Inside Nokia Bridge: How Nokia funds ex-employees' new start-ups

Nokia Bridge scheme offers seed capital to employees that the company has made redundant, to help them get their own start-ups off the ground. Here's how three of them found the experience
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

With 40,000 layoffs announced in the last two years, Nokia has lost technical talent hand over fist. In response, it's set up a number of centres in Europe, India and the US to help those faced with redundancy to find a new job, either inside or outside the company.

The scheme, known as Bridge, was introduced in April 2011 and offers an entrepreneurial stream. For those with a new business idea in need of backing, the programme can lead to start-up funding and exposure to angel investors, venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs.

Among the start-ups to get funding from Bridge so far is Jolla, the Finnish smartphone software company that's taken the reins of the MeeGo, the OS that Nokia nixed last year.

Ejected Nokians can pitch for seed capital of €25,000 from the scheme, with up to four ex-employees able to band together in order to access a potential pool of €100,000, according to Techcrunch.

Kimmo Saarela, chief exec of TreLab, says Nokia encourages former employees to form teams - and it took him just five minutes to convince the company's current CTO, Tero Kärkkäinen, and its CMO, Harri Koskinen, to join his team in August 2011. Another ex-Nokian, TreLab's chief software architect, Petri Karhula joined later.

The company is now developing its Oloni wireless measurement system, with a full product launch expected before the end of the year. Combining a cookie-sized wireless measurement device and a monitoring system, Oloni can be used to track humidity, temperature and speed on any object in motion - say, if someone falls over.

Nokia isn't just handing money out to its alumni, however.

Nokia's headquarters in Espoo, Finland
There are four Bridge centres in Finland, including one near its headquarters in Espoo, pictured abovePhoto: Nokia

"The seed funding provided by Nokia is no free lunch. It's kind of a Dragon's Den; you have to convince a team of assigned Bridge people that your idea is worth the funding and can survive," says Saarela.

"We convinced our spouses we are not insane"

"We took it seriously, as we have a significant personal investment in this, so we made our business plan, interviewed potential customers, made evaluations, convinced our spouses that we are not insane, and eventually got the funding from Nokia based on our joint application."

The start-up also got a helping hand with the entrepreneurial side of developing the business: Saarela joined the start-up centre Protomo, which has a branch in Tampere, home to one of Nokia's research centres. Protomo works closely with Nokia in the region and offered Saarela facilities, coaching, networking opportunities and insights into what it means to be an entrepreneur.

"I think this aspect of facilitating various activities is a big part of the Bridge programme, and it has been very successful in Tampere region," he says.

Another ex-Nokia employee, Juha Rämälä, secured Bridge funding for a device called Runteq, which helps runners manage their performance. For Rämälä, the scheme gave him access to lectures from serial entrepreneurs, angels investors and business development experts.

"Business ideas were discussed in the Bridge board, with individual Bridge members as well as external consultants to make the most out of them. It was a very encouraging atmosphere," says Rämälä.

The Bridge funding has had flow on effects, enabling Rämälä and co-founder Tommi Ojala (who left before the Bridge scheme was established) to secure more funds from TEKES, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation.

Social TV startup Tellyo - which is working on users via an app and small device that can turn a user's mobile into a remote control, enabling them to take two or three minute grabs of a TV programme and share via social media - has also been a beneficiary of Bridge.

Although its CEO and founder Kimmo Koivisto was excluded from Bridge because he left Nokia in 2010 - only those who are made redundant since the scheme's creation can apply for funding - Tellyo's CTO, Jakub Majkowski and its co-founder, Justyna Kowalska, were still eligible to apply for funding as former Nokians.

"They both were at Nokia and were good friends and had been developing the idea for the whole time," said Koivisto.

Nokia was "pretty strict" about eligibility to attend the pitching events, which meant Koivisto was left to do background work including defining the product and how to create a business out of it.

Tellyo has already launched a beta version Android app and should have an iOS version out later this year, having been approved for Bridge funding in late 2011.

Three hundred start-ups later

Since its inception, Bridge has helped over 300 start-ups get their start - a debt Trelab's Sareela acknowledges, saying the company wouldn't exist without Bridge: "This programme gave us the necessary final push from the corporate world to entrepreneurship."

It's a sentiment echoed by Koivisto. Without Bridge, "Tellyo would still be our hobby," he says.

There are clear benefits for Nokia's ex-employees from Bridge, but what's in it Nokia?

"For Nokia... hmm... getting rid of the baggage clean and fast?" jokes Runteq's Rämälä. "Well, I guess in the eyes of society and government it is the right thing to do. And hey, maybe those start-ups like Jolla will someday rescue mother Nokia and then every euro was well spent."

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