If you’ve seen one pitching competition, you’ve seen them all. The format is well-worn at this point. A founder takes the stage, fires out some buzzwords within a two or three minute time limit and then dodges difficult questions from the panel. You can set your watch to it.
This is what makes the concept of Polar Bear Pitching in Oulu, Finland sound so strange. The fourth edition of the event, which is co-run by the University of Oulu, the city of Oulu, and several other organisations, takes several startups, chucks them in an ice hole in the Baltic Sea at night, and lets them pitch to a jury.
There’s no time limit. The only restriction is the entrepreneurs’ physical limits and the top prize is €10,000. Sounds just fine.
Last Wednesday, 18 startups from a dozen countries wandered onto the ice at Oulu’s waterfront before a panel of VC judges. Each pitch lasted somewhere between two and five minutes but it was ultimately Helsinki’s Virta, an EV charge station management service, that took home the cash prize.
“We feel great and overwhelmed, it’s really unexpected because we saw competition out there, great companies, great ideas,” said Nicolai Woyczechowski, who pitched alongside his colleague Oli Kananen.
“It was my hardest pitch. It’s really tough to stay focused, control your words and speak loud and hoping that the audience is catching what you’re saying.”
The organisers behind the concept and the event have made a concerted effort to create an event that’s different. It certainly catches people’s attention with its quirkiness and borderline absurdity – but is it just another gimmick and novelty? Does the format really allow for the jurors to get a good grasp of the company?
“I think a lot of people would look at this and think ‘oh it’s kind of gimmicky, is it really something?’ but I think the other way to look at that… this is a really great story, it really focuses people, it’s fun, people want to be a part of something like that,” countered executive coach John Bates, who delivered a keynote from the ice hole. “I think the temptation is to say that it’s gimmicky if you don’t have a really good idea yourself.
“In the beginning when we heard about it, we thought they were crazy,” said Sandra Pétursdóttir, one of the pitchers from Copenhagen’s First Bond Wearables, who pitched with her co-founder Eszter Smid.
“You have to stand out in some way so I think here they found concept that stands out,” added Christoph Richter of Hungary’s Intellyo and for the most part, the pitchers welcomed a concept that wasn’t ‘death by PowerPoint’.
This format forces people to plan out several different pitches depending on how they feel once they hit the water, explained TryMeDo’s Konstantin Gnyp. You need to adapt on the fly.
Polar Bear Pitching is one of the various startup and tech related events and concepts that have been happening around Oulu as the city attempts to reinstate itself on the tech map in a prominent position once again. The decline of Nokia was a huge blow to the city, with thousands let go and Oulu’s unemployment rate remains very high at around 17% – compared with the nation’s 7.9% rate. Now Nokia is now focused on the long term with 5G research and development (Oulu is also hosting the 5GFWD hackathon in June) but it’s Polar Bear Pitching that has, unsurprisingly, garnered the most curiosity of late.
Days before the event kicked off, the organisers secured a European Union trademark to lock down the event format in a bid to expand worldwide. “We have applied [for trademarks] in the States, Canada, Australia, China, and Russia. We want to scale this event into a global concept,” commented Kaisa Pappila, president of Polar Bear Pitching.
“We have a vision that in 2020 we’ll have global semi-finals all around the world in different locations and the winners come each year to Oulu to pitch from a real ice hole.”
The organisers ran a pilot of the event in California last year, which they say was quite successful and indicates a market for global events.
“Now we want to scale this so that’s why we have the trademarks, of course it’s also a branding and image thing because people talk about it, that it’s really bizarre and unique.”