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Finnish design and Nordic know-how: turning Finland into a medtech powerhouse



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In the wake of telecomms giant Nokia’s downfall, and riding on the coat-tails of the country’s pioneering gaming industry, Finland has given rise to a slew of innovative young medtech companies that are taking full advantage of Finnish design talent and the nation’s digital, UX and custom-manufacturing expertise

Finnish design

In 1982, Finnish company Polar Electro launched the world’s first wire-free heart monitor, the Sport Tester PE2000, changing the way athletes train by making data available to consumers and scientists alike. Such innovation, and Finnish design, when coupled with the digital and telecommunications expertise borne of Nokia’s decades-long domination of the mobile market, makes Finland stand out as a powerhouse in all things medtech.

Finnish design

Polar tester 1982

When asked why Finland has so easily taken up such a role, Mikko Kauppinen, Village Chief at the Health Innovation Village at GE Healthcare, says: ‘Simply put, it’s talent in certain areas that is key and converging in digital health: clinical know-how, algorithms, as well as sensor, wireless, wearable, low-power consumption and miniaturised technologies, cloud services, apps, Big Data and even gaming. All these technologies are converging in digital health at the moment, and Finland has a long-standing expertise in most of these areas, which makes it an attractive location for innovation in digital health.’

In the years since that first Polar device debuted, the country has given rise to more than 300 companies specialising in everything from apps to wearables to reagents. Today, medtech is Finland’s largest high-tech sector, and 95 per cent of its products are exported. Medtech exports have increased at a rate of 9 per cent for two decades, with 2015 seeing exports totalling €1.92 billion.

Fostering Finnish design

Finland’s technological know-how is fuelled by its bold, pioneering spirit and its population’s love of all things technological and innovative. Such enthusiasm carries over into the realm of startups, and especially into products and services related to health and wellness.

Capitalising on this atmosphere are health and technology events like the Upgraded Life Festival, Arctic15 and the phenomenally successful Slush, all of which provide ample opportunities for startups to hawk their wares and pique the interest of investors.

Despite the growing success of such festivals, Finland’s relatively small population means that networks remain tight. Co-operation and networking are vital, both in bringing ideas and products to life, and in securing funding and finding partners. ‘Finland is also a great “living lab”, where it’s easy to make necessary connections to test population health assumptions for bigger markets,’ says Kauppinen. ‘The fact that it has good electronic patient and social records, as well as genetic records for the entire population, just makes it even more attractive.’

Finnish design

Mikko Kauppinen

The Finnish government has worked with corporate sponsors to create entrepreneurial hubs and villages, where startups work in close co-operation with one another and under the tutelage of the companies overseeing the projects. Among them are Samsung’s Vertical accelerator, which focuses on ‘health and happiness ideas’, and GE Healthcare’s Health Innovation Village , which aims to ‘create innovations that will revolutionise the future of healthcare’.

The public sector offers a wealth of support, too. On the non-profit side are Finnish organisations like HealthSPA, which facilitates co-operation between startups and corporations; Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation; and VTT, whose 73 years of experience of technical research helps foster new technology in both the private and public sectors. Because such a vast and varied medtech field requires strategy, Tekes has established a national plan for funding and fostering Finland’s startups – the number of which continues to grow, despite an ongoing recession.

Perhaps Finland’s biggest current asset, however, is its reputation, which not only inspires a loyal global following but also attracts investors from around the world. In fact, Finland ranks first on the 2016 digitalisation barometer, and receives the most venture capital investments in all of Europe relative to its GDP.

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From one Goliath come many Davids

When the massive layoffs at Nokia started in the 2010s, its former engineers, designers and thinkers – and their skillsets – were dispersed among a variety of companies and platforms. As a result, Finland’s current medtech scene comprises a blend of apps, machinery and niche fitness- and wellness-tracking technology.

At the top of the ‘food chain’ are giants like Polar and Amer Sports, which is home to Suunto, now the world’s largest producer of precision sports instruments. Technology provided by Planmeca, the largest privately owned company in the 3D digital imaging field, was instrumental in the Nordic region’s first-ever face transplant. While Nokia remains the largest company in Finland, only of late has its focus shifted towards the medical and health industry; it recently acquired Withings, whose range of products cover a wide spectrum, from activity trackers to wireless blood-pressure monitors to advanced sleep tracking systems.

The true spirit of the Finnish medtech industry resides, however, with the hundreds of smaller companies that are churning out ingenious and well-designed devices. Despite having a strong public healthcare system, many of these companies seek to improve upon its shortcomings by creating simple and effective digital solutions that benefit medical staff and patients alike.

Platforms like Buddy Healthcare, Noona and Kaiku guide patients through treatment and help facilitate the recovery process, while Medigoo, listed as one of the 100 most promising startups, sells home health tests that not only help consumers diagnose or rule out illnesses but also suggests paths for treatments. Fimmic, similarly, raises the stakes for virtual diagnoses with its microscopy analysis, validation, storing and sharing technology, while Top Data Science helps manage the increasingly vast amounts of healthcare data.

Device-oriented company Mendor provides insights into managing diabetes, while heart-rate monitor maker PulseOn is taking on behemoths such as Polar and Suunto. Perhaps one of the most compact products on the Finnish medtech market comes from Moodmetric, whose ‘smart’ ring measures autonomous nervous system signals to help wearers manage stress.

Finnish design

Modz Angry Birds device

Finns also like to have fun, and nothing has demonstrated their love for gaming more than the phenomenal rise of Rovio and Supercell. By merging games with health tech, like Modz’s collaboration with Rovio’s Angry Birds, children and adults alike are motivated to monitor their health more closely. Exerium takes a different approach, employing more than thumb power by putting gamers in a chair that trains the core muscles and improves co-ordination during play.

The Nordic brand spreads

As Finland’s reputation grows, so does its reach: Finns are partnering with other Nordic startups to make it easier to join the Silicon Valley scene through collaboration, networking and mentorship. While it’s unlikely there will ever be another Finnish brand of the magnitude of Nokia, the market penetration will be more sure-footed, with a vast array of companies offering compelling and helpful products that will be coveted by both Finns and consumers worldwide.

Read more about Finnish medtech startups.

For similar medtech country profiles, check out our reports on the Netherlands, Slovenia, Ireland and Denmark.

About the author

American-born writer Christopher Ryan Jones is now based in Helsinki. He writes about tech and startups, and once worked for MedEngine, a medical science communications agency.

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