In the past few decades, digitalisation has changed our world but Antti Vasara, CEO of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, says we can expect an even more revolutionary period. He is talking about the deep tech breakthrough, where innovations stem from the latest scientific discoveries.
“Deep technologies are developed by growth companies whose business is based on the commercialisation of scientific and technological advances by the creation of new products. They offer unique and revolutionary solutions to global problems. They are not simply improving existing solutions. They are also producing entirely new solutions that often revolutionise an entire industry,” says Vasara.
Unlike digital start-ups, deep tech usually includes the construction of physical technology or products – such as protein production plants or quantum computers. This means deep tech growth companies do not just measure their production in bits but in atoms as well.
It all started with a calculator
Vasara’s employment history is impressive. He has a doctorate in engineering physics, and his accomplishments include managing the growth of Nokia and participating in the European Commission’s working groups on technology strategy. He discovered his interest in technology at a young age.
“I think I was seven years old when I announced that this boy was going to buy himself a pocket calculator. In the 1970s, they were rare and expensive. I have always found technology fun, fascinating and easy to adopt. Yet I am perplexed by other people’s skills in drawing or singing.”
Regardless, Vasara does not think of himself as a scientist.
“I wrote my last scientific paper sometime in the 1990s. I have since been working with business and technology. If I were to make a comparison with information technology, I would say I am less interested in programming and more in what the code can accomplish in the real world.”
His current work as the CEO of VTT includes a lot of coordination work in bringing start-ups, research, companies, and public bodies – or funding – to the same table. Vasara says there are many good things about the Finnish product development sector as all the important parties work and interact with each other.
“Although we have this good dialogue, we need to improve how science produces results that can be commercialised. It is difficult for companies to work with early-stage research concepts because they need more fully formed and easily commercialised product concepts. On the other hand, universities face the challenge of getting companies to be bolder in joining research projects.”
Behind every new product, there are usually many internationally networked researchers with decades of experience.
An innovator’s DNA
The company that gets its product to the market first has the advantage, whether the product is based on deep tech or other technologies. It sounds obvious, but there is usually a rocky road from the idea to the mass production stage. In today’s world, individual inventors starting revolutions in their garages are a vanishing phenomenon.
“Behind every new product, there are usually many internationally networked researchers with decades of experience. This is a good foundation, but it still needs support from experts in commercialisation, marketing and business. Many pioneering inventions are born in think tanks where the members represent as many different backgrounds and fields of expertise as possible.”
Vasara says that internalising this wisdom is not always simple.
“My message to companies in the forest sector – and other sectors, too, of course – is that the power of networks cannot be overstated. Where do we get ideas? How do we scale them up? Where can we find the expertise we lack? These matters need to be kept in mind all the time. Finland has a certain Silicon Valley quality to it. Start-ups are quick to assume that bringing a big company into the product development process will ruin everything by making operations slow and inflexible. Of course, that does not need to be the case, but companies still maintain a high threshold for engaging in cooperation.”
Risk management capacity is also essentially linked with deep tech. After successful commercialisation, a company’s cash flow and reputation may increase exponentially, but the same goes for the risks. Sometimes, an excellent product idea can fail simply because of timing.
“For example, Nokia had a long and comprehensive investment programme for the development of Wi-Fi technology, but eventually abandoned it. Immediately afterwards, Wi-Fi took off. It was not a lack of expertise, just timing.”
The green transition and circular economy are drivers that push us to think more carefully about the efficiency of all production.
The forest sector lives and breathes deep tech
Vasara believes that the forest industry and its products will be almost solely based on deep tech in the future. He thinks this will be a good thing, because the product portfolio will shift to products of higher added value. The same is also true for pulp, even though its traditional advantage has been the bulk quality consistency shipped to the customer from the mill.
“Cellulose as a downstream product will not go away. Instead, its production methods and end products will change. The green transition and circular economy are drivers that push us to think more carefully about the efficiency of all production. We need to be able to use the same raw materials to make more and better products with less production investment. I believe that in future, pulp’s added value will increasingly be seen as its competitive advantage, instead of the sheer volume the mill can produce every day.”
Vasara believes that pulp and other wood-based raw materials will be used for completely new purposes in the future.
“By dissolving and recrystallising pulp, we can make products such as transparent flexible films. Such films can be used for water purification, for instance. Cellulose molecules also have great optical properties, which can be used in optical sensors.”
Pulp and wood are still green gold, and Finland’s trump card is its deep understanding of proper forest management. Vasara says Finland and Sweden understand the importance of measures such as thinning. Elsewhere in the EU, forest protection takes priority over everything else.
“Our challenge is to prove to the rest of the world that how we manage commercial forests is part of sustainability.”
Sustainability is not about stopping everything
A good example of a pioneering deep tech company is Onego Bio, which began under VTT. The company has developed a way to synthesize egg white - albumen - from fungus. This innovation has applications in sectors like the bakery industry and will revolutionise traditions and reduce the carbon footprints of products.
Vasara admits that sustainability often has many implicitly negative associations like: stop this or reduce that. Of course, the lower consumption of materials is good, but it does not have to mean that the product will be worse or a compromise for the consumer.
“I do not really understand the idea that consumers must be able to make the environmentally friendly decision by themselves. Why do we still even have environmentally unfriendly decisions? Why do we assume consumers need to be experts and know what to choose? Surely, we ought to be able to trust that if a product has ended up on the market, it is also the most environmentally friendly and healthy option.”
And where eggs are concerned, you will still be able to eat traditional organic eggs in the future, even though the bakery industry may be able to use egg white produced with the help of new technologies.
“The products we use as consumers can still be just as good as before. It is just that they will be made in a smarter way. Our quality of life does not need to deteriorate. And at the same time, we can make these new innovations into Finland’s new export products that also have a positive impact on the climate.”
This article was originally published in Fibre Magazine issue 2022–2023.