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Finland's Millennium Technology Prize rewards those who bring betterment to people's lives

Disruptive technologies are vital for Finland's future, says Technology Academy of Finland's president and CEO Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski, as technology is one of the country's major exports.

From a technology perspective, Finland is probably best known for Nokia, a telecommunications brand that was instrumental in the development of the modern smartphone phone, as well as Rovio Entertainment, the video game company behind the highly-addictive Angry Birds franchise.

The Scandinavian country is aggressively advocating innovation and disruptive technologies. In fact, just this year alone, the Finnish government dedicated €1.85 billion euros to research and development, or about 3.5 per cent of the total government expenditure.

Through a slew of education initiatives and grants for future research, the Technology Academy of Finland (TAF) is helping to foster the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit so necessary in establishing itself as one of the key contributors of tech, said its president and chief executive officer Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski.

Dr. Juha Ylä-Jääski Credit: Technology Academy Finland

The TAF's flagship Millennium Technology Prize is a culmination of a tripartite effort between educators, industrial associations and the Finnish government. The Prize, which is worth €1 million, said Dr Ylä-Jääski, promotes disruptive technologies by recognising and rewarding the positive impact they would have on peoples' lives. It is considered one of the world's most prestigious science and technology prizes.

“All the Millennium Prizes have been big disruptions and ground-breaking innovations. It is open to all technologies except for military technology,” said Dr Ylä-Jääski. Dr Ylä-Jääski is one of the special guest speakers to grace the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) 2017, held from 15 to 20 January at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. He will address pertinent topics like advocating innovation and raising young disruptors to an audience of science graduates, academics and professors from the world over.

The Finland Ministry of Employment and Economy stated that the Prize is not just promoting Finnish interest of a solution-focused society, sustainable development and a high standard of education, but about bringing the benefits of the Finnish practical mindset to the whole world.

This is particularly important today, as the tech space around the world is experiencing a shift from large corporates to small start-ups. Giants like Nokia are no longer the face of disruption and innovation, said Dr Ylä-Jääski.

“Big companies have difficulties making disruptions. They work in an incremental way, improving their current businesses first.That is the reason why most of the disruptions that are coming to market are from smaller start-ups,” he added.

Besides making life better, other important criterion to earn the Prize are that the innovations must have been applied in practice, are delivering extensive change presently, and in the future. They must also stimulate further pioneering research and development in science and technology.

Conferred since 2004, the Prize's recipients include the inventor of the LED light, Shuji Nakamura. Also a Nobel Laureate, Nakamura won the Prize in 2006. The LED light is much brighter and efficient than conventional lighting methods and is now used in many electronic devices, from mobile phone backlights, to LED televisions and indicator lights.

Nakamura and his researchers are in the midst of developing the next generation of LEDs. In a talk given on January this year, he said that his company, Soraa, is developing LEDs that use violet light as its primary emission to achieve an optimised luminous efficacy. He noted that the average LED wall-plug efficiency is just 50 to 60 per cent, but GaN-on-GaN LEDs can outperform traditional LEDs to reach 84 per cent.¹

Stuart Parkin, the acclaimed “father of Big Data” is another Millennium Prize recipient. Also making an appearance at GYSS 2017, Professor Parkin's technology “spintronics” has allowed for a thousand-fold increase in storage capacity, revolutionising cloud computing and Big Data.

Innovators should not be deterred by failure

Many technologically-advanced countries are experiencing significant brain drain, said Dr Ylä-Jääski. Finnish youth have a plethora of options available when it comes to deciding their career paths. This is an issue in Finland, he added.

“I am astonished that Finnish companies have not yet worried about this, but in neighbouring countries there are great worries that in the near future, there will be a big shortage of engineers,” he explained.

“Where this leads is that companies need to shift their operations outside. If they don't find competent people within the country, they will have to move somewhere else for their research & development,” he said.“My worry is that this will happen to Finland.”

A veteran in the tech and science space, Dr Ylä-Jääsk started his career in solid state physics, having obtained a Masters of Science in Engineering from Helsinki University of Technology in 1979 and a PhD from Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich in 1983; both qualifications were in solid state physics.

Between 1999 and 2004, Dr Ylä-Jääski worked at Nokia Research Center as Head of Strategy Planning. He also was globally responsible for Nokia’s university cooperation as well as Nokia’s research cooperation in the EU Framework Programmes.

In 2004, Dr Ylä-Jääski joined the Federation of Finnish Technology Industries as a director with the responsibility for innovation and industrial policy, identifying issues within small-and-medium enterprises. Dr Ylä-Jääski has held the position of president and CEO of TAF since 2013.

Often times, aspiring inventors are deterred by the prospect of failure, affecting them to even want to pursue their careers, or chase their dreams to make a better and more efficient product. A mindset change towards the possibility of failure, as well as a positive-thinking attitude, would definitely help in fostering entrepreneurial qualities.

“If you fail, you are more or less treated as a failure for the rest of your life. This attitude is changing, but it is happening slowly. Very often, a successful start-up has to fail a couple of times before they find success. It is something that society needs to tolerate,” said Dr Ylä-Jääski.

He encourages innovators to listen to constructive criticism and to modify their ideas to suit market tastes. He surmises, “Critics will probably say that your ideas are not possible. You will have to prove your case.”

Useful links:

  • TAF: Millennium Technology Prize: http://taf.fi/en/millennium-technology-prize/
  • Selection committee: http://taf.fi/en/millennium-technology-prize/international-selection-committee/
  • Stuart Parkin: http://taf.fi/en/millennium-technology-prize/winner-2014/
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