Avanto Technologies Oy is a young company focused on wearable heating technologies. Founded by two Aalto Arts alumni, Visa Kupias, a former Industrial and Strategic Design student, is one of them. We interviewed him to learn more about his journey and how he managed to start his own business.
Visa, tell us a bit about yourself and how you became the founder and CEO of Avanto Technologies Oy.
Before I started to study Design in 2007, I studied Fine Arts for a year. During that time, we had an excursion at a school in London where you could study design among other things, and I decided to apply there because I realized that Fine Arts was not really for me and I got in. I studied a BSc in Industrial Design with Marketing in London for three years. I also studied one year in the United States, at the California State University in Long Beach. I wanted to get a broad view of how design is done in different places around the world. I hadn’t studied Design in Finland at all, so I didn’t know the scene here before I applied for Aalto University. I had worked for a little while before applying here and I returned to Finland in 2011, and worked for a year in a company doing design work and a product line-up for a heavy machinery company. However, I realized that this wasn’t really for me either in the long run. So I applied for Aalto and got in. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew that it was going to be different than what it was in the USA and the UK. I knew that Aalto had a strong research background, and I wanted to look into that side of studying design as well, instead of just preserving my skills in how to do physical prototypes and CAD and drawing.
I studied Industrial and Strategic Design (predecessor of Collaborative and Industrial Design) and Design Strategy was also an interest of mine next to usability and all those things that you can pick within this program. I had some kind of an idea of what I wanted to do after I graduate, what kind of company I wanted to work for, but I really didn’t know that I would end up starting my own company or be a founder. Initially I thought that I would like to work for a company that would be heavy on usability, or doing functional products that are good quality and well designed, such as Suunto or Fiskars – but not necessarily a Finnish company. I love cars as well and always wanted to work for a car company, but then I knew how hard it is to distinguish in that field. I was imagining a company where they value the functional side of design, because I didn’t want to do just styling. I knew I wanted to do products. I never wanted to become a service designer. There are many people going into that direction now, but I think, if you have a passion for something, you have to go for it and not just do service design because other people are doing it or it is available.
During the Master program, I chose some experimental courses because I wanted to see what things such as design philosophy were about, but in general, I did choose mostly courses on product design. And at some point, I ended up in the same course as Aino Aarnio-Juurinen, who is my Co-Founder. One of the courses we did together was the Interactive Prototyping course by Jussi Mikkonen. We ended up designing a really cool prototype that was basically a cast shoe for a broken foot that would sense the pressure of your foot and that according to the doctor’s settings, would tell you how you should walk with it. It would help you to rehabilitate but also not put too much pressure on the foot to cause further injury. We got very good publicity for that project as well as feedback from that course and we figured out that Aino and me work pretty well together. We did another project together for Toshiba and that was a nice project as well about wellness and our prototype ended up being a wearable technology product again. Aino had a passion for wearable tech way before me. She already knew five years ago that she was going to do wearable design and she has worked for a wearable technology company. I didn’t know too much about it but I felt that it was something special. I am tech-freak and I love technology and gadgets like phones, computers, and other electronics. So, this was an opportunity to do high-tech while giving it a design twist as well, as we felt that a lot of wearable tech products on our field at the moment are not designed very well. The competing products function ok but they are designed by engineers. We have a new technology that really benefits from good design and usability. Someone is actually wearing it on their body and not just having it in their pocket or in their hand. So it really needs to be comfortable and it needs to take into account mental side as well to avoid technophobia.
So for our masters’ thesis, we decided to work together. That’s where it all started with the diving suits that have the technology integrated into them. We started looking at extreme sports and we wanted to do something in a very demanding atmosphere, where we could make the user happier or make the equipment better to use. Diving is a subject extremely focused on improving something that was invented 50 years ago, but it is only improving on the durability or safety, not from the point of view of design, the ergonomics and so on. We figured that there is a lot that we can do in terms of design while making use of wearable technology and our skills and experience.
We then ended up applying for a couple of competitions and taking the product around Europe. We were in Rome and Munich, showing it at conferences, talking to people and ended up getting very good feedback. So we decided to see how far we can take it. We won the METEX award for the best technology thesis, got some money and used that towards getting it out there. We started looking at where we can get advice on how to run a business and ended up applying for the Summer of Startups. It’s a startup accelerator program run by Aalto Entrepreneurship Society and it’s a great one.
Can you tell us a bit more about that Summer of Startups program?
