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Juho Uzkurt Kaljunen never wanted to be an entrepreneur. And yet, he is now an AVP alumni and the founder, CEO and CTO of NPHarvest, a spin-off from Aalto University that collects and recycles nutrients from wastewater. We chatted with Juho to learn more about his unexpected journey and where he thinks it’ll take him next.

Juho has always been interested in science and doing things in practice. Helsinki School of Mathematics in Maunula paved his way to Aalto University, where he chose to study Bioproducts Engineering at the School of Chemical Engineering, guided by his ethical values. “I wanted to be an engineer but do something good for the environment, too,” Juho says. 

When Juho had barely made it through Bachelor’s, the bomb dropped — his major was being terminated. He was presented with two options: choose another major from the School of Chemical Engineering or build your own. None of the existing majors piqued his interest, so Juho started his first entrepreneurial project out of necessity — building his own major from scratch. To create something that goes along with his values, he picked environmental engineering courses from both the School of Chemical Engineering and the School of Engineering, mostly focusing on water. The latter is where Juho found a topic for his Master’s Thesis, working on a research project called NPHarvest. The goal was to develop wastewater treatment equipment that would be able to separate and collect excess nutrients from concentrated wastewater, which could then be recycled and sold back to the fertilizer industry.

I didn’t really want to become an entrepreneur, but I had invested a lot of time in the project, and I believed in it. I had to prove it had commercial value.

One thing led to another, and soon, Juho was working on a Doctoral Thesis on the same project. The more Juho worked on NPHarvest, the more he realized the idea had commercial potential. He thought it unlikely, however, that someone else would buy the technology or continue its development at this stage. Thus, Juho was once again forced to make a choice: abandon NPHarvest and start building a career somewhere else or commercialize it himself. Despite his claims of not being entrepreneurial, Juho chose the latter option. “I didn’t really want to become an entrepreneur, but I had invested a lot of time in the project, and I believed in it. I had to prove it had commercial value,” he says. Starting a company felt intimidating, though, and Juho decided he’d need to pick up a few skills he didn’t have yet. Thus, he turned to Aalto Ventures Program.

Juho took three AVP courses: Starting Up, Startup Philosophy and Startup Experience. He enjoyed all of them, but the biggest learnings came from Startup Experience. On the course, he and his team developed an affordable artificial window that could be used in windowless spaces. Juho still likes the idea and feels like it could’ve been worth pursuing further had his team stayed in Finland and been willing to continue the project. He wasn’t left empty-handed, however, since he could immediately start applying his learnings to NPHarvest. “I learned how to run a company, and I think that’s the most valuable lesson. For many researchers, the business world is incomprehensible, and it’s common to think a good idea is enough. I learned that not only has the idea to be good, it has to be economically viable,” Juho says. 

With newfound knowledge and motivation, it was time to take NPHarvest from the lab and out to the world. The project had funding from Business Finland until the end of 2023, but that would stop the moment NPHarvest would become a company. “It was an exciting time,” Juho says. “We needed the Business ID to transfer the technology from Aalto to our company, but that meant losing funding. That meant we needed investors who, in turn, wanted to see working technology.” With some of the remaining research funding from the university, the team eventually managed to transfer the IPR and secured other sources of funding after setting up the company.

I learned how to run a company, and I think that’s the most valuable lesson.

Now, in the spring of 2024, NPHarvest has just raised 2,2 million euros to bring its technology to the market. With the new funding, NPHarvest will build its first commercially ready Nutrient Catcher, ready to be installed in its clients’ facilities. Commercializing a research project hasn’t been all smooth sailing, but Juho sees value in this, too. “If there are some challenges already when creating a startup, the founders become more resilient. They’re more ready for the inevitable challenges they’ll face when scaling up the company,” he says. Despite appreciating the challenge, Juho thinks the process could be sped up: “We got lucky with six months, but sometimes the spin-off process takes a year. That’s too long for any investor. Although there have apparently been good changes at the Aalto Innovation Center since us, and the process is now faster.”

With all the groundbreaking research done at Aalto, many people are bound to be in a similar situation as Juho. He encourages anyone to give commercialization some thought but warns against being too eager: “It’s very rewarding when things go well, but there will be challenges. You must be able to stay motivated and recover from setbacks even when things are hard, which means you have to strongly believe in your project.”

Juho certainly believes in NPHarvest. So, what does its future look like? “It’s either an exit or bankruptcy, I think. In a business where you build and sell massive things, with investors involved, you either grow steadily and get bought, or you go under,” Juho says. “If NPHarvest does an exit and I don’t have a job, perhaps I can return to the window idea from Startup Experience. I mean, if I need or want a job after an exit. I hear people get money from them sometimes.”