The European university turning student ideas into startups

Sweden’s reputation as an innovation hub and knowledge nation often leads entrepreneurs and startups from across the globe to wonder what the Nordic country is doing right.

The European university turning student ideas into startups
Photo: Linköping University

A university in southern Sweden might hold the answer. LiU Innovation, the innovation office at Linköping University (LiU), is replicating Sweden’s culture of openness and innovation to support staff and students on their startup journey. 

Abhishek Jacob Chethikatt and Naveen Sasidharan are two former LiU master’s students who took advantage of the free service. It was during the refugee crisis of 2015 that the then-students identified the language barrier was a mounting problem in Sweden’s already hard-pressed public healthcare system.

“Over the next six months, we conducted market research with emergency doctors at Linköping University Hospital and also worked vigorously with LiU Innovation – in the evenings after classes and on the weekends,” recalls Chethikatt. “We were both clueless beginners but the supportive advisors at LiU Innovation, many of whom had been entrepreneurs themselves, stood by us from day one and gave us the tools to build and evaluate a prototype and a verifiable product as well as coached us in building and marketing our brand. The soft funding we received early on in the form of student competencies was also key in this process.”

Find out more about the innovation office at Linköping University

In January 2017, the two co-founders officially launched Worldish, a software company bridging language barriers in the Swedish healthcare system.

Photos: Worldish

Ecosystem for entrepreneurship

Sweden is ranked among the best in the world for starting a business and is frequently named among the world’s most innovative countries. It’s this widespread spirit of innovation that Sasidharan says initially drew him to Sweden – and LiU.

“I decided to come to Sweden because I had a dream of starting a technology company with a social agenda. I had read a lot about Sweden’s well-developed ecosystem for entrepreneurship and how the culture of openness and equality and risk-reduction was very conducive for innovation,” says Sasidharan, who gained his MA in electronics engineering. 

Founded on the premise that the world is in pressing need for creative, actionable solutions to real-world problems, Linköping University has, from its inception 40 years ago, proven by example that creativity and innovation can indeed be fostered. While harbouring cutting-edge research in the fields of engineering, environmental studies, natural sciences, and beyond, LiU is no ivory tower – its students, especially at the advanced levels, are often anxious to use the classroom as a springboard for social change.

“Linköping University is steeped in a progressive spirit, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a framework often invoked as a guiding light both on the institutional level and in the classroom,” says Jenny Wallhoff, Communications Officer at LiU Innovation. “Professors and lecturers alike insist for their students to keep in the back of their minds how their knowledge can be leveraged to address the major challenges of today.”

Photo: Worldish

With its aspiration to provide students with a purpose-driven and engaged education, the LiU experience is characterized by students working across multiple disciplines to collaborate and think outside the box. At the university’s innovation office, master students in particular often start enterprises of their own or get involved with already operational research-driven enterprises.

“LiU is a facilitator of innovation support which aspires to provide competence and connections to ambitious students and researchers and guide them at the crucial moments. We provide counsel on everything from idea protection to funding opportunities, and over the years, we have helped many students set up customer talks, verify their markets, and implement sustainability strategies,” says Jenny Wallhoff.

Find out more about studying at Linköping University

Karin Ackerholm, one of LiU Innovation’s six Innovation Advisors, agrees with Jenny Wallhoff that LiU has an entrepreneurial ethos. She adds that the ambition of students to go above and beyond is one of the key factors of success of the ventures supported by LiU Innovation.

“An interdisciplinary institution at heart, LiU is defined by the aspirational nature of the students and researchers it attracts, many of whom sought out LiU – and LiU Innovation – to be able to transcend the silo thinking which all too often comes in the way of innovation and problem-solving,” says Ackerholm.

Typical of egalitarian Sweden, with its flat hierarchies and absence of rigid power structures, at LiU and LiU Innovation alike, this interdisciplinary mindset is underpinned by an open-minded and mutually supportive relationship between staff and students.

“Like other ambitious modern universities, LiU strives to do away with obsolete and departmental thinking patterns. As a relatively young institution, we have always had a strong tradition of collaboration and cross-fertilization. Especially connected to entrepreneurship and innovation there is a real sense of community and team spirit, and everyone sees the value we are creating,” says Ackerholm.

Photo: Abhishek Jacob Chethikatt and Naveen Sasidharan

Shortly after launching, Worldish, which aligns with two of the UN’s Social Development Goals – Good Health and Well-being as well Reducing Inequality – was selected as one of five startups to join LiU Impact Factory, a business accelerator for socially engaged startups. From there, Worldish has embarked on a rapid start-up journey and today their software Helen is in commercial use at labour wards, emergency rooms, and in primary care across Sweden. In the near future, Chethikatt and Sasidharan will work to expand the applications of their digital service to facilitate social integration more broadly in Sweden and beyond.

“We are currently working with the LEAD business incubator at LiU to scale and internationalize our business and also to introduce Helen to the Danish, German, and British markets,” says Sasidharan. “LiU and LiU Innovation really transformed us into the entrepreneurs we are today. Without our advisors and mentors, who kept motivating us and encouraged us to focus on the big social problem we were trying to address, we would not have had the confidence to persevere throughout this journey.”

LiU offers programmes in Biomedical Engineering, Experimental and Medical Bioscience, International and European Relations, Design, Intelligent Transport Systems, Ethnic and Migration Studies, Strategic Urban and Regional Planning. Find out more here.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Linköping University.


