Clean Tech Dreaming With Sleep Deprivation in Helsinki, Finland

helsinki craft market port fur knives photoA market in Helsinki shows the “nature” of this cold country. Can Finland translate to the Middle East? Karin, in Finland, asks.

“Wear underwear over your eyes,” suggested Michael Kanellos’ daughter. Kanellos from Greentech Media is one of the sleep-deprived bloggers Green Prophet is with on a clean tech tour of Finland –– along with other green writers and reporters from sites like TreeHugger and Grist.

While gloomy and dark and cold for months in the winter, it’s as though the sun never sets in Finland in Summer. (I went to bed at 11 with the sun still “on” and was up at 4:30 am, somewhat sleep deprived from the light, though not intense).

A group of us are in Helsinki meeting some of the companies behind the country’s IT sector in clean technology, like Nokia; and lesser known companies such as BaseN, an international measurement service provider setting up a clean energy harvesting system for servers in a cave (and past bomb shelter), underneath the Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki’s city center.

Propelled into what’s more like a Middle East winter in this Scandinavian country’s summer (temperatures are around 10 degrees C with cloud cover, and an ever-present spittle-like rain), I am curious about what Middle East energy and infrastructure companies, as well as entrepreneurs and investors can learn from this Nordic country. Do opposites attract?

So far I’ve learned that Finland is setting up an office in Masdar City –– according to Cleantech Finland’s Santuu Hulkkonen.

Hulkkonen’s organization operates like a chamber of commerce connecting international industry, innovators and investors to Finland and vice versa: “We were one of the first to sign up for that,” he says of the office being built in Abu Dhabi. So far none of the companies I’ve met seem to have much business in the Mideast region.

But like some Middle Eastern countries, such as Jordan, Yemen, Israel and Lebanon, there are no appreciable natural energy resources in Finland: “We have nothing in Finland, we sometimes say,” comments Hulkkonen bluntly, pointing out energy efficiency as being the cornerstone for the country’s clean tech economy. “Natural conditions forced us to develop our industry,” he adds.

Local products laid out at a Helsinki arts, crafts, and food market at the port (see above) suggest just how cold it can get in Finland: for sale are knitted slippers and thick scarves; huge fur hats, reindeer pelts a-plenty (for curling up with at the fire probably – though birth rates appear to be low here), fox fur stoles (heads included), canned bear meat, dried jerky of all kinds –– and various products made for a long winter hibernation. Knives. These and the ubiquitous talk about saunas: some from the clean tech companies we meet talk about energy units in terms of “saunas.”

The Finnish sauna is a fond memory of mine, growing up in Canada, where one my best friends Karita (half-Finnish) introduced me to the past-time. You get really hot, and then jump in the cold lake, or roll in the snow –– depending on the season.

Saunas are not at all common where I live now in the Middle East. But built by a country who against the odds had to stave off the winter’s cold and harsh elements, much can be learned from Finland. Strong in making use of nature’s elements, Finland offers opportunities in green IT and Smart Grid (several companies are now involved in building concept communities around smarter and greener energy use – “Scandanavia’s Masdar?”); among the country’s top clean tech companies, 90% of them are in energy efficiency, Hulkkonen tells us.

clean tech finland karin kloostermanKarin (far right) and Pablo from Treehugger (beside her) touring Metso’s biofuel reactor (Day 3).

Other areas for business development, partnership and expertise? Processing forest product waste (which comes from the pulp and paper industry) –– in bio-diesel, Finland’s Neste has built the biggest renewable energy plant in Singapore for certified palm oil. And st1, another company, can efficiently create bio-ethanol from the food industry with end products going to farms as feedstock.

We also learn that Finland has some lithium resources (although not quite as much as Afghanistan’s latest bonanza), important for developing electric car batteries, and it has expertise in wind turbine components. About 50% of all large turbine companies around the world combine Finnish engineering and parts, much like Israeli high-tech ingenuity is incorporated into big name chips, processors and telecom products.

Finland may not seem like a huge player in the clean tech market, but opposites do attract. According to the blog Arctic Startup, in 2008 Finnish cleantech companies posted a total of €139.5 million in investments, which represented the highest proportion (37%) of total investments (€372m) in all Nordic countries.

While it may be most natural for innovators, investors and infrastructure companies to look far to the east or to strain their necks to superpowers in the west like the US, Finland could be a new avenue for interest and cooperation. Necessity is the mother of invention for cold and isolated Finland. Their technologies matched with the people’s warm, hearty, inviting and casual nature could be a good fit for warm-spirited people of the Middle East.

More updates on that come, of course. Meanwhile, I am looking forward to a hearty breakfast that will stick to my ribs. Reindeer ragout?

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