“Don’t waste your time waiting for COVID-19 to dry out; if you have an investment project - you can start it online”. That’s what Pekka Viljakainen says, a venture investor from Finland and an advisor to the Chairman of the Board of Skolkovo Foundation. Prior to the opening on May 21 of Startup Village Livestream’20, a two-day technology conference, one of its masterminds granted an extensive interview to Sk.ru.
In the previous years the conference was a venue for thousands of participants to meet in the Skolkovo Innovation Center, this year will be the first time when it’s held online. In his interview Pekka Viljakainen says that this online format would be appropriate even without any pandemics conditions, at the same time he does not deny the fact that Zoom cannot 100% communicate all the emotions, which occur when innovative community members meet each other at Skolkovo with its enthusiastic atmosphere.
It is a known fact that the whole concept of Startup Village had some Finnish origins; however, while Skolkovo is still trying to run the conference online, their partner event, Slush, was cancelled in Helsinki. Pekka Viljakainen explains how and why those tough decisions were taken. He describes in detail how the relationship between investors and startups are being built in the period of global pandemics, and shares his vision on the best ways to overcome the downturn.
Pekka Viljakainen: Startup Village Livestream’20 will inspire all the participants and make them feel that we must keep going. Photo: Sk.ru.
Zoom was used for recording this interview. Pekka was speaking with us from his house in Helsinki; last week Finland opened all the schools in the country and to have his children back to their school, Pekka had to move back to Helsinki from his country-house where he was ‘self-isolating’. “We are going back to life,” he says and emphasizes that one of the goals pursued by Startup Village Livestream’20 is to inspire and bring enthusiasm to the innovative community members.
Pekka is going to participate in seven conference sessions, he also told us where he’ll be establishing the communication channel from: “Nobody will even guess, I’m not in Moscow,” he adds to arouse more curiosity. “What can I do? Finland won’t let me out, and Russia won’t let me in”.
Below are some extracts from the interview.
- “May-Day, May-Day” - a globally recognized alarm signal in emergency. Do you believe these two days in May, spent this week at Skolkovo virtual venue are able to save somebody, or save somebody’s business?
- Save business? Surely. COVID-19 outbreak is a global challenge and it hits all the countries worldwide. However most of the recent disasters, be it financial recessions or emergency situations resulting from SARS, or ‘bird-flue’ epidemics, served to boost and accelerate the development and application of new technologies. I am absolutely sure that an event like Startup Village Livestream’20 is able to help businesses: cut costs, digitalize key business processes and find new talents who will be capable of resolving challenges. Of course, if we’re talking about pharmaceutical industry in general, and about biotechnologies, their breakthrough can be also a life-saving factor. I wish they would make their breakthrough inventions, but I’m not too good at this, I’m thinking as a business man.
- Startup Village is known to have evolved from the Finland-born Slush. Finnish colleagues this year decided to cancel Slush, while Skolkovo chose another way - to move their major even online. Is it clear for you what stands behind both of the decisions?
- It’s obvious that in each case it was an individual decision of the event organizers. If we look at Startup Village - the scope of this event includes, first of all, Russian businesses. The country spreading across 10 time zones badly needs this online format. In terms of financial issues, even theoretically it is impossible to move all participant to ‘sunny’ Moscow. In view of this fact, holding this conference online is rather a sensible decision for Skolkovo. It would be a nice idea even during COVID-free times. This appears a perfect practice for all of our regional teams and a big step towards digitalization.
Now - about Slush. Here the situation is rather different. The power of this event is that it takes place in Finland, in the darkest month of the year - November - this is about our country’s exotic spirit, and 60% of the participants are physically present there, arriving from abroad. Today having this conference online and with the comparable number of participants like in the previous years, or at least 50% of them, looks rather a tough task. It’s going to lose most of its mystics spirit. Also note that Slush is not a single event: conferences under the Slush brand were held in China, Japan. Practically speaking, holding Slush this year would be impossible.
So in each case I perfectly understand the logical ground for those decisions.
