DENSO has made A Grid its home

DENSO came for the quality startups, stayed for the quality of living -- the automotive giant creates new mobility solutions at A Grid in Espoo

In spring 2018, Japanese automotive giant DENSO moved to A Grid in Espoo Innovation Garden. DENSO is one of the world’s largest automotive technology and component manufacturers, and with DENSO Helsinki Innovation Lab the company wants to create new mobility solutions for smart cities.

You never know which best kept secrets you find when you turn a corner in A Grid, the biggest startup hub in Espoo Innovation Garden. You can find deep-tech startups that are bound for global success, come across international innovation hubs like UNTIL, and, nowadays, you can go knock on the door of DENSO, the second largest mobility supplier in the world. In April 2018, the Japanese corporation opened DENSO Helsinki Innovation Lab in A Grid in Otaniemi.

The name may not carry the sparkle of vehicle brands like Mercedes Benz or Volkswagen, but with 170,000 employees worldwide and a turnover of $50 billion, DENSO is an industry giant with a global impact.

In this context, the three-person Innovation Lab may seem small, but it has a special role for the company. There might be fewer cars on the streets in the future, and DENSO Helsinki Innovation Lab – the only DENSO office in Europe that creates mobility software – is part of DENSO’s solution for this scenario.

Traditionally the Japanese company was known for producing components for vehicles. Chances are, for example, that the air conditioning device in your car is made by DENSO, the world leader in AC equipment. But now, the company is using almost 70 years of experience and industry expertise to expand into new growth areas, adding cloud and other software-based services to its portfolio. The Innovation Lab’s role is to find new revenue streams in this shift from physical to digital.

Interestingly, Antti Ijäs, Director of DENSO Helsinki Innovation Lab, talks passionately not just about the Innovation Lab’s fascinating role in a mega trending field but also about how its purpose goes beyond the bottom line.

“We’re here to find ecologically sustainable business models for cities,” Ijäs says. “Personally, I would like us to create a world-class R&D unit. But we’re happy as long as we’re doing something that actually matters.”

How did DENSO land in Espoo Innovation Garden?

The story of DENSO in the Greater Helsinki area started in 2017 when the company invested in MaaS Global. The Helsinki-based mobility startup is best-known for the Whim app that neatly packages the Finnish capital area public transport, city bikes, taxis and rental cars under one pay subscription. After this, DENSO arranged a mobility hackathon in Espoo, which resulted in fruitful partnerships with two startups.

Following the successful start in Espoo Innovation Garden, the Japanese company began laying a physical foundation in the Finnish capital city area. The first step was to subcontract the innovation creation to Symbio, a local software company. However, DENSO soon realised that it needed its own people on the ground in order to make a real impact while keeping the expertise and learnings in-house.

Looking beyond just deep-tech, DENSO found good living

But what was it that actually attracted DENSO to Espoo and A Grid? After all, Helsinki is just next door and there are many more well-known innovation ecosystems all over the world.

Ijäs says that the coming 5G network in the capital area along with Finland’s pioneering autonomous vehicle legislation set up a good foundation for DENSO’s operations. In Espoo Innovation Garden, the quality of the local startups along with the presence of other innovation players were deciding factors.

“We’re in A Grid in Espoo because we want to create new products and services, be close to the end-user and test new services quickly,” Ijäs says.

In this mix, Aalto University has a special significance. Ijäs points out that Aalto’s multidisciplinary approach, which brings science and art together with technology and business, goes hand-in-hand with the Japanese company’s way of working.

“We want to find new partners, startups and technologies. And we’d love to cooperate with Aalto University. This is also a good place to reach surrounding markets like Sweden and Estonia.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Ijäs then draws attention to a mundane but very necessary factor that is easily forgotten behind the innovation and high-tech buzz: quality of living.

“First of all, without the metro, we wouldn’t be here,” Ijäs says. “Also, the development of Otaniemi is as important as it’s been impressive. Before, Otaniemi had a tiny strip mall and the only place for food was a grill standing lonely on a parking lot. Nowadays there are good restaurants and shops within easy reach.”

With the metro rationale, DENSO is certainly not alone. 45% of the Helsinki Stock Exchange is located in Espoo. Most of these companies are headquartered along the two rail lines that also draw the physical dimensions of Espoo Innovation Garden: West Metro line in the south and City Rail Link in the north.

Rail lines will continue to develop the city in the future as well. Along with the continuing metro extension westwards, the construction for Jokeri Light Rail line will start in June 2019. Jokeri will connect the metro from Keilaniemi, where corporations like Microsoft, Fortum and KONE are headquartered, with City Rail Link in Leppävaara. From there, Jokeri will continue towards northern and eastern parts of Helsinki.

Otaniemi has taken its time to reinvent itself as a living environment. But during the last two years or so, the district has certainly done its best to make up for lost time.

DENSO embraces the Espoo Innovation Garden way of working

It’s now about a year since DENSO Helsinki Innovation Lab was opened at A Grid, and Ijäs says they feel right at home here. DENSO shares office spaces with a seed-phase startup BOUT and a growth company called Tramigo. Despite being an innovation arm of a global giant, the Innovation Lab’s way of working fits perfectly among the startups.

“A Grid as a whole and our shared office give us a platform to discuss, share ideas and help others. Whether it’s market validation or just buying coffee for the office – we’re happy to help. Our doors and resources are open to our neighbours.”

DENSO offers organisations and talents, locally and beyond, a rare chance to work with a global Japanese company. And according to Ijäs, even though there are few Japanese companies in Finland, Finland and Espoo are actually very fitting locations for them.

“Many things connect the Japanese and Finnish cultures. The role of Finnish design cannot be overstated as it keeps on touching the Japanese. Also, we both appreciate silence.

“Finns also do rather than talk. Here, you get things done,” Ijäs says. “For example, it’s easy to get a hold of decision makers. If I need to talk to the Mayor of Espoo, whom I don’t know personally, I just pick up the phone and know he’s just a call away. It’s all part of the way of working – solving problems together.”

And this is what Espoo Innovation Garden is about. Getting things done – together. It’s in an open ecosystem created by the community that shares innovative, common ways of working and a culture of collaboration and co-creation.

“Good things happen at A Grid. This just felt like the right environment for DENSO,” Ijäs concludes.