In recent years, the City of Oulu has gone through some rough times. 5,000 jobs were lost in the ICT sector. The repercussions of the structural change were harsh, but did not manage to break the resilience of the northern people, the inhabitants of the so-called Northern Capital of Finland.
Adaptation to the new conditions was easier because contingency preparedness was already in order. As early as in 2009, a strategic framework agreement was concluded, under the name Oulu Innovation Alliance (OIA). The signatories of the alliance, the City of Oulu, Oulu University, Oulu University of Applied Sciences and VTT among others, undertook at that time to focus their activities on innovation areas that could create new business opportunities.
One such area was printed intelligence. This concept gave rise to the establishing of PrintoCent, a VTT-driven research environment and umbrella organisation whose aim is to create one thousand new jobs in Oulu by 2030.
In research environments, similar to PrintoCent, pilot productions and pre-production trial series can be tested and implemented in an effective and controlled way. Kari Larjava, Executive Vice President of Research and Development at VTT says that research environments suitable for piloting are a vital competitive edge both to Finland and Finnish companies.
– VTT is tasked with transforming technologies into viable business activities, and we must be capable of testing ideas before the industrial-scale production and commercialisation stages. Our research environments meet these needs.
Companies can take advantage of VTT’s research environments also for the purposes of testing their own ideas. Of course, the companies can construct piloting lines on their own premises, but in most cases this will be the costlier, slower and more risk-prone alternative of the two options. Existing research environments support and hasten the development of new businesses.
According to Larjava, the research environments are also of critical importance for research in the applied sciences.
– Without these environments we could not carry out any research in the applied sciences at all, he says.
Larjava assures that the Finnish research environments clearly stand out among their competitors in Europe.
– The question is not about constructing the most expensive environments, but, instead, about focusing on a specific niche at which we can excel globally.
At PrintoCent in Oulu, printed intelligence means using printing technology to manufacture products on flexible materials, such as plastic or paper. Potential applications of printed intelligence are a legion, from industrial products to disposable diagnostics sticks and strips: intelligent packaging, LED lights or solar cells printed on thin film, test strips to diagnose diseases and pathogens.
At the heart of PrintoCent, there is a mini-scale plant, Pilot Factory, in which the functioning and serviceability of the materials, processes, equipment and concepts applying printed intelligence can be observed already in the pre-production stage. In this way, we can obtain vital information on any problems in the production of the new products and on the subsequent problem solving.
– If this stage is implemented without exercising great care, the transfer from controlled laboratory conditions straight ahead to industrial-scale production can be too demanding, remarks Kari Rönkä, who leads the research team running the pilot plant.
The manager of the research environment Ilkka Kaisto wants to stress that PrintoCent does not carry out any fundamental research. The starting point of all operations arises from the needs of companies.
– We chart and analyse the needs of the companies and introduce our expertise as part of their R&D projects in a way that allows us to provide them with optimal assistance, Kaisto says.
– The activities of PrintoCent arise from the needs of the companies, says Ilkka Kaisto. Photo: Juha Sarkkinen
Helping small companies gain access to the great ones
According to Ilkka Kaisto, the companies have in recent decades discovered that global market-entry single-handedly is truly difficult.
– Of the about 50 companies participating in the PrintoCent ecosystem, every third operates internationally, i.e. we facilitate SMEs gaining access to the big players. This is an important reason for why they want to implement their projects in collaboration with us, Kaisto explains.
– In the past three years, Pilot Factory and the participant companies in the Oulu region were visited by 250 visitor groups, of which a significant portion represented international operators. This is something quite big for these companies, Kari Rönkä adds.
PrintoCent has delivered good results during the years it has been in operation. Under the auspices of the community, 22 new companies have been created within five years.
The combined turnover of the most successful one-third of these companies is EUR 5 million, and they employ 120 persons. The growth targets are set high: according the companies’ own estimate their combined turnover will increase fivefold in two years’ time up to EUR 30 million. The number of employees will increase to 300 persons.
At the same time, PrintoCent will raise the level of ambitions and targets of its own operations.
Thus far, the pilot plant has produced only batches of up to a few hundred items each, even though the plant’s production capacity would be sufficient for batches of one hundred thousand items. During the current year, PrintoCent aims to locate companies that would be interested in production batches of this size as part of the PrintoCent 2013–2015 programme. The plant infrastructure will also be upgraded.
– We must ensure that our environment keeps up with the state-of-the-art technology also in the future. Our role is specifically to act as facilitator of successful businesses, because enterprises and entrepreneurs are the generators of industry, exports and welfare, Ilkka Kaisto states.
Dose Coach helps MS patients
PrintoCent has defined four key areas on which business development activities will be focused. The key areas are: energy production and storage, intelligent lighting applications, body-worn electronic devices, and instant diagnostic systems and tests.
As regards the instant diagnostic systems and tests, VTT is developing a number of various platforms, whereby the patient can perform instant tests at home without visiting a clinic. One example of such devices is Dose Coach, which measures the level of active medication in an MS patient’s blood and analyses the status. The application integrated with the device provides advice to the patient, and transmits the results over a smart phone to a cloud service.
The application also incorporates an interactive dialogue in which the patients can describe their current condition – fatigue, dizziness or other symptoms. In this way, the physician can, in the future, monitor holistically the effective impact of medication and the patient’s condition.
– This is one kind of a showcase, because the device was created and implemented from start to finish at VTT, says Research Scientist Marika Kurkinen, who participated in the development of Dose Coach.
–The services of Pilot Factory were also used in this project.
– Pilot Factory was tasked with the production of a trial batch of the test strips used to measure medication levels in blood and with the development of the required production process, states Kari Rönkä.
Marika Kurkinen participated in the development of Dose Coach. Photo: Juha Sarkkinen
VTT research environments in a nutshell
PrintoCent, Oulu. The focus area is printed intelligence and its applications. The target is to capture in Oulu and in Finland one per cent of the global markets of printed intelligence worth EUR 250 billion by 2030.
Micronova, Espoo. Cleanroom environment used to produce highly sophisticated microelectromechanical components in an extremely clean space. The production itself resembles conventional electronics production.
Bioruukki, Espoo. One of VTT’s most significant investments in the 2010s. It focuses on bioeconomy and provides facilities for business growth and for the implementation of the Finnish Bioeconomy Strategy. It functions in cleantech sectors, which comprise bioenergy, biochemicals, biomass fractionation and recycling. This research environment can be used to demonstrate how bioeconomy enabling technologies create and deliver results, products and economic growth.
Nuclear Safety Facility, Espoo. This environment’s specially controlled atmospheric conditions can be used to study radioactive materials, e.g. in association with maintenance and servicing of nuclear reactors. From the perspective of piloting, the hot chambers, in which materials can studied under safe conditions, are of a special interest. The Nuclear Safety Facility will be completed in 2016, and will accommodate the greater part of VTT’s nuclear safety research activities.
SUORA, Jyväskylä. VTT’s research environment for fibre processes, tasked with hastening the development of fibre-based products. SUORA is also the first pilot-scale foam forming research environment operating at industrial output speed globally. With foam forming technology it is possible to improve the properties of the existing packaging, paper and board products and enable to manufacture high-porosity, smooth and light-weight products This will further enable expanding the assortment of natural fibre-based and recyclable products. Savings in production costs produce an extra benefit.