Entrepreneurs on Ice

To conquer the Polar Bear Pitch challenge, hosted by Finland's Oulu Business School, founders must be resilient, focused, and unlikely to freeze under pressure.
Entrepreneurs on Ice

Founders pitch their idea for Fineria, a builder of sustainable hybrid power generators, from the “ice hole” in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Henri Luoma Photography)

 

FOR MOST ENTREPRENEURS, it’s a “trial by fire” to pitch their business plans in front of a panel of potential investors. But what if they must face a trial by ice? Oulu Business School (OBS) at the University of Oulu in Finland answers that question with its annual Polar Bear Pitching challenge, where entrepreneurs pitch to judges while immersed chest-deep in the freezing waters of the Baltic Sea.

OBS held its first Polar Bear Pitching challenge in February 2014, soon after the 2012 downfall of the Finnish mobile phone company Nokia. “Many former Nokia employees were establishing high-tech companies,” says Mia Kemppaala, who then worked for OBS. “It was challenging for the engineers to communicate their innovations in simple and understandable ways.”

That’s when Kemppaala got the idea for Polar Bear Pitching. By having to make their pitches from the freezing water, founders would be forced to sharpen their presentation skills and focus on their core messages. The concept was inspired by the concept of sisu, which in Finnish refers to the idea of bravery and resilience in the face of adversity—attributes revered among Finns.

Finalists give their pitches after stepping into the “ice hole” cut into the frozen surface of the Baltic Sea. They can take as long as they like to make their presentations, pitching alone or in teams. However, they cannot wear wet suits, thermal suits, or neoprene; and they cannot use slides or props. Through words alone, they must present a clear message and demonstrate the value of their ideas.

The judges—ten to 12 venture capitalists, angels, and Oulu corporate partners—watch the presentations from shore. After completing their pitches, contestants leave the water to sit in an outdoor hot tub, where judges can ask further questions. The winning startup receives €10,000 (about US$11,380).

Entrepreneurs on Ice girl

 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
2018 winner Tatsiana Zaretskaya pitches her idea for
Artisun, which produces LED lights that maximize
plant growth. (Photo courtesy of Henri
Luoma Photography)

“Many participants train indoors in tubs filled with ice water, while others train outdoors,” says Kemppaala. Since 2017, the semifinals also have been held the day before the finals, so that participants can have the opportunity to pitch from the ice hole, even if they don’t make the final cut.

In its first year, the competition attracted 30 startups, most from Finland. Since 2015, the event has attracted participants from 20 different countries. Last year, 30 startups took part in the semifinals, and 12 in the finals.

It’s not just startup founders who take the plunge. “We’ve had ambassadors from the United States and Canada, the foreign trade minister of Finland, and representatives from companies such as Nokia and JP Morgan” give presentations from the water, says Kemppaala. Last year, eco-entrepreneur Alan Laubsch, now CEO of Generation Blue, delivered a keynote speech from the ice hole on the importance of saving the world’s mangrove trees, which are efficient synthesizers of carbon dioxide. Afterward, Laubsch called Polar Bear Pitching the “coolest pitch event in the world.”

Today, the Polar Bear Pitch finals garner the attention of global media and are livestreamed to audiences around the world. However, the event extends beyond the pitches from the ice. It includes an indoor conference and trade show, workshops, and a postfinals networking party.

It also has become a learning opportunity for OBS students, who help organize the event. Faculty and staff members chip in to find sponsors, help with branding, organize workshops for the participants, or invite investors and other experts from their networks to attend.

In 2017, the event was named Finland’s Best Startup Ecosystem Initiative by the Nordic Startup Awards. The school intends to expand the event into a global competition, in which participants who win qualification rounds around the world then travel to Finland to compete in a world championship. In 2019, Oulu Business School plans to hold qualification rounds in Norway, Japan, and possibly China. The 2019 finals will be held March 12–13.

“This fantastically bizarre event provides for huge engagement opportunities between students, faculty, and business representatives,” says Kemppaala. “It has resulted in dozens of innovations that lead to true impact, not only in Northern Finland but also abroad.”

Watch a video of highlights from the 2018 Polar Bear Pitching challenge. Learn more.

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