Visionary collaboration program accelerated Stora Enso’s transformation

What do you get when you combine executive education, startups, and a global corporation?

Annamari Typpö, 12.03.2018

Agility, speed, and a new outlook on co-development, says Malin Bendz, Executive Vice President for Human Resources at Stora Enso.

When Stora Enso, the renewable materials company headquartered in Helsinki, Finland, wanted to take another step in its transformation, it decided to seek new insight and innovation by partnering up with startups. What was unique with the setup was that Stora Enso combined executive education for their in-house talents with the practical experience of working side-by-side with the start-ups, which enabled an unprecedented organizational learning process. The collaboration resulted in interesting business opportunities which the company is now exploring. The initiative was formalized through a corporate development program, in partnership with two parties; the Helsinki-based business augmentor Vertical, with expertise on startups, and Aalto ENT, who provided the executive education.

Stora Enso’s transformation to become a leader in the bio-economy started several years ago, as a response to global trends such as, for example, eco-awareness, urbanization, digitalization, and global warming. The company believes that everything that today is made from fossil-based materials can tomorrow be made from tree.  

“The global trends create challenges but also new opportunities. We are convinced that Stora Enso and the forestry industry can contribute to managing the planet’s resources in a more sustainable way," says Malin Bendz, Executive Vice President for Human Resources at Stora Enso.

“Imagine the number of products we use in our everyday lives. Many of them used to be non-renewable. We at Stora Enso create renewable options that are both environmentally friendly and intelligent,” she concludes.

World’s oldest company continues to develop

For the world’s oldest company, dating back to 1288, change is, of course, nothing new. As Bendz puts it, “transformation is part of the company’s DNA.” In 2017, Stora Enso’s transformation towards a renewable materials company has led to the growth businesses contributing 71 percent of the company’ sales and 84 percent of its profits. The growth comes mainly from consumer board, packaging solutions, biomaterials, and wood products.

With the asset transformation nearly completed, the company’s focus is now on innovation and customer insights. “This sets new requirements on competencies and expertise. That’s where the accelerator program came in,” Bendz says.

“We need to develop our employees as part of the transformation and we need speed, flexibility, and agility. Therefore, we have to become better at tapping into the competencies in the ecosystem around us and to partner with third parties.”

Aalto ENT was able to provide us with the learning journey, combining a solid academic framework with a very hands-on experience, which we were searching for."

That’s how the idea for the Accelerator Program was born. “The accelerator program was a way to develop our innovation capabilities and advance our understanding about customer insights and new technologies,” Bendz says.

The collaboration between Stora Enso and the startups was backed up by high-quality executive education provided by Aalto ENT, bringing together theory and practice, academic knowledge and business know-how.

“Aalto ENT was able to provide us with the learning journey, combining a solid academic framework with a very hands-on experience, which we were searching for. We were also convinced by the high standard of their faculty,” Bendz says.

Not your typical classroom experience

Startups from around the world were invited to apply to the program. The call was for innovations in digitalization, IoT, big data, analytics, supply chain, AI, VR, robotics, or any other part of the chain that could transform Stora Enso business, with the chance of becoming the company’s partner or future supplier.

The six winners, representing AI and machine learning, healthy living, circular economy, fleet management, and eco-packaging, were selected from a pool of 121 applicants, based on their capacity for diverse out-of-the-box thinking and the fit of their business idea.

The chosen startups were joined by 18 Stora Enso talents, selected through a rigorous application process from all over the company’s global organization."

The chosen startups were joined by 18 Stora Enso talents, selected through a rigorous application process from all over the company’s global organization. Each startup had three Stora Enso members in their team with the aim to support the startup's business development. Each team also had a sponsor from the Stora Enso Group Leadership Team.

The result was not a typical educational arrangement. “It's hard to learn and change behavior if you don't also practice what you learn. An essential part of the program was for our talents to work together with the startups, sit side by side, be part of the ecosystem, and help them develop their product,” Bendz explains.

“It was very important to us that the startups had a good experience. We wanted it to be a win-win situation.”

Where the interests meet

One of the startups in the final six was Sulapac, a creator of a fully biodegradable packaging solution made of renewable and sustainable raw materials, based in Finland. Sulapac applied for a place in the program to expedite turning its dream to reality.

“We have a vision of a world without plastic waste. As a startup, we strive to move towards this vision gradually but systematically. To make a genuine impact, we want to launch our product globally, and it’s faster with a global partner,” says Suvi Haimi, Sulapac’s CEO and co-founder.

Having a concrete business plan made Sulapac stand out among the applicants. "

Haimi believes that having a concrete business plan made Sulapac stand out among the applicants. “We aren’t just testing the waters, we have a genuinely big vision that we’ve managed to divide into smaller, achievable milestones. Also, we had already raised one million euros in funding and have a clear plan on how to raise more.”

Haimi sees the program as mutually beneficial. Sulapac learned how to collaborate with a big corporation, how the negotiations proceed, and what kinds of principles apply. As for Stora Enso, she thinks the most important learning outcome was agility.

“Startups are able to pick up on trends and influences very fast because there are no cumbersome organizational structures to slow things down. We can develop new materials and test new technologies until it’s at a more solid stage where a bigger partner can join in. Let’s face it, startups are paid to take risks, whereas a corporation such as Stora Enso can’t just decide to change course in a flash and start doing something else altogether. That’s where the interests meet.”

Opening doors to both directions

For Stora Enso, one of the main benefits of the program was to learn how startups think, work and approach problems, and bring parts of it back to its own organization.

“Our ambition is that the Stora Enso participants will now utilize the experience and their new skills within Stora Enso, act as change agents, and help drive our transformation forward,” Bendz says.

For this type of a program to have an impact, you need to have the top management on board."

Bendz emphasizes that for this type of a program to have an impact, you need to have the top management on board. “This is not only a development opportunity for the participants in the program, but for the organizations as such to learn how to collaborate with startups.”

She believes that everyone who’s been exposed to the program is now more open to collaboration with startups, ready to tap into the knowledge and competencies in the surrounding ecosystem.

There are some more “tangible” benefits as well. Bendz says that even though the program ended last year, Stora Enso continues to collaborate with several of the six startups. “The program has led to some interesting business opportunities which we will now further explore.”

One such opportunity may lie with Sulapac. Haimi says the program served as a door opener. “I believe we can provide them with a solution that complements their portfolio and is in line with how they plan to respond to EU’s Plastics Strategy adopted in January this year. At least the program gave us access to continue collaboration negotiations with Stora Enso,” Haimi says.

If you would like to know more about accelerator programs, Minna Wickholm, Business Area Director, Open Enrollment Programs and Networks, will help you to find the best solution for your organization. Her phone number is +358 10 837 3723 and e-mail minna.wickholm@aaltoee.fi.

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