First Meetings, Final Pitches, but certainly not Final Farewells
It was an emotional moment last week as the startups, mentors, partners, and organizers of the first EIT FAN Helsinki program met each other for the first time on October 6th, just as the program was coming to a close. It was also a weird moment for many of the participants. After all, many of us have forgotten that people actually exist outside of their cell phones and computer screens (I, personally, had forgotten just how short I was compared to everyone else). Despite it being the first meeting for all of the participants and players involved, though, many felt like they were meeting old friends. And while many were meeting “old” friends for the first time, even more were making new ones. Some startups, for example, were amazed at how many new connections they were quickly able to make in a couple of hours.
The day began with a yummy lunch filled with a variety of healthy and nutritious food (Something which was naturally to be expected from a program whose mission is to promote sustainable food systems). And the lunch of course was followed by a side of masks, hand sanitizer, and disposable gloves. Combined with a large seating area to help promote social distancing, it was clear the team was taking the health and safety of all of the participants quite seriously. Still, everyone managed to bond and mingle with their air-hugs, air-handshakes, and fervent waving of hands. People may have been physically distant, but socially they were together.
Then there was the nervous excitement that came with presenting in front of a live audience for the first time in a long time. Apparently it had been up to 18 months for some of the startups since their last live pitch: they had almost forgotten what it was like. Nevertheless, it was a refreshing change. All of the startups were looking forward to it, even if the audience was sparse and spaced apart due to health regulations. In addition, the AV crew’s excellent job in blending the live and online elements of the event was quite seamless, allowing online viewers to really be a part of the show.
The decision to have a live in-person event for Demo day was not an easy one. Planning such an event takes time, and there was always a possibility that the cases with CoVid-19 might suddenly rise and ultimately shut the event down, despite a team’s best efforts to exercise caution. But the whole organizing team felt it was really important for everyone to meet for the final day, and so they began making all of the logistics arrangements with 2 weeks to spare. In the end, the gamble paid off.
Overall, everyone was pleased with how the EIT FAN Helsinki hub program went. Turning what was meant to be primarily an in-person accelerator program into a 100% online program was no easy feat. It took some adjustment by the startups to get used to the online setting, and casual chatting certainly does not come as easily on a video call. However, the great advantage of startups is that they can adjust quickly to new circumstances, and this time was no exception. Furthermore, every startup has significantly improved their online pitching game.
That wasn’t the only benefit that came out of going to an online format though. For example, eniferBio explained that the switch to the online format actually worked well for them. They were still working their full-time jobs, so it made managing their normal daily work and building the startup a little easier. With about 50% of the other startups based either in Sweden or outside the Helsinki area, it also made their lives significantly easier. Less time spent traveling meant more time could be spent dealing with normal business operations while participating in the accelerator. For this reason, almost all the startups said they would be happy to participate in an online or semi-online accelerator program again.
They also praised the high quality of the mentors and the amazing connections and networking that the EIT FAN program gave them. They were able to get meetings with companies such as Valio, Nestle, Amcor, and Döhler to name a few. Many of them are now working out potential collaborations. The mentors, in turn, praised the quality of the startups that they were mentoring. They were impressed, for example, with the bold vision of some of the startups and felt all foodtech startups should be thinking about going global right from the start. Judges also echoed the same sentiment: an international mindset is needed to truly disrupt the food system rather than the same old-fashioned food business models. This program is a great step towards making this progress.
As a major partner, Helsinki University was also impressed by the teams and how far they had come since the beginning of the program. Many great collaborations and research initiatives between Helsinki University and startups are now underway. It created a win-win for both parties since researchers get to work with an interesting topic that has real-life applications, while the startups get to validate their product or service.
However, as Mirva Lampinen stated at the closing event, “this is not the end of things, this is just the beginning.” Mirva and Paolo are both looking forward to supporting the two startups heading to the EIT Venture Summit, enniferBio and Mycorena. They will also be sponsoring a Foodtech track at the Arctic 15 event on October 19th – 21st. And, of course, they are already thinking about next year’s EIT FAN program. Most likely, Mirva and Paolo will be taking the best of both worlds when they run next year’s program by having a mix of online and face-to-face events, and finish with a hybrid style demo day like they had this year.
What will be they looking for next year? First of all, they will be looking for startups specializing in the following areas: food waste, food transparency, packaging, smart farming, and food technologies for alternative proteins. They will want to see a product, service, or business model that has the potential to really make a disruptive, positive impact on the food system. A good team is also important, and hopefully you have your initial prototype.
If you have any questions about the program, you can wait for the submission link and details to be published in January at https://www.eitfan.eu/helsinki or contact the program manager, Paolo at anytime. You are also welcome to join the Food and Beyond community.
As Dmitri, the MC for the event, closed our journey of exploring food for the day, we are reminded by the startups in the EIT FAN program what amazing innovations we as a society can come up with when we come together. So regardless of whether you plan to be the next enniferBio or Mycorena, the whole team invites you to follow the journey of our rising food startups and begin your own journey, as Dmitri stated, of “rediscovering food.”