Aalto University: Solving Problems with Brains and Hugs
After just an hour of visiting with the dynamic people at the Innovation Alley and the Startup Sauna in the city of Espoo, Finland, we were both exhilarated and slightly overwhelmed. There are so many impressive young entrepreneurs and agile thinkers packed into these Aalto university buildings, it felt like we were popping in on brilliant breakthroughs and meetings of great minds every time we turned a corner. In three co-working and co-creation platforms called Aalto Design Factory, Startup Sauna and the Urban Mill, real world problems are given to engineering, design and computer science students to tackle.
With the requisite high ceilings, airy space and laptops everywhere, there are charming reminders of the words of the founders, ‘no strangers, just friends, and let serendipity happen.’ There’s even a hugging point where, like a Christmas mistletoe, hugs are exchanged and closeness is encouraged to further the ambitious goals like improving sanitation in the third world, helping elderly people live better lives at home, and figuring out how to make a shoe that a disabled person can easily put on. How about opening it up from the heel instead of the front? Or how about a ‘catch ball’ which is a soft 6″ x 6″ cube with a wireless microphone inside that you can toss around for people to use as a mic when commenting from the audience at seminars? They’ve already invented that one, and the shoe is not far behind.
Major corporations toss $10,000 at these young bucks and then get out of the way. There are projects tackling hard to solve problems for Airbus, Bosch, Microsoft/Nokia, Audi and many others. One instructor, Kari Kaainnen, showed us his pet project, the elephant faucet, which fits on any water spigot and doles out the same amount of fresh water every time, and is being tested millions of times to assure it won’t break down like so many water pumps do, rendering the good deed of digging the water well moot. Another very promising and game changing project is being spearheaded by Petri Saarinen. Terraloop is developing electromagnetic methods to build massive batteries that will store renewable energy and extend the use of their power to 24 hours a day, since today all solar and wind energy can’t be stored for later use. He is seeking $45 million in a third round of funding, and if successful this will mean creation of an energy bank, pretty much the ‘holy grail’ and key to making renewables replace current oil, gas and coal.
We moved to the Urban mill and met a circle of techies from Finland, Latvia and Russia, who told us about their app, which lets people buy things by creating buy-now links in Instagram photos, called Inselly.com. She was there to get fine tuning and marketing strategy, since every project in this mill aims to become a global brand–no small potatoes or small plans here.
This collaborative and results-driven college work is a far cry from what’s going on in many universities, where students are still writing papers about English literature and leaving with mountains of debt. Maybe that’s why Google Launch pad is coming to Aalto, and why so many high tech companies have been visiting, and hiring these bright graduates. It’s real world thinking, pursuit of real world problems, and the muscle and vigor of youth, combined with steady hands from experienced engineers and instructors who challenge every assumption.
All I can say is, wow, THIS is how you solve problems, create jobs and make a space that anyone would be eager to work in all day long. Many lives will be affected in a positive way when these ideas get to market, and many careers have already been launched.