Aki Soudunsaari founder Naava green sustainable workplace furniture green walls plants

“The business was founded to solve my own health problem” – Aki Soudunsaari, Co-founder of Naava

Being raised under the northern lights and suffering from bad indoor air quality himself, Aki was so motivated to find a cure for his own trouble. With dedication and a belief in doing good, he turns out to be an entrepreneur “exporting” Finnish air to the world. In 2017, he was nominated to be among the finalists for EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in Finland, also as PWC’s Most Valuable Entrepreneur (2015) and Young Academic Entrepreneur (2014).

Entrepreneurship is a way to fulfill my life mission

I see myself as a biohacker throughout the last 25 years. I love learning to optimize my performance, mental and physical functions. During my childhood and university years, I have competed in cross-country skiing, track & field, multi-sport adventure races. Nowadays I play semi-professional beach volleyball. I’ve realized that sport and physical activity has a powerful and positive effect on mental health and productivity at work. Later working as a teacher, I was curious about how people act differently and why they behave the way they behave. I also tried to find a way to affect people’s learning capability. When I was a Ph.D. candidate, my research was about building winning teams – how to create and nurture a successful team & company culture.

All of those interests in sports, science, team psychology, and human behaviors have added up over time, which helps me to define my mission in life – helping people to improve their health, happiness, and performance. That’s the biggest reason why I started this entrepreneurial journey. It’s never about the money or the glamorous aspects of running a business. But the impact I can make on changing people’s lives more positively, and on a bigger scale compared to, for example, teaching.

Aki Soudunsaari founder Naava green sustainable workplace furniture green walls plants

In a day you eat about 1 kilo of food, drink about 2 kilos of liquid, but you breathe 14 kilos of indoor air. And you need to breathe almost every five seconds. If there are two glasses of water, one is clean and the other dirty, which one you would like to have? But for air, people usually can’t choose the air they breathe. And I want to offer them a better choice! In a way, what I’m doing right now fulfills my life mission. I truly hope that I can make a dent in the universe that lasts thousands of years.

“They couldn’t have any other job, so they became entrepreneurs”

I think young people’s understanding of being an entrepreneur is different from ten years ago. Back then if you asked a 10-year old what are his dream jobs, it would be lawyers, doctors, or something like that. But now being an entrepreneur is getting more common, probably thanks to the mainstream media illuminating this mysterious occupation more and more, and like this article, sharing the background stories so people understand what it is all about.

The difference is that nowadays it’s more like a heroic thing with many exemplars. Entrepreneurs are no longer seen as “they couldn’t have any other job, so they became entrepreneurs” type of thing. Now, you get noticed and people appreciate the skills, expertise, and dedication when you create values or build your own empire. You can do whatever you want or what you are passionate about, which I think is the core of entrepreneurship. It’s like more generally accepted to be an entrepreneur and people perceive it differently. It’s fully deserved because ultimately, creating things from scratch is an amazing experience and it does require a lot of different talents.

I wanted to bring natural air inside the buildings

Naava was founded originally as a solution to my own problem. In my childhood, I studied in places with bad air quality. Ten years ago, I was teaching in a school where I spent an equal amount of time inside and outside the classroom. I noticed that I had a real problem with the indoor air (losing my voice, sinus infections, brain fog, cognitive problems, etc.) while the symptoms almost disappeared when I went out. Therefore, I have always wanted to bring natural air inside the building. However, especially in winter times, conventional ways like opening the window or adjusting the ventilation system were impossible for energy-efficiency reasons. I realized we spend 22-23 hours a day indoors breathing more or less man-made air, and this has a major impact on our health and happiness. This is decided to do something about this!

Aki Soudunsaari founder Naava green sustainable workplace furniture green walls plants

During my Ph.D. studies, I met my co-founder Niko Järvinen. Niko has a unique background in biology and IT. He was doing biological water cleaning when I met him. The same system for air had not yet existed, so we started to understand can we somehow mimic what nature cleans air outdoors, and how we could enhance those processes with the help of modern technology. From researching, for example, NASA studies from the 1970-80’s we found that plants or the leaves don’t clean air, it’s the microbes in the root of the plants that can clean the air efficiently. So, if the plant is grown in soil, the soil will prevent the microbes to touch the air. That’s why we developed an active biofiltration system without soil so the air could be biologically purified to the fullest.

