The European university turning student ideas into startups

Sweden’s reputation as an innovation hub and knowledge nation often leads entrepreneurs and startups from across the globe to wonder what the Nordic country is doing right.

The European university turning student ideas into startups
Photo: Linköping University

A university in southern Sweden might hold the answer. LiU Innovation, the innovation office at Linköping University (LiU), is replicating Sweden’s culture of openness and innovation to support staff and students on their startup journey. 

Abhishek Jacob Chethikatt and Naveen Sasidharan are two former LiU master’s students who took advantage of the free service. It was during the refugee crisis of 2015 that the then-students identified the language barrier was a mounting problem in Sweden’s already hard-pressed public healthcare system.

“Over the next six months, we conducted market research with emergency doctors at Linköping University Hospital and also worked vigorously with LiU Innovation – in the evenings after classes and on the weekends,” recalls Chethikatt. “We were both clueless beginners but the supportive advisors at LiU Innovation, many of whom had been entrepreneurs themselves, stood by us from day one and gave us the tools to build and evaluate a prototype and a verifiable product as well as coached us in building and marketing our brand. The soft funding we received early on in the form of student competencies was also key in this process.”

Find out more about the innovation office at Linköping University

In January 2017, the two co-founders officially launched Worldish, a software company bridging language barriers in the Swedish healthcare system.

Photos: Worldish

Ecosystem for entrepreneurship

Sweden is ranked among the best in the world for starting a business and is frequently named among the world’s most innovative countries. It’s this widespread spirit of innovation that Sasidharan says initially drew him to Sweden – and LiU.

“I decided to come to Sweden because I had a dream of starting a technology company with a social agenda. I had read a lot about Sweden’s well-developed ecosystem for entrepreneurship and how the culture of openness and equality and risk-reduction was very conducive for innovation,” says Sasidharan, who gained his MA in electronics engineering. 

Founded on the premise that the world is in pressing need for creative, actionable solutions to real-world problems, Linköping University has, from its inception 40 years ago, proven by example that creativity and innovation can indeed be fostered. While harbouring cutting-edge research in the fields of engineering, environmental studies, natural sciences, and beyond, LiU is no ivory tower – its students, especially at the advanced levels, are often anxious to use the classroom as a springboard for social change.

“Linköping University is steeped in a progressive spirit, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a framework often invoked as a guiding light both on the institutional level and in the classroom,” says Jenny Wallhoff, Communications Officer at LiU Innovation. “Professors and lecturers alike insist for their students to keep in the back of their minds how their knowledge can be leveraged to address the major challenges of today.”

Photo: Worldish

With its aspiration to provide students with a purpose-driven and engaged education, the LiU experience is characterized by students working across multiple disciplines to collaborate and think outside the box. At the university’s innovation office, master students in particular often start enterprises of their own or get involved with already operational research-driven enterprises.

“LiU is a facilitator of innovation support which aspires to provide competence and connections to ambitious students and researchers and guide them at the crucial moments. We provide counsel on everything from idea protection to funding opportunities, and over the years, we have helped many students set up customer talks, verify their markets, and implement sustainability strategies,” says Jenny Wallhoff.

Find out more about studying at Linköping University

Karin Ackerholm, one of LiU Innovation’s six Innovation Advisors, agrees with Jenny Wallhoff that LiU has an entrepreneurial ethos. She adds that the ambition of students to go above and beyond is one of the key factors of success of the ventures supported by LiU Innovation.

“An interdisciplinary institution at heart, LiU is defined by the aspirational nature of the students and researchers it attracts, many of whom sought out LiU – and LiU Innovation – to be able to transcend the silo thinking which all too often comes in the way of innovation and problem-solving,” says Ackerholm.

Typical of egalitarian Sweden, with its flat hierarchies and absence of rigid power structures, at LiU and LiU Innovation alike, this interdisciplinary mindset is underpinned by an open-minded and mutually supportive relationship between staff and students.

“Like other ambitious modern universities, LiU strives to do away with obsolete and departmental thinking patterns. As a relatively young institution, we have always had a strong tradition of collaboration and cross-fertilization. Especially connected to entrepreneurship and innovation there is a real sense of community and team spirit, and everyone sees the value we are creating,” says Ackerholm.

