Science Parks and Universities Team Up to Pave the Path to First Estonian Deep-tech Unicorn

Tartu University, Taltech, Tartu Science Park and Tehnopol Science and Business Park team up to launch Põhjanael (North Star) – a joint programme to boost the growth of R&D-intensive startup companies. 

Supporting emergence and commercialization of new and existing science and research projects is a key function of many science parks who know that the road to market for research-intensive teams is tough. To provide this support, Tartu Science Park (TSP) and Tehnopol have teamed up with TalTech – Tallinn University of Technology and the University of Tartu, to launch a unique accelerator pilot program Põhjanael (North Star).

“In the next ten years, we could see Estonia’s first deep tech unicorn! Maybe even faster as there are already some strong deep tech companies on the rise and the Estonian startup ecosystem is very supportive and agile,” Heidi Kakko, mentor at Põhjanael says. Globally there are many support models and strategies that work very well locally, but they are not transferable one on one. 

Andrus Kurvits, Board Member of Tartu Science Park explains that based on the findings of Põhjanael and the long-term experiences of the science parks and universities, the partners will create an approach suitable for Estonia. “It takes more than a decade and broad-based cooperation of the ecosystem to get a deep-tech startup off the ground. Therefore failing fast is not the option, but learning from mistakes and building together for the future is the only way.”

The universities and science parks will be working together to take research-intensive companies to a new level. Põhjanael aims to bridge the gaps of various development programmes that are available in the network and connect them to a unique programme that helps with go-to-market and investor readiness. Over the course of nine months, participating teams will follow a personalized roadmap with the help of an expert mentor network. As a testbed, Põhjanael creates a model for cooperation on a basis for a common accelerator.

European Commission has stated that to accelerate the modernisation of the EU industry, the uptake of product and service innovations, use of innovative manufacturing technologies and the introduction of new business models is necessary. EU empowers the development of policies that help speed up the broad commercialisation of innovation. A good example of it is the IMPROVE project where TSP with partners across Europe focuses on doing exactly that, by improving the effectiveness of Structural Funds Programmes dedicated to building up R&D&I policies so that they would have a positive impact on our everyday life.

Kadri Tammai, Head of Tehnopol Startup Incubator states that deep-tech projects have been mainly funded through local or international research grants. “This is a good start, not the end goal. Our mission is to build a sustainable model on how the transfer from science to business will become investment ready and have a business model that also showcases the demand from the consumers’ side and willingness to pay for the innovative products and services,” Tammai says.

Also known as deep-tech companies, R&D-driven companies typically take longer to enter the market than in the traditional sector or in the IT sector, and they need broad-based cooperation and support to reach market readiness. They are often working to solve big topical problems, with the first years of development spent on product development and new technology to find the right niche in the market. Their main challenge is how to apply research to solve practical problems so that their R&D team can gain a business perspective and develop a business model, in addition to the product or technology. 

Researchers who are able to see and solve complex problems can also innovatively address real-world bottlenecks based on the same approach. The transfer of solutions from science to business makes it possible to solve real problems in a way that benefits society more broadly and that the operating model is sustainable. 

IMPROVE project looks forward to leaning on initiatives such as Põhjanael to find long-term impactful solutions for complex challenges we are facing in modern society. What better place to look then at the brightest minds in our R&D communities?

Põhjanael programme is supported by the European Regional Development Fund within the framework of the public procurement “Development of the Estonian Emerging Business Ecosystem and Development Programs for Emerging Entrepreneurs 2020” (project number EU50651).

IMPROVE project is supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Interreg Europe Programme. Find out more: