Why Helsinki is attracting the attention of Korean startups (스타트 업)

As the 12th largest economy in the world, South Korea is one of the world’s fastest-growing developed countries, with an economic development curve so steep it’s virtually unmatched. So why is Finland, a country 9 times smaller in population, attracting the attention of Korean innovators?

7 min read

Aleksi Poutanen

Interested in applying for the Founders to Finland programme?

Our business advisor Xin Wang can help.

Forging stronger ties between South Korea and Finland

Ranking #1 in the world for work-life balance, Helsinki is not just an attractive place to work; it’s arguably one of Europe’s most overlooked startup hubs. With its reputation for advanced health tech, world-class design and digital innovation, Finland’s capital Helsinki has caught the world’s attention.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Finland.  To celebrate, the two countries – known as global powerhouses in tech and innovation – came together at a business roundtable in Helsinki on May 25th to explore how they can deepen their collaboration.

Helsinki, a hub for Korean startups

From Samsung to Hyundai, some of Korea’s biggest players have had roots in Finland’s top industries for years. While longstanding ties between Korea and Finland have fostered success for industry giants – with Samsung earning 1st place as the most trusted smartphone brand in 2020 –  Helsinki’s burgeoning startup scene presents a fresh opportunity for Korean startups to thrive.

“For a population of just 1 million, it is home to an estimated 2,267 startups and scaleups”, says Forbes. It’s no wonder Finland ranks seventh in the world for its innovation capabilities

While Helsinki represents a small market, it’s bursting with tech talent and is an attractive gateway to the rest of Europe. Establishing a startup (스타트 업)  in Finland is easier than in Korea, thanks to low bureaucracy, less competition and a unique approach to entrepreneurial.

The Finnish government encourages startups to test, innovate and fail, fostering a rapid iteration and prototyping culture. 

What are the hottest industries in Helsinki’s startup scene?

1. The battery industry

From LG Electronics to Hyundai, Korea’s tech titans dominate the global market. While many automotive companies look to German innovation, Finland’s battery industry is gaining momentum as the demand for electrification grows. Some of Korea’s biggest automotive players have already started testing EV batteries in Finland. What makes Helsinki a hub for battery innovation?

World-class research and development (R&D)

Helsinki’s top centres for advanced batteries span R&D hubs such as VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Aalto University, and the University of Helsinki, in addition to other private companies. The cost of developing battery applications, battery technology, and recycling technology is also lower than the European average – giving battery startups a competitive advantage. 

Sustainable raw material supply chain 

For environmentally-driven entrepreneurs, relocating to Helsinki is an attractive option thanks to the city’s focus on sustainability, its vast tech talent and Finland’s rich mineral reserves.

Finland has a long tradition of mining, refining, and developing innovative technologies and processes that support the circular economy – and while mining happens in the north, R&D hubs in the south benefit from a tight collaborative ecosystem. Helsinki has a mature value chain with plenty of space for new entrants. 

Public and government support 

Keen to meet the European Union’s 2030 targets to halve CO2 emissions, the Finnish government is moving toward renewable energy, batteries and electrification. The benefits for battery startups?  Open and reliable cooperation between public and private sectors and government-backed support to help them succeed. 

2. The health tech industry

Finland and Korea share many similarities. Both countries have advanced healthcare systems with 100% electronic medical healthcare records, a keen interest in AI and robotics, and a desire to prepare for an ageing population.

So why are Korean health tech startups relocating to Helsinki? Finland isn’t just the world’s happiest country; it’s also one of the world’s healthiest countries – and Korean startups are eager to find out why.

Helsinki is brimming with scientists and engineers 

Almost one-tenth of the Finnish workforce has solid health tech skills, with expertise in biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, molecular biology, histology and immunology.

By relocating, Korean health tech startups can rest assured they’ll have easy access to experienced talent and collaborative networks. Top Korean health tech startups are already making progress with a focus on digital therapeutics, smart hospital technologies, and mobile phone-based diagnostics.

Finland is a global leader in health data

Finnish people trust the healthcare system and are willing to share their biodata to improve healthcare.  A comprehensive register and fully digitised biobank data are accessible to all researchers, offering unique insights most countries could only dream of.

Finland’s globally unique digital health data has captured the interest of 13 international pharmaceutical companies, including MSD, Pfizer, GSK, Janssen, and AstraZeneca. For health tech startups, it’s an enabling environment for clinical research and health tech innovations.

World-leading manufacturing technology

From big data analytics to 3D modelling and IoT solutions, Finland is a growing player in Industry 4.0. As a leader in AI and VR/XR, the country boasts easy access to advisors, subcontractors and manufacturers who can build systems and help get regulatory approval.

What does this mean for health tech startups in Helsinki? Access to the most innovative minds in the industry – and the tools needed to turn vision into reality. 

3. Smart city solutions

South Korea’s population averages 515 inhabitants per square kilometre. Due to rapid urbanisation, governments and city planners are turning to technology to meet the growing pressure on cities. Why are Korean startups looking to Helsinki? It has a solid reputation for smart solutions.

Helsinki is one of the world’s smartest cities

It’s no coincidence 99% of public transport departs on time; Helsinki invests in new digital solutions that improve residents’ lives. From autonomous last-mile deliveries to smart low-carbon housing and driverless buses, Helsinki has earned a reputation as the world’s smartest city. 

