Founders Spotlight introduces the stories of Voima Ventures portfolio firm founders and CEOs. Last time at Finders Spotlight we had Nadine Pesonen from Quanturi sharing her journey from academic life to entrepreneurship. This time we got together with Ville Kolehmainen, the co-founder and CEO of Iiwari.
Iiwari is an indoor positioning company that has roots at VTT. Locating anything is at their core. From hospitals to supermarkets, there are multiple ways to make processes more efficient and safe with the accurate location data that can be gathered with their technology.
Your original education is in teaching which does not exactly put you on a path to founding an indoor positioning company. Can you walk us through, how did a teacher end up founding a technology startup?
Often you hear people say that their parents or close relatives inspired them to become entrepreneurs. For me that was not the case. In fact, my family has always been above all more academic than entrepreneurial. They wanted me to have an academic career as well. I got my first summer job when I was 12-years-old and already back when I was a teenager explored various businesses. I’ve always been sure that entrepreneurship somehow ended up in my DNA.
Maybe the biggest turning point in my life was actually when I decided to study to become a teacher. My family had always wanted me to get an academic degree and that’s how I ended up becoming a teacher. The other option that I was really close to choosing was to attend the National Defence University. If I would have chosen that, I am almost certain that I would not be here today. My background in education gave me freedom to do more and then I just somehow ended up having worked for quite a many technological companies. And eventually, it led to founding Iiwari.
How did you first meet your co-founder and was it an easy decision to start Iiwari together?
The first time I met my co-founder Jukka was already back in 2009 when he started building a house next to ours. Obviously, I was curious to know who my new neighbors are. Back then he was working for VTT as a researcher, and we talked about this interesting technology he is building called UWB which could be used for indoor positioning.
Then over 6 years later we made plans for me to actually see how the technology works at their offices in Kajaani. By then I had gathered quite a lot of experience in the indoor positioning space. Wifi, BLE, magnetics, light, sound, you name it. I knew all the pros and cons in all of them, and I knew to be sceptical about the whole thing.
This time ended up being an exception. I was totally blown away by how accurate the technology was. With that little effort I had never seen anything like that. We did the demo with a simple office chair and the program perfectly modeled even the spinning of the chair. I had known that this specificity was possible but with so little equipment, and simply just super clever and efficient tech.
I had to ask if Jukka was planning on doing a spin-off from VTT, and to my absolute delightment he said yes. We decided to join forces and I don’t think we ever even took a second thought about it. We knew we could make indoor positioning remarkably cheaper and more precise, and I had personally waited to find a technology like this for too long to just walk past this opportunity. I don’t think we ever took a second thought about whether or not we should do this: we knew it was the perfect next step for both of us.
Iiwari team gathering to Vuokatti for a get together with the whole team.
Iiwari is based in Vuokatti which is not your traditional startup city in Finland. Why Vuokatti, and what would you say are the best and most trickiest bits about being located there?
The original reason was because we both lived in Vuokatti, but over the time we have not really identified ourselves as being located in any specific city. We currently have 12 team members located in 4 cities: Vuokatti, Oulu, Kuopio, and Helsinki. Working remotely has been the norm for us since the beginning and online working has been familiar to us even before Covid-19. We were super prepared for that one in terms of team communications.
Obviously Vuokatti is not the business center of Finland, but we are anyways aiming for international business and our tech is remotely installable by our partners. When it’s needed we are ready to explore other living arrangements but for now this has worked for us. The team can be located all around the country or in different countries for all that matters. Before Covid-19 we used to gather together every 2 to 3 months and spent a couple of days together, and that was enough.
What has been your happiest memory at Iiwari so far? Or is there any particular moment that you keep going back to?
I would like to say that the best memory has been the moment when Jukka gave the demo and I saw how well the technology worked. That moment truly inspired me. However, we got pretty close to those emotions when we got to instal our product to the first retail store and it worked just as planned. This was in 2017. I had been looking for a game changing indoor positioning technology for retail stores for so many years that seeing the technology work in that specific context made me so happy I almost cried. It was an extraordinary and joyous moment for me and Jukka both. Later getting anything installed always makes me remember those first experiences with the technology.
What are the most exciting milestones you are looking to achieve in 2021 and beyond?
During 2020 we have piloted our technology in multiple verticals and executed first commercial deployments. This year is for scaling up. Of course the dream would be to close any massive deals and get to distribute our technology all around the world. We know the benefits of it but we think everyone should know. The improved efficiency and safety are great motivators for the future. We know we are working with world changing technologies, and the next step is to show everyone what we can do.