Photo: Abhishek Jacob Chethikatt and Naveen Sasidharan

Shortly after launching, Worldish, which aligns with two of the UN’s Social Development Goals – Good Health and Well-being as well Reducing Inequality – was selected as one of five startups to join LiU Impact Factory, a business accelerator for socially engaged startups. From there, Worldish has embarked on a rapid start-up journey and today their software Helen is in commercial use at labour wards, emergency rooms, and in primary care across Sweden. In the near future, Chethikatt and Sasidharan will work to expand the applications of their digital service to facilitate social integration more broadly in Sweden and beyond.

“We are currently working with the LEAD business incubator at LiU to scale and internationalize our business and also to introduce Helen to the Danish, German, and British markets,” says Sasidharan. “LiU and LiU Innovation really transformed us into the entrepreneurs we are today. Without our advisors and mentors, who kept motivating us and encouraged us to focus on the big social problem we were trying to address, we would not have had the confidence to persevere throughout this journey.”

LiU offers programmes in Biomedical Engineering, Experimental and Medical Bioscience, International and European Relations, Design, Intelligent Transport Systems, Ethnic and Migration Studies, Strategic Urban and Regional Planning. Find out more here.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Linköping University.

Paywall free


Norway shuts all schools and universities to fight coronavirus pandemic

Norway is closing all schools, kindergartens, and universities to slow the spread of coronavirus, in what Prime Minister Erna Solberg has called "the most far-reaching measures we have ever had in peacetime in Norway". (Paywall free).

Norway shuts all schools and universities to fight coronavirus pandemic
The law department at Oslo University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
“All the country's kindergartens, schools, primary schools, secondary schools, technical colleges and universities are to be closed,” Solberg confirmed at a press conference held at her cabinet office on Thursday, according to a report by state broadcaster NRK
The measures, laid out in detail on the website of Norway's Health Ministry, will apply from 6pm on Thursday and remain in force until March 26. 
They also include a provision requiring everyone who has arrived in Norway from anywhere apart from the Nordic countries since February 27 to enter into compulsory quarantine in their homes, whether or not they are displaying any symptoms. 
Solberg said that though difficult, the measures were necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus. 
“We are in a difficult time, both for Norway and for the world,” she said, according to the VG newspaper. “The drastic measures we are now taking are in the hope of stopping the virus. We are doing this in solidarity with the elderly, the chronically ill, and others who are particularly at risk of developing a serious illness. We must protect ourselves to protect others.” 
She warned employees faced with unexpected childcare demands not to call on elderly relatives for help. “We must remind you who we should most be looking out for. We should therefore not hand over childcare to grandparents who are in the risk category.” 
Erna Solberg delivered the address at her cabinet offices. Photo: Norwegian Government
Camilla Stoltenberg, Division Director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, estimated at the briefing that between 22,000 and 30,000 people would be hospitalised as a result of infection, with up to 7,600 requiring intensive treatment.
The measures announced include: 
  • Closure of all schools, kindergartens and universities.
  • A provision requiring primary schools and kindergartens to stay partially open in order to look after the children of key personnel in healthcare, transport and other critical social functions.  
  • Cultural events, sports events, gyms and businesses offering hairdressing, skincare, massage, body care and tattooing are all banned. Swimming pools will be closed.
  • Buffet restaurants are banned. Other restaurants, bars and cafés must ensure guests are kept at least one metre from one another.
  • A requirement for everyone arriving in Norway from outside the Nordic to enter quarantine, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. This is retroactive to 27 February.
  • Restrictions on visitors to all the country's health facilities and the introduction of access control.
  • People are asked not to visit institutions housing vulnerable groups (old people's home, psychiatric hospitals, prisons etc).
  • Healthcare professionals working with patients are banned from travelling abroad.
Shops will continue to be open as normal, and the Ministry of Health advised people to shop normally and not seek to  hoard food.
The transport system will continue operating as normal, but people are encouraged to avoid unnecessary travel. 
Shortly after the press conference, King Harald V of Norway issued a statement saying that the Royal House was suspending all official engagements until Easter. 

“Our country is in a serious situation that affects individuals and society as a whole. It is crucial that we all participate in the national effort to avoid exposing ourselves or others to infection,” the release read. 

“It is therefore important that we all follow recommendations and orders from the authorities. We must contribute what we can to prevent the spread of the virus, and I would especially like to thank health professionals all over the country who are doing their utmost to remedy the developments. We all hope that the situation will soon turn around.” 

This article will be updated as more information becomes available.