Helsinki openly shares its data 

Forum Virium Helsinki, an innovation company owned by the City of Helsinki, is the driving force behind the smart city status. They’re best known for opening up Helsinki’s data to the public, turning Kalasatama into a world-famous smart district, and helping over 200 companies pilot and create new innovative solutions in Helsinki.

The open data service has been available in Helsinki for over 10 years, helping companies innovate and test in real time.

Helsinki is a test bed

In Helsinki, private companies, scientific communities and residents work together to pilot, experiment and test smart solutions. Residents’ support for these solutions makes Helsinki the perfect place to pilot products and services in real environments, with real users, while benefiting from open data. It’s the ideal test bed for smart city startups. 

Early adopters: Hear what top Korean startups think 

Some of Korea’s brightest minds in tech have already moved to Helsinki. Here’s what they have to say:

“Helsinki is our gateway to Europe”, says EduTech startup 

Dr BANG LEE  이 방전 is co-founder and CEO of Sam Corporation Oy. Its product Story Creator is an educational storytelling activity and mobile app for anyone interested in creating stories but specifically targeting teachers and students aged 7-12.

The startup uses Helsinki as a testbed to validate ideas, business models, and access the European market. “Because of the high quality of education, we knew Helsinki would be a perfect place for the pilot. Both South Korea and Finland have a progressive approach to education”, says Bang.

South Korea and Finland embrace cutting-edge tech and are eager to integrate it into everyday life. Starting a tech business is easier [in Helsinki] because the mindset is similar

Dr BANG LEE, Co-Founder, Sam Corporation OY

It’s also a great place for tech. “Before we conducted a pilot in Finland, we tried to enter Europe through France. Even though they’re a big country, there were many tech challenges. South Korea and Finland embrace cutting-edge tech and are eager to integrate it into everyday life. Starting a tech business is easier because the mindset is similar”. 

From Helsinki Partners to Business Finland, Bang says the startup ecosystem is very supportive, dubbing Helsinki Education Hub “a masterpiece for EduTech startups in Finland”. But it’s not always easy. 

A piece of advice for Korean startups? “Try to find a network that understands both cultures. They’ll have a local network and can introduce you to the right circles”. 

Although Helsinki is very open, and there’s so much support for foreign entrepreneurs, there are also some challenges. Once established, it can be hard to push past the glass ceiling.

Bang recommends using people that already have experience in the country. For example, Koreans that have studied in Finland know the culture and how things work. The Korean community in Helsinki isn’t large, but they’re the ‘people-power’ you need to get started. 

BEI Lab believes the Nordics offer a unique opportunity for next-gen battery startups 

Material scientist Changdeuck Bae is the CEO of BEI Lab, a company that innovates next-generation lithium batteries for the automotive industry. What makes their battery startup so special is its unique coating technology, which promises to be a breakthrough for the automotive sector.

Founded in South Korea, Changdeuck Bae expanded to Finland to collaborate with a leading machinery supplier boasting valuable expertise. He believes Helsinki has the tech knowledge and machinery needed to create new types of battery products.

Everyone is very open-minded, and the people are well-educated.

Changdeuck Bae, CEO, BEI Lab

Changdeuck says his company is in the right position to access the full value chain. “The geopolitical situation means a lot of support for battery innovators in Europe, as China mainly dominates production. While the Nordic countries historically haven’t been a great place for manufacturing, since Sweden opened a huge factory – it’s becoming more attractive.”

European companies are focused on sustainability, making manufacturing cheaper thanks to lots of investment from different stakeholders. He thinks it’s the perfect timing for those looking to produce next-generation batteries. 

When asked what it’s like to have a startup in Helsinki?, Changdeuck says there’s lots of support and desire to help, but as they are the only battery manufacturing startup, it’s difficult to figure out the paperwork needed to start a lab. “We’re the first of our kind here, so it’s not easy getting the right information about things like pollutants and the use of chemicals”. He says he enjoys the culture in Helsinki and would like to collaborate more with universities and research institutes: “Everyone is very open-minded, and the people are well-educated.”

Are you an entrepreneur looking for a startup-friendly city?

Thanks to ample government support, access to sustainable resources and a city brimming with tech talent (54,000 cleantech professionals, to be exact), Helsinki is the ideal place for tech startups. Not too big but not too small, it’s perfect for running R&D projects, piloting programmes and testing platforms. 

Thinking about starting a business in Helsinki? The Founders to Finland programme is an initiative from Helsinki Partners, a city-owned organisation. It supports international businesses and people looking to establish themselves in Helsinki, helping entrepreneurs relocate and offering introductions to key influencers in the city.

Learn more about Founders to Finland and apply now.

Apply for the Founders to Finland Programme

Our unique initiative offers you the opportunity to establish your business in Helsinki, granting you access to the thriving European market. Join our vibrant and forward-thinking tech ecosystem, nestled in a value-driven society in the bustling capital of the world’s happiest country.

Man with a phone
© N2 Albiino, Matti Pyykkö

Contact Helsinki Partners

If you are interested in learning more about Helsinki and its possibilities – please contact us via the form here. We’ll make sure to get back to you within a few working days.

Juhana Hurtig