International investors set up base in Helsinki 

A booming startup scene, tight networks, and a strong culture of trust have made Finland a magnet for international investors. Japanese VC firm NordicNinja has set up its main international office in Helsinki – choosing the capital city as a springboard to the rest of Europe.

Helsinki Partners
Aleksi Poutanen

In 2021, investments in Finnish startups exceeded EUR one billion for the first year ever. More than 70% of this funding came from foreign investors. Over the past decade, more than 270 international investors from some 40 different countries have invested in Finnish startups.

“Relative to Finland’s GDP, our startups lead Europe in the amounts of VC funding they attract,” says Pia Santavirta, Managing Director of the Finnish Venture Capital Association.

“This is quite a small country with tight networks, so it’s a great place to get visibility. We also have lots of services to support both investors and startups. The authorities in Finland are eager to help make the local investment environment even more favourable,” she says.

NordicNinja: local presence, international reach

A prominent VC fund building strong local ties with Finland is Japanese early-stage investor NordicNinja. The fund was launched in 2019, choosing Helsinki as its main European base.

NordicNinja is a public-private partnership between the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Panasonic, Honda, Omron (a healthtech giant known for its pulse oximeters) and BaltCap (the Baltics’ largest private-equity fund). It was formed with the aim of helping established Japanese companies fuel startup innovation – mainly in software & services – to complement the strong R&D and manufacturing expertise that Japan is famous for.

“Japanese companies have been growing their global networks for more than 50 years. These are big companies with significant R&D budgets, but a lot of the focus has been on manufacturing – not so much on software and services,” says NordicNinja Managing Partner, Tomosaku Sohara. “At the same time, the startup ecosystem in the Nordics and Baltics is a lot more advanced compared to that of Japan. Innovation in Northern Europe is led by software startups that are born global. So we saw an opportunity to bring Japanese funding into the market to create a win-win investment solution,” says Sohara.

Tomosaku Sohara, Managing Partner at NordicNinja

Innovation in Northern Europe is led by software startups that are born global. So we saw an opportunity to bring Japanese funding into the market to create a win-win investment solution.

Cross Nordic-Japanese teamwork

To date, NordicNinja has invested more than EUR 50 million in 19 startups founded in Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Lithuania. Although the fund has no requirement for its startups to have operations in Japan, opportunities in the country have emerged for several of them.

Finnish virtual- and mixed-reality solution provider Varjo counts Japan as its second largest market. Logmore, the world’s first dynamic QR code solution for monitoring of sensitive shipments, recently signed a large contract with a Japanese company. All-weather autonomous-vehicle expert Sensible 4 and mobility service provider MaaS Global are both now running trials near Tokyo.

NordicNinja Investment Director, Claes Mikko Nilsen, has been active in European angel investing for more than a decade. Former head of the Finnish Business Angels Network (FiBAN) – one of the world’s largest such groups – he brings significant experience in cross-border investments at the seed stage.

“NordicNinja is unique in combining Japanese governmental, bank and corporate capital in a fund that operates independently in Finland. We make our decisions locally and activate things as we see best,” says Nilsen. “It was a dialogue to build a fund that fits for both Japan and the Nordics. This is a true cross-NewNordic-Japanese effort, with team members from both countries. There’s a big amount of trust between us,” he says. “We map and benchmark whatever we see in the Northern European startup ecosystem. Then we highlight and introduce these findings and observations to the core business ecosystem of Japan.”

Claes Mikko Nilsen, Investment Director at NordicNinja

NordicNinja is unique in combining Japanese governmental, bank and corporate capital in a fund that operates independently in Finland.

Investing in family life too

NordicNinja’s team in Helsinki now numbers eight people, four of whom are Japanese and have relocated. Sohara moved his family from Tokyo in January 2019. Despite some initial challenges adjusting to the Finnish winter climate, he says the family’s relocation has been easy.

“It was minus 23 degrees Celsius on the day we arrived in Helsinki – the coldest winter day that year apparently. We never have days like that in Tokyo, so my kids were immediately asking me how we were going to survive!” says Sohara.

“But we settled in fast, as Helsinki is a really easy place to live,” he says. “Almost all people here can speak English very well, and it’s common to get official information in English. It was also quite straightforward to find an apartment, which is not always the case when you move to a new city.”

“The work-life balance in Helsinki is one of the best in the world. Everything works really smoothly, and it’s very quiet and safe. My kids can go everywhere by themselves and it rarely takes more than 20 minutes to travel somewhere,” says Sohara. “Helsinki Partners is a great organization too. They have always been very proactive in reaching out to introduce us to different companies and invite us to events.”

Having established itself as a trusted player on the Finnish market, NordicNinja has now begun raising capital for a second fund. “Our first fund has been very successful and is fulfilling the expectations of our Japanese investors,” says Nilsen. “From our base in Helsinki,  the Nordic and Baltic startup ecosystem can expect to see a lot more from NordicNinja in the future.”

Are you an investor looking for dealflow in Finland? Contact us for free-of-charge services (backed up by The City of Helsinki) for international VCs and CVCs.

© Maija Astikainen

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