English-language programmes at Danish universities face cuts

Denmark's government has agreed on a plan to significantly reduce the number of courses offered in English in the country's universities.

English-language programmes at Danish universities face cuts
Life sciences faculty hold an open house at Copenhagen University. The university is now expected to reduce admissions as part of a plan to decentralise higher education in Denmark. Photo: Thomas Lekfeldt / Ritzau Scanpix

At the end of June, the plan aims to reduce the number of English-language higher education programmes while also expanding educational opportunities outside of Denmark’s major cities.

The exact number of courses to be cut – and where they will be cut – depends on the future employment of graduates.

Cuts to English-language programmes

The reduction of English-language programmes at institutions of higher education is rooted in an effort to reduce rising costs of state educational grants (SU) in Denmark. Despite attempts to reduce SU expenses, the cost is expected to rise to 570 million kroner by 2025, far above the cap of 449 million kroner set in 2013. 

There are a number of cases in which non-Danish citizens are entitled to SU, from moving to Denmark with one’s parents, marrying a Danish citizen, residing in Denmark for more than 5 years, status as a worker in Denmark, and more.

The reduction is targeted at English-language programmes where few English-speaking students find employment in Denmark after graduation, according to Denmark’s Ministry of Education and Research. 

Among the targeted programmes are business academies and professional bachelor programmes, where 72 percent of students are English-speaking and only 21 percent find work in Denmark after completing their education. 

However, programmes where higher proportions of English students enter the Danish workforce, and those that have a unique significance on the regional labour market, will be exempt from the reduction. This amounts to 650 education institutions around the country. 

In 2016, students demonstrated against cuts in SU. Photo: Emil Hougaard / Ritzau Scanpix

The agreement also establishes a financial incentive for institutions that graduate English-speaking students who remain to work in Denmark.

According to a June 10 analysis from consulting firm Deloitte, EU students who receive higher education in Denmark contribute an average of nearly 650,000 kroner to Denmark’s public coffers over a lifetime. 

However, the report notes, a student’s positive or negative contribution depends on how long they stay in Denmark. Although students who leave Denmark shortly after graduating constitute a cost to the Danish state, the analysis found that the contribution of students who stay in Denmark to work offsets the cost of those who leave.

The analysis expressed concern that reducing opportunities for English-language higher education could “have a number of unintended negative consequences,” including deterring students who might stay in Denmark to work from moving in the first place. There’s also the risk that it will become more difficult to recruit foreign researchers to Danish universities, which could impact education quality, the analysis claims.

The UCN professional school in Thisted is expected to open one new training program as a result of the decentralisation plan. Photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

Decentralisation of Danish education

The plan to decentralise higher education in Denmark not only expands educational opportunities outside of Denmark’s major cities, but it also aims to reduce enrollment in higher education within major cities by 10 percent by 2030 (but not more than 20 percent).

For example, a law programme will be established in Esbjerg, a medical programme in Køge and a veterinary programme in Foulum.

Minister of Education and Research Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen said the goal was to offer students educational opportunities regardless of where they live within Denmark and strengthen the economy outside of major cities. 

However, the Danish Chamber of Commerce, Dansk Erhverv, expressed concern that the decentralisation plan doesn’t factor in labour demands within Denmark’s major cities.

Mads Eriksen, head of education and research policy at Dansk Erhverv, said it was “unwise” for programmes to reduce acceptance rates to in-demand fields in that particular city. 

“They are trying to solve a problem with labour in the countryside, but at the same time they are creating labour problems in the cities,” Eriksen said. “The English-language programme cuts are far more aligned with the demands of the labour market.”

Denmark has utilised unemployment-based admission for higher education since 2015. Programmes whose graduates experience unemployment consistently 2 percent higher than average are subject to a 30 percent admission cut.

Eriksen thinks it shouldn’t be a matter of reducing admissions across several universities by

“For example, we have five philosophy education programmes in Denmark, each of which have high unemployment rates among graduates,” Eriksen said, referencing a recent Dansk Erhverv analysis

He would prefer to see resources concentrated into making a couple of those programmes the best they can be and closing the rest, versus reducing admissions in all five programmes. “We have to be ready to close programmes that continue to have high unemployment, not just reduce them.”

In 2018, the University of Southern Denmark closed one English-language program and converted two from English to Danish. Photo: Tim Kildeborg Jensen / Ritzau Scanpix

Opposite impacts on provincial institutions

Gitte Sommer Harrits, vice chancellor at VIA University College, shared concern that although the decentralised education aspect of the plan aims to increase the number of students at provincial universities, the reduction of English-language programmes is likely to have the opposite effect.

A report from the organisation Akademikerne in early June found that international students have played a significant role filling educational institutions outside of Danish cities. Nine of the 10 educational institutions with the largest proportion of English-speaking students are outside the country’s largest cities. 

The University of Southern Denmark in Sønderborg has the highest proportion of international students; 40 percent of its 628 students are not affiliated with Denmark or other Nordic countries. 

While significantly larger with nearly 37,000 students, Copenhagen University has 5.2 percent international students.

Already in 2018, the University of Southern Denmark closed one English-language programme and converted two others from English to Danish after the Danish government ordered universities to reduce the number of international students.

Harrits said she found the possible closure of English-language programmes drawing international students to provincial areas to be puzzling when paired with the intention to decentralise education.