Testing with real customers is the best product development method

We have been learning by doing all the time since we are doing things no one has done before. We have tested more than 200 types of plants and currently, we are using about 10% of those. Nowadays, all the Naava products are self-driving like Tesla cars, the software controls our system, plants, and microbes, and it sends sensor data every 5 minutes to our cloud, and the Naava AI makes sure the air quality and humidity are optimal where the Naava products are.

But when we started the products were not so sophisticated. At first, in addition to the constant airflow through the biofilters, the only tech-savvy thing was a manual timer that watered the plant wall twice a day. Soon we understood that every plant species have different needs and the indoor climate changes a lot during the four seasons. We also did not know for how long each plant would last in our system without soil and with constant airflow. After many years running a continuous loop of trial and error, and after hundreds of thousands of dead plants, now we have a smart automated system to take care of the plants, collect data, and keep track of the whole green wall. These technological things are just a way to make it possible for people to enjoy natural air and real nature indoors.

I still remember we built the first green wall by hand and tested it out with only one customer in her classroom. By tracking her symptoms, we could see if our product worked or not. At first, the result was positive, then the customer suddenly felt bad again. We analyzed the situation and found out there was a problem with the airflow – her symptoms came back because the airflow didn’t work, so it was like a normal green wall or a bunch of potted plants without air purification. Then we realized, by accident, we might be onto something big.

Aki Soudunsaari founder Naava green sustainable workplace furniture green walls plants

We realized the importance of automation

One of the keys for us to gain new customers at the very beginning was our humility. We were not sure if this air purification system worked, and we said that honestly to the first handful of customers. We offered a 50-50 deal, pay half now and half a year later if the Naavas have helped them. They could decide how they’d judge the impact of the products. If we weren’t able to provide value, they could choose not to pay a year later.

We needed the customers more than they need us. Thanks to these real live cases, we rapidly understood how to develop the products. For instance, in one year our plants in our products died three times, that’s when we realized the importance of optimal watering cycle and automation, and that these settings had to be monitored and controlled remotely, After all, one Naava has 63 plants and that customer had 14 units – that’s 900 plants!

Although our clients are companies and institutions, we have been focusing on our channel of interior designers and architects. They don’t buy anything from us but they can make a huge influence on our customer’s decisions. Those are our strategic target groups, together with the early adopters who are experts or specialists in the field looking for the most innovative solutions for healthier and happier workplaces.

We are bringing the Finnish forest and air to the world

This is such a small country that you need to think internationally in almost every business. We started in Finland but have always seen ourselves as a Nordic company serving the market of 27 million people, not only five million in Finland. In the past two years, Naava has expanded from the Nordics to Central Europe, North America, Israel, and South Korea.

Our mission is to reconnect humanity with nature in the built environment, and I want us to be people to be healthier and happier in the top 30 global megacities in the next five years. According to WHO, Finland has the cleanest air in the world, and we can say that we, to some extent, are exporting the Finnish forest and air to the world.

“The biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology.” – Steve Jobs

For the first time in human history, we are so disconnected from nature, especially in industrial and megacities. Living in Finland, we have the advantage which is easy access to the forest. An average Finn is about 800 meters away to the closest forest. Forest, not parks. While in some places, people do not even have enough parks to enjoy some lush green shelters for their biological needs. We have become an “indoor generation”, which indirectly increases stress level and anxiety.

Aki Soudunsaari founder Naava green sustainable workplace furniture green walls plants

People say that they usually feel tired in the afternoon and think it was because of the heavy lunch. However, chances are that bad indoor air quality has made a negative impact on people’s alertness, cognitive performance, and productivity at work. Because in the afternoon the air is stale, full of chemicals, with a lower level of oxygen and, especially in the cold areas of the world, we breathing heavily recycled air. We believe that the air you breathe is the next global health trend, after other human necessities like food and water. That’s why keeping the air fresh in offices will be a game-changer impacting the success of the business, not just people’s well-being and performance.

