Warm up before going in the icy water

OULU, FINLAND: You would be forgiven for thinking that Polar Bear Pitching – 20 start-ups 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.
But for the Finnish city of Oulu, this 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.

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Nokia’s reported total job losses globally were put at the time at 18,000. For Oulu specifically, Microsoft culled 1,100 jobs 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 centers and other locations.

Big ambitions. 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.
According to Juha Ala-Mursula, executive director of Business Oulu, the Nokia job lay-offs – 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. 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”, Juha Ala-Mursula said.
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.”

A furry Polar Bear. 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 endeavour – a polar bear, the furry-faced mascot of the Polar Bear Pitching event, known locally as J-Bear, the event volunteer Jason Brower.

Polar Bear Pitching is an annual event based on the Finns’ love of all things frozen – from ice swimming, ice fishing to plunging into ice cold water for no logical reason.

Advice. Here are some cold advices for next winter’s happening: If you suffer from high blood pressure, please consult with your doctor. Warm up thoroughly before going in the icy water. You might feel like you can’t breath. Relax, that’s only normal and harmless. It will pass.

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 was streamed live online. 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.

Midnight Sun. A far warmer part of this Finish story is soon coming up in Oulu when the next event take place June 11 and 12. Besides Midnight Pitch Fest, there will be the highly exciting PrintoCent InnoFest. Also known as printed intelligence innovation – under warmer conditions and the Midnight Sun.

Text by Eric Woollard-White

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