds – in other words, they need us all. Let’s keep doing the good work and doing it together!