Dec 2, 2023 - Economy

A winter conference heats up Finland's startups

Illustration of a hundred dollar bill in the shape of the Finish flag with a microphone

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Slush startup conference —hosted annually amid Helsinki's winter — is a large gathering of nascent companies, investors and enthusiasts. Not only that, it functions as a significant engine behind Finland's own tech startup ecosystem.

Why it matters: Though a nation of less than 6 million, Finland punches above its weight when it comes to tech.

  • Along with being the birthplace of Nokia, it's spawned a robust video gaming industry since the 1980s; it now boasts a handful of venture-backed startups valued at over $1 billion each.

The big picture: Slush was initially founded in 2008 by local entrepreneurs as a way to gather startup enthusiasts in a uniquely Finnish way, complete with winter-themed branding.

  • In 2011, a group of students from the newly formed Aalto University in Helsinki took over the event to expand it into a veritable gathering of global investors and startups, according to Wolt CEO Miki Kuusi, who led the conference until 2015.
  • Since then, it's grown to bring together 13,000 participants (2023), though it had more than 25,000 at its peak in 2019.
  • It also generates about €10 million (nearly $11M) in annual revenue through ticket sales and advertising, to sustain its operations. It is structured as an LLC and actually governed by a foundation.

By the numbers: Since 2011, about 29% of former full-time Slush employees have founded their own companies, according to data compiled by Accel and provided to Axios by Slush.

  • These figures don't include the number of former full-time employees and volunteers who have gone on to join startups as employees.
  • Some former employees of Wolt, the Helsinki-based food delivery company DoorDash acquired last year, have also gone on to found their own startups.

Between the lines: "Perhaps the most transformative thing that Slush has done is reframe that entrepreneurship — what you do if you can't get a real job," says former president Mikko Mäntylä, who is (you guessed it) now a startup founder alongside ex-Slush CEO Miika Huttunen.

  • Finland's tech entrepreneurs of the 1990s looked to Silicon Valley for inspiration, as MySQL founder and HackerOne CEO Mårten Mickos explains, yet subsequent generations increasingly have had more local role models.

Yes, but: Finland's venture capital landscape remains limited to very early-stage financing, notes Maki.vc partner Paavo Räisänen. That means companies have to raise abroad after a certain point.

  • And while Slush's conference participants, staff and even top executives are quite diverse, Finland's most successful tech entrepreneurs remain nearly all men. Only Reflex Solutions, among its "unicorns," has a female co-founder.
  • Kuusi, however, hopes this will change and that it's only a matter of time.
  • The conference has also faced its share of hiccups over the years.

The bottom line: The entrepreneurial bug among Slush staff is far from squashed — even outgoing CEO Eerika Savolainen tells Axios she wants to start her own company.

  • "Slush is no one's life's work — we hire people early in their career with a lot of potential so they can learn as much as possible."

Disclosure: Because the author of this story moderated certain onstage talks, Slush paid for part of her travel expenses. It had no bearing on this story's reporting and publishing.

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