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More startups, investors than ever at Slush event

Some 15,000 people filled the Helsinki Expo and Convention Centre on Wednesday and Thursday. This year the event - which has grown from a meeting of a few hundred entrepreneurs seven years ago - attracted more startups and investors than ever before.

Video: The steps of the Helsinki Expo and Convention Centre, which lead down to Slush 2015.
15,000 people filled the Helsinki Expo and Convention Centre on Wednesday and Thursday. This year the event - which has grown from a meeting of a few hundred entrepreneurs seven years ago - attracted more startups and investors than it ever has before. Video: Yle

Upon entering the cavernous Helsinki convention centre, the dismal November skies of Helsinki were quickly forgotten - mostly, because it was even darker inside.

Downtempo house music pulsed from giant speakers in the main entranceway and fog machines had created a haze amidst the throngs of people trying to find their way towards the main presentation areas.

With three giant stages, laser beams and neon-coloured banners emblazoned with imagined (but trademarked) words, being at Slush is a little bit like being at a dull but well-appointed rave.

But the 15,000 people in attendance weren’t here for the light show. Most of them came to gain a foothold in - or at least a glimpse into - the booming startup scene. Whether they were single-person companies or giant corporations, everyone here wanted to be seen.

On the surface, with their Slush-branded T-shirts and youthful hairstyles, many of the younger business hopefuls at the event set themselves apart from the regular suit-and-tied businesspeople who were also there. But all of their goals appeared to be the same - doing business.

At last year's Slush there were about 1,000 fewer people in attendance, and it was a little easier to move around.  Back then people smiled and approached everyone with business cards and company-branded swag and had well-rehearsed pitches ready to go.

The convention centre this year was far more crowded and sometimes it was difficult to gain the attention of the startup representatives because they were too busy schmoozing and selling their ideas and strategies to anyone who would listen.

The key to making the most out of Slush, as the organisers advised, is to plan far in advance and set up meetings with key people.

Yle News' strategy of walking around the dark, foggy, pulsating convention centre looking for something of value among the scores of displays and banners ended up being a chore.

1,700 startups, 800 investors

The startups at Slush - some 1,700 of them - are here largely to gain the attention of the 800 attending investors. The startups are more international this year, as only one third of them are based in Finland.

The types of startups at this year’s Slush are varied but tech-based for the most part. All of the startups we spoke to hoped that their company is set to be "the next big thing" in their field - or at least wanted to gain some attention.

Slush organisers say the goal of the event remains what it was since it first started as a group of a few hundred in 2008, "to help the next generation of great, world-conquering companies forward."

Interest was high at the display of the rather well-established Finnish sleep sensor technology startup, Beddit.

Ida Lönnroth, Beddit's communications lead, said that interest in the company was high and explained what their device does.

"Beddit is a very thin sensor you place under the sheets of your bed and it tracks your body vitals," Lönnroth said.

"The thin white strip tracks your heart rate, movement and respiration levels and sends that information to your phone. And every morning you get that data, to know how you slept and to see how maybe you could improve."

"We are opening a new investment round next spring, so obviously that’s one of our agendas," Lönnroth said, explaining why Beddit came to Slush. "We have quite a lot of people here and our CEO is busy meeting partners, resellers - that’s always the goal for Slush. Of course the media exposure is also important, and we’re selling a hell of a lot of Beddits," she laughed.

Finnish startups: From HR apps to edible bugs

Around a crowded corner, people at the Finnish startup which makes Vibecatch were also trying to gain the attention of investors at Slush. They describe their product as human resources technology designed to help human resource departments measure employee satisfaction "continuously and automatically".

Vibecatch sales representative Heikki Lummaa explained that the application turns the annual employee review process on its head, and creates easily customisable - and ostensibly much more in-depth and more often - employee questionnaires with which human resources can gain much more information.

"Slush has been really nice," Lummaa said. "We've had a lot of action at the booth so far and we’ve had very interested customers. There's a lot of discussion at companies about moving away from one-to-one discussions once a year with your boss, into something more continuous. And that’s what we provide, we’re happy here."

We also met with the co-founder of a decidedly unusual company at Slush this year, Entocube’s Otto Palonen. Envisioning a worldwide food shortage in the future, Palonen says Entocube’s business is breeding insects for food.

"We build insect-rearing systems, to produce high-quality protein for the masses in this growing world," Palonen said.

When prompted for his "elevator pitch" (a business idea described as quickly as possible), Palonen said:

"Insects are going to be the future food source - there's not enough resources to feed the planet with the methods we use at the moment. The answer lies somewhere else and in our perspective it’s going to be insects. How to mass produce insects is the problem that we are solving right now," Palonen said.

"Of course we're here to show our product around, talk with interesting people and to talk with investors as well," Palonen said.

Non-profit, volunteer-based

Because Slush is non-profit - and maybe because there are so many who think they may one day be part of the next "big deal"- it relied on the help of 1,500 volunteers from 50 countries.

Ticket prices to the sold-out event cost in the hundreds of euros, but in exchange for their work, the student-aged volunteers get free passes to the event, meals and invitations to festivities before and after the event.

Slush has become a major attraction in the startup world and draws international companies and world leaders to their main stages.

This year Slush emphasised job recruitment and devoted an entire area to a recruitment area where employers and job seekers could hook up.

The recruiting section featured employer-applicant "speed dates," which "enable rapid matchmaking between hiring startups and job seekers" and employer presentations looking to attract the right kind of talent. The jobs on offer were chiefly high-tech and programming positions.

Altogether there were also 200 speakers scheduled to speak during the two-day event.

Three stages of the venue were devoted to continuous presentations and speeches by businesspeople, statesmen and startup veterans.

The speakers were varied and featured the co-founder of internet phone app Skype Niklas Zennström, mobile gaming giant Supercell’s co-founder Ilkka Paananen and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning, former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, with scores of others.

What is clear is that interest in Slush by both startups and investors around the world continues to grow. What remains unclear is how many investments and deals that Slush will help these startups land. But if interest in Slush grows any more next year, organisers will likely have to rent more space at the massive venue.

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