- This year’s Startup Village was initially planned as a special event devoted to the Skolkovo 10th Anniversary. Under pandemics conditions this event turned out to be ‘special’ anyway, but for some other reason, beyond the Skolkovo’s control. Is it going to be the same Startup Village?
- Of course, not. The spirit of the place is commonly what makes the Startup Village the event we know: you are strolling about the magnificent Skolkovo park, meeting your friends or making new ones. No one would ever doubt that direct communications between people are much better. Digital world is not able to offer that kind of spontaneous interaction. Startup Village Livestream’20 will be more about building awareness, aimed at knowledge and information exchange. Of course, the startup competition will take place, but even in this case the impact would be much better if all the pitches would be competing at the same venue.
At this point I do support holding it online. This new format should be tested. I also hope, next year we’ll be able to run this conference as a physical event, even if COVID is not 100% gone. Nothing can replace a physical contact between people: seeing each other, smelling each other, being able to touch each other and drink beer, Coke or tea together. This is part of Skolkovo’s philosophy, this is why we run Startup Village.
- If you were an investor: does it make any sense to invest in startups during the pandemics?
- I don’t think there’s anybody who can decide on making a deal and signing documents without looking into the other party’s eyes. I’m rather doubtful if such decisions can be taken, if I can see my counterpart only via Zoom. Yet having said that, I’d like to emphasize: today is the great time to evaluate businesses. This virtual format makes communications easier. I’m going to be a moderator during the investor session at Startup Village, and I already discussed this topic with the session participants, some renowned investors. No decrease in investments is reported. On the contrary, there’s a spike of investment activity.
Using online format for preliminary stages of work is a good idea. So my message to everybody is: Don’t waste your time waiting till COVID-19 outbreak is over. If you have an investment project, start it online. This will help you to go through the most of the work, even if you finally meet later, already offline.
- Let’s move from the general plans to your personal contribution. What will be your contribution to Startup Village Livestream’20?
- I’m organizing 7 sessions. I also provide support in holding the rest of the sessions. By this moment I’ve already sent out 89,600 e-mails with personal invitations. I realize that part of those invitations will be classified by servers as Spam, which is rather unfair, as I received all the e-mail addresses from their actual owners. Skolkovo Forum [event organizers] made a huge amount of work, and I’m trying to support it by providing PR.
For example, today the Finland’s major newspaper, Kauppalehti, published a news page advertising Startup Village Livestream’20; I paid for that with my American Express card. However, I would do the same if it was a physical event rather than a digital one. The benefit of today’s situation is that it makes possible for people who were unable for some reasons to come to Moscow, to participate online.
- As of 9 a.m, May 20, almost 14,000 people signed up to participate. What advantages will each of them have by participating in Startup Village Livestream’20?
- I bet that by the end of today there will be 20,000 of them. All the participants will have a clear idea of the status of the investment market today. Due to our pitch competition they’ll be able to evaluate the quality level of our startups. There’s going to be a very interesting session about COVID-19 outbreak and technologies to combat its consequences. In general, as I mentioned, the conference will be fairly educational nature, though making use of all this content will be challenging, as many interesting sessions and discussions take place at the same time. However, this is also true for any conference like this, even for those held offline. The choice is for each participant to make.
Anyway all the participants will get a boost of optimistic spirit and will feel that life keeps going. After 10-12 weeks of isolation, many people get really depressed: I can feel it myself as well, judging by my own experience - I have to invent occupations all the time, not to stay idle, and this is despite all those tasks and activities I’m engaged in. Frankly speaking, I miss the Skolkovo community very much; I miss communications with people in the regions of Russia, simple human interaction is what I do miss so much. Virtual communications are not the best substitute for this, though they can be useful as well. I hope the participants of Startup Village Livestream’20 will enjoy being with us online.
Surely, some other type of focus is needed. It really feels different when you simply click your mouse to switch between online venues, or when you’re wandering among venues, have snacks, enjoy meeting friends and talking to them. However, the organizers took that online specific perception into account and the sessions last up to 25-30 minutes, this is more like Tedex. I hope it will be interesting.