Real team effort as FinnZone partnership launches

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette From left, Kevin Manninen, Patrick Visser and Jim Curtis participate in a meeting launching FinnZone, a program to attract emerging high-tech Finnish companies entering the U.S. market.

HANCOCK — Finns have mentally slotted the regions of the U.S. into distinct roles, said Pasi Lautala, director of Michigan Technological University’s Rail Transportation Institute. The high-tech hubs of Texas and California are considered “Nokia land.” Florida is “Finn retirement land.”

As for the Upper Peninsula, it’s been “heritage land” — the new frontier of an 1860s Finlander looking for a fresh start, but not for a 21st-century company trying to grow.

“We are not really seen as the technology land … this needs to become the new start-up land,” said Lautala, during a meeting at Finlandia University Friday.

That’s the aim of FinnZone, a Hancock-based partnership which announced its debut Thursday. It looks to build on the shared heritage with Finland to launch small- and medium-based Finnish high-tech companies in the U.S. and North American markets.

“We want to see them here, hiring people, growing, expanding into other areas of the United States and North America as a whole,” said Kevin Manninen, co-director of the FinnZone, president of the Upper Michigan Finnish American Chamber and dean of Finlandia’s business school.

Partnering in the program are Finlandia University, MTEC SmartZone, Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance and the Finnish-American Chamber of Commerce Upper Michigan.

Through the FinnZone, they’ll help mentor businesses, provide marketing, get them access to reduced-price office space and link them to student intern and graduate talent at Michigan Tech and Finlandia.

The idea for FinnZone came in October, when executives from the Finnish educating and mentoring technology startup Mesensei visited the Keweenaw. As a result of the visit, CEO Tuukka Ylalahti set up a mobile mentoring project with Finlandia. Eventually, he hopes to establish his company in the U.P.

Another factor was Lautala, FinnZone co-director Patrick Visser and Tech forest biomaterials professor Mark Rudnicki’s visit to Finland in early December. A united front, they said, would enable them to offer more resources to prospective companies.

“We said, ‘Why not form a team?'” he said.

The biggest potential is among high-tech companies, which are more likely than traditional companies to go to a larger-market area.

“They’re often smaller, and they need a little tender love and care as they get established somewhere, and we can provide that,” Manninen said.

The “heritage land” mentality is real, Manninen said. But over the past decade, that’s ebbed, according to the consultants Manninen has talked with.

“When they come to the U.S. market, they want to avoid the risk, and they want to go to a place that’s familiar to them culturally,” he said. “But at the same time, it has to have the technological and business base to help them to not only land here, but to grow.”

The Finnish company ProLocalis Oy is planning a visit to FinnZone in March. And the FinnZone announcement on LinkedIn has already yielded 2,000 hits and an inquiry from a Finnish broadband company looking to enter the U.S., said Visser, also chief commercial officer at the MTEC SmartZone.

“We feel like we have things to build on,” he said. “I’ve got a target list of all kind of potential organizations over there to reach out to to tell them about this.”

The immediate targets are small to medium companies that have raised about $1 million in venture capital that have maximized their market opportunity in Finland and Scandinavia, Visser said. But they’d welcome an interested larger company as well.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create some noise,” Visser said. “If we can get 10 Finnish small and medium companies over here, then the bigger ones will start to notice.”