We want to enable the transition to more human-friendlier offices

Maria 01 is one of the best places to be in Finland as an entrepreneur or a startup. It’s where the magic happens and similarly minded people meet and support each other. There’s a flow of creative people here that you can bump into anyone with different background and expertise in a café or restaurant. Also, many events going on every now and then making it a source of powerful networks.

We were the first one to move this old ambulance wing of the old hospital. It was a pretty interesting story to come here. It was an abandoned hospital with medical and surgical instruments here on the table when we first visited. It was like “challenge accepted” when we decided to renovate this place and turned it into a showroom concurrently “the most human-friendly office in the world”, answering the biological needs of us urban humans in the 2020s.

Aki Soudunsaari founder Naava green sustainable workplace furniture green walls plants

Finland is the place to get things started

Finland may not be an ideal place to scale up due to the small market size, but it’s a great and safe place to get things started and try out new ideas. The entrepreneurship ecosystem here is so strong that although not much funding available, you will receive a lot of support especially for the starting phase from the government side, like Business Finland, NewCo Helsinki, or entrepreneurship societies of each university (AaltoES, JES, etc.).

We funded the first Naava years ourselves but we did double or triple the initial investments with different R&D funding projects and grants. The education system here provides great talent and is also supportive for students to become problem solvers, which in the end, another word for entrepreneur – solvers who take action, not only thinking or talking about ideas.

People can “borrow” or make use of other’s networks

It’s good to know especially for foreigners that the Finns build relationships mostly based on trust. We are close to each other and don’t keep the circle tight so you can get introduced to almost anyone, which is a good thing. Around five years ago, that wasn’t the case. Some people were not that open or willing to help each other. But I think nowadays, there is a healthy “helping others attitude” since they realized that it’s win-win when people can “borrow” or make use of other’s networks. Naturally, you need to be always worth that trust and remember to pay the help back to someone else.

Aki Soudunsaari founder Naava green sustainable workplace furniture green walls plants

Ten years ago, we had a group of friends in Jyväskylä called “Group X”. There were about 20 of us – aspiring entrepreneurs from different fields – hanging out together around every quarter to talk about business, collaboration, and support each other when needed. What was remarkable was the circle of trust and openness. Recently, half of the people from that group in Jyväskylä have moved into one apartment building located in Lauttasaari, an island a few kilometers from the Helsinki city center, and become neighbors living under one roof. Even though this is somewhat extreme, I’d recommend entrepreneurs to find ways to collaborate. It provides both tangible and intangible benefits.

My 3 tips for entrepreneurs

1. Put ideas into actions

Don’t just think, act! Because the action is what makes the difference. The idea itself can’t change anything. Almost everyone has billion-dollar ideas but only the people who take action are doing something to pursue those goals or business ideas. There’s a name for that, an entrepreneur.

2. Solve a real problem

Entrepreneurship is about problem-solving and connecting the dots that people don’t usually see. I think you need to be curious and active. You would want to analyze and figure out everything related to the problem you are solving. If you are, for example, solving your problem then you are already a specialist from the customer’s point of view. What a great place to start!

3. Team up

Finally, gather suitable people together and make a team, because there are so few things that a single individual can do. You need to team up with people who are hopefully a mission-match with you. Try to understand and summarize your life mission, and communicate with others. This helps you to find people who believe what you believe. This way you can find a co-founder, partner company, employees or investors faster and with a stronger glue between you. It’s also important to find the people who are supporting you from different angles and having supplementary skills. As an example, Naava started when we uniquely combined my health and business passions with Niko’s biology and IT passions.

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Aki Soudunsaari is the co-founder and strategist at Naava – a Finnish company with a global vision to enhance people’s everyday lives around the world by bringing them fresher air through smart green walls. Naava is the biggest green wall company in the world, measured by the number of installations. Right at this moment, there are over 50 000 people breathing better air quality in the vicinity of the Naava products. They are aiming to help a billion people to enjoy nature and clean natural air in the built environment, every day, everywhere.


Ha Nguyen
Ha Nguyen
Co-founder of EoF - Ha is a social entrepreneur & writer who cares about children, education, fairness, the environment, and sustainability. Connect with Ha here: https://linktr.ee/ha.nguyen

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