New 50 million euro research fund: Accelerated research-based partner ventures

Last autumn, when the Finnish funding agency for innovation TEKES announced their wish to hear from new kinds of funding programs and innovation projects, it didn’t take too long for Jaakko Sauvola and his colleagues to contact suitable people and create a model for research-based market-driven innovation funding program. ”Our team spent long days in brainstorming, and it took us about two weeks for the HILLA model to emerge, and pretty soon after that TEKES gave us green light to apply for funding for it. So we wrote some 200 pages for an agile model for research-driven, collaborative business ventures and submitted it in November.”

Mr Sauvola is now leading the program, and is one of four company contact persons in HILLA – or ”High-tech ICT Leverage From Long-Term Assetization”. The project is divided into three primary target industries: Wireless ICT, Health, Automotive and Traffic, and traditional industry, which utilize latest research and knowledge in manufacturing technologies and automation, industrial Internet, and software and data-intensive intelligence. On top of these are niche areas, which become more focused as the project continues. ”We made a quite bold decision between the University of Oulu, the University of Applied Sciences, OAMK, and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd that instead of basically competing with each other for research funding, we would join forces and start deep collaboration in this project.” The idea is something that research institutes sometimes have difficulties grasping, especially when the research conducted in one field directly affects researchers in another department altogether. ”The university is involved, and so are the VTT and OAMK.”

Building dream teams

Companies go through a grueling-sounding sparring phase with the research organizations, which is divided into phases. ”We go through the business idea, the technology needed to differentiate in the market-place and the product itself, and then give it a prioritization ranking.” The process is agile: instead of the usual six to nine months to get a response from TEKES regarding the funding of the project and the research behind it, HILLA projects get their feedback in two-to-three months. The agility and the effectiveness have not gone unnoticed by companies. ”In these first few months of HILLA, we now have 17 projects in the first phase of sparring, 12 in the second and four in the third and final phase.”

The sparring is crucial, as the whole project is built from the business and revenue perspective, backed up by a strong research leverage. That’s why every project must have a lead company – a business that has a channel and sales operatives towards at least one customer. The rest of the consortium can be two companies or six, but they all must have clear contributing roles in the overall business target behind them. ”Your company doesn’t have to be big in size in order to stand out from the competition. We are building dream teams capable of making customer closure on sales in tough international markets.”

Agile innovations for funding

Basically, any company can participate in the regularly held and open HILLA Growth Mill sessions. ”The sparring session gives the companies and researchers a chance to get to know each other during the few months it lasts. It is really important to go through the monetization and responsibility issues as soon as possible by the companies who are going to work together. For example, I try to ask them in a very early phase: ’If the customer pays one euro for this, how are you going to split it?’ Difficult things must be put on the table early on and discussed, and if the companies give the equivalent of a slave galley, where one company pays the others and then reaps the benefits, well – we don’t look too kindly on that kind of plan in HILLA.”

The 50-million project runs until 2020, and already there are signs of success in collaboration. But Mr Sauvola recognizes the road as a long one. ”We thought of a list of achievements like one usually has in a publicly funded project like this, and decided it was too complicated. It is all about revenue, business and leverage from high-tech research. For companies, we’re aiming for growth and increased business in terms of revenue”, Mr Sauvola says. ”For the research institutes, the goal is to develop a gapless path from research to monetized business. And for TEKES itself, it is how to pilot and create an agile, flexible and continuously renewable innovation funding mill.”