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.

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Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

Children between ages 6-9 years should be allowed admittance to after-school recreation centers free of charge, according to a report submitted to Sweden’s Minister of Education Lotta Edholm (L).

Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

“If this reform is implemented, after-school recreation centers will be accessible to the children who may have the greatest need for the activities,” said Kerstin Andersson, who was appointed to lead a government inquiry into expanding access to after-school recreation by the former Social Democrat government. 

More than half a million primary- and middle-school-aged children spend a large part of their school days and holidays in after-school centres.

But the right to after-school care is not freely available to all children. In most municipalities, it is conditional on the parent’s occupational status of working or studying. Thus, attendance varies and is significantly lower in areas where unemployment is high and family finances weak.

In this context, the previous government formally began to inquire into expanding rights to leisure. The report was recently handed over to Sweden’s education minister, Lotta Edholm, on Monday.

Andersson proposed that after-school activities should be made available free of charge to all children between the ages of six and nine in the same way that preschool has been for children between the ages of three and five. This would mean that children whose parents are unemployed, on parental leave or long-term sick leave will no longer be excluded. 

“The biggest benefit is that after-school recreation centres will be made available to all children,” Andersson said. “Today, participation is highest in areas with very good conditions, while it is lower in sparsely populated areas and in areas with socio-economic challenges.” 

Enforcing this proposal could cause a need for about 10,200 more places in after-school centre, would cost the state just over half a billion kronor a year, and would require more adults to work in after-school centres. 

Andersson recommends recruiting staff more broadly, and not insisting that so many staff are specialised after-school activities teachers, or fritidspedagod

“The Education Act states that qualified teachers are responsible for teaching, but that other staff may participate,” Andersson said. “This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that other staff may be used, but preferably not’. We propose that recognition be given to so-called ‘other staff’, and that they should be given a clear role in the work.”

She suggested that people who have studied in the “children’s teaching and recreational programmes” at gymnasium level,  people who have studied recreational training, and social educators might be used. 

“People trained to work with children can contribute with many different skills. Right now, it might be an uncertain work situation for many who work for a few months while the employer is looking for qualified teachers”, Andersson said.