Sampson Tetteh came to Finland in 2014 to do his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Now, seven years later, he’s doing research on energy technology at Aalto University, with the intention of commercializing a whole new energy storage system to help us in the fight against climate change. To learn more about entrepreneurship, Sampson took the Startup Experience course by AVP, and we couldn’t have been happier to have him. We had a talk with him to hear what his biggest takeaways from the course were, and what he’s planning on doing with them.
With great power…
The first time Sampson heard about global warming was during secondary school back in Ghana. Now, of course, we talk more about the broader climate change than just global warming, but many of the issues remain the same. For Sampson, this was groundbreaking: there was a huge global problem no one had the means — or the will — to solve. “Learning about global warming really opened my eyes and made me want to climb the educational ladder to do something about it,” he says.
And climb he did. After he came to Finland in 2014 to do his bachelor’s degree, he then got into Aalto in 2016 to do his master’s, and in 2020 started to work on his Ph.D. All the while, he had the idea of fighting climate change in his mind, and the first breakthrough came already when he was working on his Master’s Thesis when he developed a novel energy storage system, that had the potential to be cheaper than batteries and required no critical materials. “I didn’t have that in mind when I started working on my thesis, just a topic, a set of problems,” he says, “It just kind of happened.” That’s how his mind works; if Sampson sees a problem, his brain starts to work on a solution almost on its own. And usually, he comes up with one.
It was my responsibility to make it more than just theory and research. I knew I had to start a company.
Sampson knew immediately that he had something here. He had never been too interested in academics, but he felt the need to continue developing his solution, and doctoral studies offered him the resources he wouldn’t have otherwise had. “I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab, I wanted to something practical, to build things. But when I ran into the energy storage solution, I knew I had no choice. I needed to develop it further, and doctoral studies made it possible,” he says. At the same time, he also knew he should start getting other skills if he ever wanted his invention to leave the lab. “It was my responsibility to make it more than just theory and research. I knew I had to start a company.”
One course to teach it all
In 2019, just before starting his Ph.D., Sampson found himself at an AVP event. There, he pitched his idea of the energy storage system to an AVP employee — who shall forever remain a mystery — and asked whether there were any entrepreneurship courses for doctoral students. He was told to look up Startup Experience, and that he did.
Sampson took Startup Experience in 2020, while also working on his Ph.D. His aim was to learn more about entrepreneurship, but also to develop his idea further during the course. When he pitched his idea to his team members, they all agreed they should work with his project during the course. They all had expressed interest in Sustainable Development Goals such as #7 Affordable and Clean Energy, #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, and #13 Climate Action, and Sampson’s solution had the potential to contribute greatly to all of them.
Entrepreneurship is no longer something I fear, but something I could do straight away.
“It was the best team I’ve ever had on any course,” Sampson says happily. He had the lead, but everyone worked hard, and — what’s just as important — they brought in skillsets Sampson didn’t have. “It was so useful to work with different kinds of people. Some people are good with design, some with documentation and others with coming up with great ideas. A good team needs all of them,” he says. Even with a great team, Startup Experience is rarely a breeze, and Sampson’s team had its rough patches too. When they got critical feedback, they tried to learn from it and do better next time. “One time we were told that our solution is too ambitious, that we’d fare badly in the prototyping session,” Sampson tells us, “So we decided to show them.” The team was set to do a real prototype of Sampson’s energy storage system. They worked tirelessly at Aalto Design Factory, and built a miniature version of the solution, shooting the whole thing on video. In the end, thanks to our friend Covid-19, there was no proper prototype session, but their work was not for naught: the teachers agreed their ambition level was actually just right, and they secured the first spot on the course and top grades for all their team members.
The course was not only an academic success for Sampson, who feels that he learned everything he expected and more. Before the course, he was wondering how to get started, where he would find a team and get funding, and what would happen if he failed, but the course took those worries away. “I got both confidence and practical skills. Entrepreneurship is no longer something I fear, but something I could do straight away,” he says.
The hero we need
So now it’s only a matter of time. Sampson is planning on finishing his doctoral studies and then diving straight into the startup world. He’s currently building an experimental setup and a prototype and hopes to start a testing period in the grid soon with a big energy company. He has also been in talks with some potential customers already. “At some point, utility companies need to drop combustibles altogether and move to renewables. Energy storage will play a big role in the future, and my solution could be a big help,” he says.
You shouldn’t think about making a profit, but about solving problems that really matter.
Sampson’s innovation really shows how research can have a big impact outside the lab too, given the chance. At AVP, we’re focusing more and more on researchers and innovators, trying to make sure no great idea is left in the lab to gather dust but is commercialized instead. Some tools for this are available in Startup Experience and in our From Lab to Market event series, but Sampson thinks tools alone are not enough — you need passion: “Entrepreneurship is all about passion. You shouldn’t think about making a profit, but about solving problems that really matter. If you find one that’s unique and can solve it, you just might be successful.”