You apply for it in the spring and you have to have a team and an idea and maybe something to show in terms of a prototype or a business plan. A lot of them are actually apps or services. You go and pitch your idea and if you get in, the program lasts for two months. You stay at the Startup Sauna at Otaniemi, get tutor sessions with professional investors and you get pitching advice and also many parties. Every week there is a BBQ party. Different companies sponsor it and the teams taking part have to serve BBQ food to around 500 people. In the end, there is a Demo Day, where you show how far your company moved from the day you started to 9 weeks later. The best pitch wins. You then get opportunities from the investors or an office or the possibility entry into Startup Sauna, which is another accelerator afterwards. The SLUSH conference would be another one of these opportunities as well. None of these programs involve money yet. It is entirely up to you how you pitch to the investors but you get many opportunities to talk to them and meet a lot of them and if you find a suitable one, it is way easier that way than actually just cold calling them.
What has influenced you most to get to where you are today?
The kick-off was definitely the Interactive Prototyping course, as it makes you think out of the box and that everything is possible. It helps you to develop an inventor’s mindset. Our technology is also quite novel. The usability courses are great for doing actual products and applying user-centred design. Also, to use the possibilities of cross-disciplinary work is crucial, but there should be even more possibilities for it in Aalto, because we have all kinds of people from design, engineering and business. There’s the IDBM but often some people get in and some don’t. Even if you don’t get in, there are opportunities to just talk to people and get them involved and make use of spaces like the Media Factory, Design Factory and Startup Sauna. It is about much more than just courses. If you really want to get most out of it, you should make use of the many opportunities. I do think that there should be a better introduction on how to become a founder or part of a startup, as there is such good opportunities here. I don’t think they all reach Arabia though. There needs to be more designers in the startup scene. Only the really active ones end up there, but hopefully it will improve when everyone moves to Otaniemi in the near future.
Another influential event was that Aino and me did the thesis together. I would encourage everyone to think about doing it with someone who is not from their own discipline. Aino is a Clothing Designer, which was still inside the same Aalto Arts campus, but yet a different discipline. You can also collaborate with an engineer or a business person. When we tried to do the thesis, we were told that this hasn’t been done and it’s not that easy. When we finished, they were impressed, gave us high grades and asked why we didn’t write the text part together. We told them that it was because we were instructed not to. A lesson from that could be that you shouldn’t let yourself be restricted because something hasn’t been done yet, or someone says it is not possible. If you really believe in what you are doing, a lot of the times the rules can be adjusted.
Where should students go if they are interested in founding a company?
If you are interested in founding a company you can join the next TeamUp meeting or just drop by Startup Sauna. Even if you don’t win in one of the competitions, it is still a great experience to pitch on a big stage to investors or serve BBQ to 500 people. It is definitely worth it. Often times when you are an entrepreneur, it is not your first startup, as it might be the third or fourth that is then becoming successful. It is a matter of remembering that and not just being turned off when it doesn’t work out. For us this is the first startup now and I guess we will just try hard and see what happens [laughing]. We feel that there were so many times where it could have gone in another way and we wouldn’t be here today. Almost every month something happens and it might go the wrong way. It even might be that everything goes wrong, but so many times it was just that everything wound up the right way and we are still here and happy. You just have to try.
What was one of the best moments for you during that journey?
There are so many ups and downs, but it’s something that makes it worth it, because when you feel desperate and realize that maybe in a month you will be looking for a job, and then something positive happens, you feel it even more. Today we had happy news. Sometimes we wait for months to hear from someone who doesn’t answer in a far country. There are things that can stall the whole process when someone doesn’t pick up the phone or answer the email. Yet, overall, it is a great experience.
Last year we were in Munich taking part in the Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup and we were finalists. There was a huge conference room with 1500 people and I had to go and present the idea; that was one of the scariest but also one of the greatest moments for me. I don’t remember anything from being on stage but I remember being relieved and everyone told me that it went well. You get into those kinds of situation when you start something yourself and start getting moderate success. I don’t think a lot of people have that experience. It is definitely valuable.
What is next for Avanto?
There are a lot of things lined up. Just today we got good news: we got a grant from this invention trust called Runar Backströmin Säätiö. We were also approved for the Webit Summit in Sofia. We got free tickets and a free booth and we are going to pitch on the stage to investors. That’s going to be in April. Currently, we are working on a new product. We are not doing just a diving suit anymore but we are still doing infared heating. We are actually looking to develop a brand new way to heat clothing, so we want to integrate the heating into the actual clothing so that the heating elements and wires are not felt by the user. We will offer that to many sports companies and other applications such as every-day, work and military. We are talking with many companies and they are very interested. This summer we should have a working demonstration for them. We have a government-funded Tekes project going on right now. It lasts 7 months and one of the aims is to create a demo that actually functions. That is something we are working on very hard. We have our first patent coming out as well. It should be something that we can talk about in the next month and show it to people. Everything is looking pretty good. At some point, we are maybe also looking to have an intern or hire an actual employee. We have been talking about that with the university. Someone could come and do his or her graduation work for us. We want to give back to the university and cooperate with them as well. They provide great possibilities for startups so there should be opportunities for students from our side. It’s exciting.