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Professor of Applied Physics Risto Ilmoniemi, Head of the Aalto University Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, was appointed Aalto Distinguished Professor at the opening ceremony for the new academic year on the 7th of September. This title is awarded to professors of exceptional academic merit, but it’s not the only reason we wanted to have a chat with Risto — he’s also an avid supporter of the entrepreneurial mindset. He founded his first startup, Nexstim, in 2000 to commercialize his research findings, but like us, Risto believes that being an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean being a founder. “You can be an entrepreneur in your own life without having a company,” he says.

Risto was developing new technology for brain research in Aalto University’s predecessor, the Helsinki University of Technology, already in the ’80s. The research he and his physicist colleagues were doing led to the company Neuromag being founded by Risto’s boss, the legendary Olli V. Lounasmaa, who asked him to join as well. Risto declined, wanting to stay at the university and do research. Neuromag became quite successful, is now called MEGIN, and is owned by an American company. For Risto, that was an eye-opener. “I saw closely what happened to the company in which my brilliant colleagues were so successfully transforming research results into high-tech medical technology. I realized I wanted to make a further impact with my work, both inside and outside academia,” he says.

Being entrepreneurial is seeing problems as opportunities rather than something to avoid, and the university is a great environment to practice that. “You can do many things in university you can’t do elsewhere. You can test new things, get inspired by intelligent people, come up with and pursue new visions — things that may be more difficult in the business world,” Risto says. In our talk with Risto, he pointed out four tips anyone working or studying in a university can apply to become more entrepreneurial, and one final note for anyone considering becoming an entrepreneur.

 1. Have meaningful conversations with people

One of the key aspects of an entrepreneurial mindset is the ability to look at problems from different viewpoints — and what better way to understand different perspectives than to talk with different people? Others can provide you with new ways of looking at things, ask you the right questions to spar your thinking, and encourage you to pursue your solution if you feel uncertain about it or yourself. To help researchers become more entrepreneurial, Risto has been visiting many in their labs for a short one-on-one talk. “There are so many researchers focusing on their favorite topics that don’t realize their innovation potential,” Risto says. “Just by asking the right questions, people can help each other find ideas and inspiration. 

Of course, not everyone has the chance to have Risto visit them, but talking with anyone who can change your perspective can be beneficial. If there is a visitor from another university or country, even better — people from different backgrounds can help you think differently. Usually, when a university gets a visit from a prestigious university abroad, it consists of a talk and perhaps lunch with some professors. Risto would like to change this to provide more people with the chance to exchange thoughts with inspiring people. “We have changed the schedules of visits so that the visitor has several 30-to-60-minute individual discussions with graduate students and researchers. A personal chat is so much more influential than listening to a talk,” he explains.

One thing Risto reminds us about getting inspiration from other people is to not try to be exactly like them. “Everybody has their own strengths, and there is almost always somebody better than me in any single thing I know. Don’t try to copy your role models but find your own skills and excel in them instead.”

2. Do things you’re not (yet) good at

For most people, doing things you’re not good at can be frustrating, but according to Risto, that’s when we really develop and make progress. It’s easy to get stuck with doing something you’ve done a long time and know how to do, but it’s hard to come up with new and innovative solutions if you’re working in old and conservative ways. “Many people don’t want to do new things because the old thing kind of works. But the new thing can work much better, and you never find out if you don’t try,” Risto says.

His advice is to stop doing things you’re good at and start doing something totally new, even just for a while. “Getting fired from your job and being forced to do something new can be a great thing, but the change doesn’t need to be that drastic,” he says. The key is to take a look at your everyday work and find small things you could easily start doing differently. If the new way is worse than the old one, you haven’t lost too much time trying it out. If it’s better, you’ve improved your ways of working for all the years to come — and started to think more like an entrepreneur.

3. Experience new environments to change your habits

Sometimes all it takes to change your existing behavior is to change your environment; many of our habits — good or bad — are specific to a certain context. Even Aalto University recommends its researchers leave Aalto for a while to be postdoctoral researchers for some years in another university to gain new experiences and broaden their perspectives. Leaving your safe and familiar environment can be scary, and it’s natural to feel worried that the new environment is not as pleasant, but Risto gives words of encouragement: “It’s always a great learning experience. Even if the new place isn’t as good as Aalto, you can learn important lessons. Succeeding in a new environment — especially in a challenging one — takes entrepreneurial spirit.” This is as true for postdoctoral researchers as it is for undergraduates going for exchange.

A bit more dramatic way of changing your environment is to leave the university altogether and try out your wings in the business world or even as an entrepreneur. There’s much to be learned out there, and if it’s not your thing, you can always get back to university if you are really passionate about it. While the lessons in the outside world can benefit anyone, Risto believes a visit outside academia can be especially beneficial for researchers. “Some people are afraid to jump into the startup world because they feel they’ll be left behind, when actually it’s more likely they’ll get ahead. True, founding a startup takes time, but the lessons can be extremely valuable, and if you can prove that your research is valuable outside the academic community, it can be easier to get more funding if you go back to researching,” he says. “But again, don’t copy, do it your way.”

4. Take time to make time

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for many people — especially researchers and professors — in becoming more entrepreneurial is that they’re so short on time that adding anything new to their schedules seems daunting or straight-up impossible. For this, there’s no shortcut; if you want to learn something new, you need to make time. The good news is, that if you do make time for learning new ways of working, you may end up becoming more efficient, thus freeing up some space in your calendar in the long run. Besides, you don’t need to change your whole routine at once. Include new habits and try out new tools bit by bit, and take your time before introducing another one. If you do want to become more entrepreneurial, though, there’s no way around it — you need to take it seriously. “Do whatever it takes and don’t give up,” Risto says,” Doing something new is almost always hard, but you can still enjoy it. It doesn’t mean giving up on other more important things like family or your health, but sometimes there are periods when you have to put everything into the game and work hard.”

 Final thoughts

If you do end up jumping the gun and setting up your own company, Risto wants to remind you to keep your eyes on the goal — and what that goal should be: “The mindset of just trying to make money may not be the best: most people who become successful want more, they want to do something good and meaningful. Find a way to change the world for the better, if only a little bit. If you succeed in that, you will eventually be rewarded, one way or the other.”