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Flavouring plant-based food, catching nutrients from water and smart energy to buildings – meet the nominees for KAUTE’s Young Researcher Entrepreneur Award 2022

Mikko Hänninen and Elmeri Laitinen, Outi Mäkinen and Sonja Salo are the finalists of the KAUTE Foundation’s Young Researcher Entrepreneur Award 2022. These researcher-entrepreneurs are accelerating green transition and aiming for global impact. They bring their academic knowledge to business for a more sustainable society.

Outi Mäkinen, founder of Nordic Umami, brings more flavour to plant-based foods with residues from the food industry

Doctor Outi Mäkinen, specialised in food science, has worked with plant-based products for years and knows their challenges with flavour. Umami, which is the rich flavour familiar to meat-based products, is difficult to replicate.

“People choose the food with the best taste. That’s why it’s important that the environmentally sustainable vegetarian alternative also tastes good,” Mäkinen says.

The idea behind the company was born from an experiment with a bucket and ph-indicator on a summer cabin one evening. Umami could be developed to plant-based products by fermenting! Mäkinen founded Nordic Umami in 2020 to solve two problems: the waste created in the food industry and the popularity of plant-based diets. The brand new solution uses consumable but usually discarded side products from producing beer and processing grains, legumes and vegetables. The outcome of the fermentation process is a flavour broth which can be used in place of a meat stock or as seasoning. Nordic Umami sells its products to businesses to use for seasoning in plant-based products. Products featuring their flavouring can already be found in grocery stores.

“It’s amazing to be able to use my own research-based knowledge to solve practical problems. Entrepreneurship provides a chance to take action and try new things fearlessly,” Mäkinen describes.

Outi Mäkinen
Outi Mäkinen

Mikko Hänninen and Elmeri Lahtinen’s WeeeFiner is solving the raw material crisis with laser technology 

Europe is suffering from a crisis in the supply of raw materials. There are not enough critical nutrients and metals for the needs of agriculture and industry. At the same time, valuable materials from waste waters are separated and dumped.

The idea behind Mikko Hänninen and Elmeri Lahtinen’s company Weeefiner was sparked by their colleague’s passion for miniature trains and 3D printing. The break-room discussion on 3D printing in the University of Jyväskylä jump-started a research project, in which Hänninen and Lahtinen together with their colleagues studied the possibilities of using chemistry in 3D printing. One of the applications they found was a cellular and chemically active filter, which can catch nutrients and metal, for example from wastewater. Weeefiner, founded in 2017, puts the research into action and promotes the circulation of raw materials.

Hänninen and Lahtinen, doctors specialised in inorganic chemistry, have been involved in developing the technology since day one, which made the transition to entrepreneurship a natural one. Challenges have not been avoided since building a company creates plenty of responsibility such as creating an organisation from scratch. On the other hand, entrepreneurs can see their impact in new deals made or successes of employees they trained themselves.

“The crisis in supply of raw materials is a large and current problem. It’s great to be a part of a solution that has the potential to accelerate green transition on a global scale,” Lahtinen summarises.

Mikko Hänninen (left) and Elmeri Lahtinen (right)

Sonja Salo makes buildings more energy efficient with the help of

Doctors of energy technology Sonja Salo, Jaakko Rauhala and Rami El Geneidy have known each other since college. Years after graduation the now-entrepreneurs found a shared interest in energy efficiency of buildings. There are pathways to carbon neutral buildings such as electricity and renewable energy, but scaling them to all buildings is challenging.

Founded in 2020, solves this problem with a software which tracks a building’s energy consumption and schedules it to the times when there is more renewable energy available, such as on sunny and windy days. With buildings from offices to shopping malls can feed any excess energy back to the grid and make money from it.

“I’m lucky to be able to work with such fantastic and ambitious people. Our goal is to accelerate the global transition to renewable energy,” Salo says.

In Salo’s experience, a research background is useful as an entrepreneur. As decision-making is based on understanding the root cause of a problem and testing hypotheses, money and time are saved to save the world.

Sonja Salo

The Young Research Entrepreneur of the Year is a 5,000 euro award given annually by the KAUTE Foundation’s Academic Entrepreneurship Fund to a researcher who has developed a new research-based business. Read more about the award here!