Polar Bear Pitching – These startups pitch in freezing water to get funding

Polar Bear Pitching, as it’s called, is perhaps the most extreme form of startup pitch competitions. Participants withstand snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures for an opportunity to win €10,000, among other prizes. There is no time limit, but there is one catch: Entrepreneurs must stand waist-deep in the Baltic Sea for the duration of their pitches.

This week, entrepreneurs from eight countries made their way to Oulu, Finland, home of Polar Bear Pitching.

Thirty participating teams hailed from Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Russia, and Vietnam. Each went through an application process, wherein six teams were shortlisted as finalists by an investor jury. All other teams that did not make the shortlist pitched in semi-finals on February 6. 

Polar Bear Pitching Founder Mia Kemppaala says the idea came to her at the end of 2013, after Finland witnessed the rapid downfall of its largest employer and technology giant, Nokia, once the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world. The company cut thousands of jobs, eventually selling its mobile business to Microsoft for $7.2 billion, only to see that division shut down in 2014.

Nokia’s plight put a damper on Finnish morale. “We were in an ice hole,” says Kemppaala. What made it worse was that local engineers, though hungry to innovate, had an issue cutting out technical jargon and explaining their ideas to average consumers. Seeing the economic impact in Oulu — where one of three Finnish Nokia factories was hit hard — inspired Kemppaala to think of a way to help entrepreneurs market themselves and attract investment, all with local flair.

That’s when the concept of Polar Bear Pitching blossomed. “What if we put startup founders in an ice hole?” Kemppaala thought at the time. “They would become better presenters and be forced to get to the point!”

The idea is remarkably local in concept. Finland is the birthplace of ice swimming, a hobby popular among those looking for a post-swim energy boost. Finland, too, is one of the coldest countries in the world — a winter wonderland in February, when the now annual Polar Bear Pitching event takes place.

The record for longest pitch is four minutes, 53 seconds. Most of the pitches this year were under two minutes in length. Try getting consistent concision like that on a warm, inviting stage!

This year pitches were judged by a panel of Finnish and international investors from DFJ Dragon Fund, 01 Ventures, and Icebreaker VC, among others. Three teams prevailed as winners, all with clearly defined problem statements, promising solutions, market potential, and early traction:

  • Artisun: An Estonia-based greenhouse optimization startup that offers an LED-based, software-powered system to optimize plant yield and decrease costs and energy consumption
  • Cast Print: A Latvian company that produces lightweight, 3D-printed, and waterproof medical casts to replace the itchy, bulky plaster casts currently used for healing broken bones
  • Cotio: A Finnish return service for restricted baggage items confiscated at airport security checkpoints — such as valuable pocket knives, bottles of wine, or sharp/bulky media equipment 

Grand prize winner Tatsiana Zaretskaya, co-founder and CEO of Artisun, says she diligently prepared her pitch leading up to the competition, but did not prepare for the mind-shivering physical challenge of standing in ice water.

“Semi-finals was my first time to go into the ice water,” Zaretskaya says. “I thought it would be much worse. Yesterday [at semi-finals] it went very easily, but today [at finals], I was very stressed. My heart rate was reading 170 beats per minute.”

Zaretskaya was presented with a €10,000 cheque, and she — as well as winners from Cast Print and Cotio — also won a trip to Nanjing, billed as the “Silicon Valley of China,” and a serving plate by Finnish home goods brand Nikama. Zaretskaya was also awarded a Finnish-crafted longboard by Jalla Board.

To date, Artisun has indexed data for optimally growing three types of plants.  Zaretskaya plans to use the €10,000 prize money to research optimal conditions for more plants. In the coming year, the company will also invest in creating personal kits and testing with large U.S.-based greenhouses.

Far from being a gimmick, participants, investors, and organizers alike agree that Polar Bear Pitching is a great place to start a snowball effect towards investment.

“It’s very democratic,” says investor and entrepreneur Riku Asikainen — one of the co-founders of the Finnish Business Angel Network, which invested €53 million in 324 startups in 2016. He has been a returning judge with Polar Bear Pitching since year one. “Any business conference would benefit from having people talking from an ice hole only,” he laughs. “It keeps the discussions concise and honest. I love the concept.”

The first Polar Bear Pitching event took place in February 2014 with 30 startups — the winning pitch was delivered by co-founder, then-CEO, and present-day board member Tommi Uhari of Finnish-based global connectivity company Uros. Founded in 2011, the company now boasts eight international offices and its mobile services are available in more than 100 countries. In 2016, it increased revenues from €3.5 million to €43 million. Not bad for pitching in an ice hole just two years prior.

Next year’s Polar Bear Pitching event is scheduled for February 27-28, 2019. Until then, Finland has one more crazy pitch competition idea coming up: Ski Lift Pitch, where founders pitch their ideas to investors in a ski lift.

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