Greater Helsinki is rapidly emerging as a global health industry leader (Image: Lehtikuva)


IF YOU WERE TO ASK someone what they thought Finland’s greatest economic strengths were, they would likely list off the classics; paper, telecoms, and Angry Birds. However, one emergent area of the economy that runs the risk of being overlooked is the health sector, which includes biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and life sciences, the epicenter of which is Greater Helsinki.

 The figures show that this is one of Helsinki’s most dynamic industries, with over €216 million invested into it last year alone. In addition, Finland exported over €3 billion worth of pharmaceutical and medical equipment last year, whilst many of the largest pharma companies in the world, including Bayer, Takeda, MSD, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca, have all established a presence in Greater Helsinki.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs has listed this sector as one of the fastest-growing parts of the Finnish economy for several years running, whilst groups such as the Helsinki Business Hub are working to promote the health business opportunities for companies and investors and help develop their business here in the capital region. Whilst there is no shortage of ambition, we thought it best to take a closer look at the situation on the ground, to see if the industry in Finland actually stands out on the global stage. We broke down the numbers and spoke to the experts in order to determine what distinguishes Finland from the rest of the world.


Data-driven healthcare based on real-world health data

One area where Greater Helsinki stands out among the competition is in the field of data-driven healthcare, which has consistently been highlighted as one of the country’s strengths. Finland is one of the few countries in the world to develop a nationwide network of biobanks, with the FinnGen Initiative collecting the health data of hundreds of thousands of Finns to aid future research and development for new medicines. In addition, Finland’s genetically isolated population, combined with its digitally focused social security number system, make it an ideal global lab for data-driven approaches to healthcare, assisting health companies in their search for better care solution.

Isabel Torres, Takeda's General Manager for Finland, originally from Portugal. 


Isabel Torres, the general manager for the Finnish branch of the Japanese pharmaceutical giant Takeda, remarks that “the quantity and quality of data is what makes Finland unique. While other countries have data, the connections between the data are often missing. The way Finland brings it together with the biobanks and disease registries facilitates the creation of healthcare solutions.” Finland has made a concerted effort to incorporate big data into the healthcare industry, having spent over 50 years collecting biodata on the population, with authorities taking the unconventional step of sharing the data between public and private actors to enhance research and development.

In a similar vein, Miriam Holstein, CEO of life science giant Bayer’s Nordic operations, says that “Finnish biobanks are key partners for Bayer in research projects in oncology, cardiology, and other therapeutic areas. We are excited that our global R&D teams are pushing for even closer collaboration with Finnish biobanks.”

Meanwhile Torres, who has worked in pharmaceuticals for over two decades, highlights the cancer treatment monitoring platform Noona, which launched in Finland and is now used around the world, as a successful example of this type of approach.

“It [Noona] takes advantage of the highly conducive and innovative market atmosphere in Finland, to link up the hospitals, the clinics, and multiple private pharma providers. It’s one of multiple illustrative examples of Finland’s innovative healthcare environment”.


Unique opportunities for public-private collaboration

A defining feature of many health ecosystems around the world is a general lack of trust and collaboration between the public and private sectors. However, leaders within the health industry in Finland believe that the country takes a refreshing, collaborative approach to public-private partnerships. Patricia Drake, who started as the managing director of American pharmaceutical giant MSD’s (known as Merck & Co. in the US and Canada) Finnish operations earlier this year, believes that this trusting mindset is unique to Finland’s health sector.

“I really appreciate the willingness to form public-private partnerships in Helsinki. This country is very forward-thinking in collaborating across the healthcare system to find better patient outcomes. I have found authorities here to be incredibly open, compared to other markets where healthcare systems can be hostile to the pharmaceutical industry”.  Authorities in the capital region regularly approach private health companies for assistance in vaccine research, disease prevention, drug development, and patient care, a rarity among European countries. 

Takeda’s Isabel Torres describes the approach of the local authorities as “a willingness to break down barriers and an effort to create a more open environment to work in, in which [the authorities] remain involved in all projects, sharing responsibilities equally with private companies”.


An excellent local talent pool

One area which is helping to enhance Greater Helsinki’s attractiveness as a global health hub is its local talent pool, which produces thousands of life science graduates every year in one of the most celebrated education systems in the world. Research from Helsinki Business Hub has revealed that, of the thousands of healthcare professionals in the area, 42% have more than five years’ experience, whilst almost half possess a master’s degree in their field. Leaders in the healthcare industry in Finland are quick to point out that the highly educated population is central to the country’s attractiveness to global companies. 

One of these leaders is Miriam Holstein, the CEO of Bayer Nordic, who explains that the domestic talent pool in the capital region was one of several important factors in Bayer’s decision to relocate their Nordic headquarters from Copenhagen to Espoo in 2011, and now employs 850 people in Finland.

Bayer Nordic's CEO Miriam Holstein, originally from Germany.

Holstein believes that “Finland offers unique opportunities and has a talent pool that is highly competitive compared to other countries. Finland has one of the largest startup ecosystems in the world, especially in health tech, which offers a dynamic operating environment for startups and international partnerships alike”. 

Helsinki-based health startups such as neuro-tracking hardware producer Adamant Health, as well as Osgenic, which creates virtual training environments for surgeons, have attracted millions of euros in local and international investment and helped place the capital region’s health tech startup scene firmly on the global radar. Similarly, Patricia Drake believes that “the history of tech in Finland is unique… you can get a lot of skilled workers and intellectual capability into your company very quickly, because of the tremendous talent pool”.


An innovative mindset

In a technologically driven, fast-paced, and competitive industry like health, an innovative and open approach is crucial. Finland recently came out as the 3rd most innovative country in the world on Bloomberg’s closely-followed ‘Innovation Index’, with productivity levels and the country’s commitment to R&D being cited as key strengths. 

Isabel Torres believes that this innovation is visible within the health sector, describing the Finnish capital as “a perfect global lab for the future, and an ideal place for health companies to try new things”. In addition, she attributes the levels of innovation she sees here as something embedded into the national culture, advising that anyone wishing to enter the healthcare market from abroad will need “an innovative mindset to succeed”.


Prioritizing diversity

When attempting to determine an industry’s capacity for innovation, it is becoming the norm to examine how diverse an industry is and to evaluate its attitude toward diversity initiatives. One area in which Finland’s health sector leads is in gender diversity, with many of the largest global companies based in Greater Helsinki reporting their offices here to have majority-female staff. Healthcare and pharmaceuticals in the rest of the world frequently come under fire for their lack of gender diversity, with women making up a tiny minority of leadership positions.

Finland regularly tops global rankings of the countries with the highest levels of gender equality, so it is unsurprising that this has shaped the health industry. MSD’s Patricia Drake remarks that “as an American, it is shocking and incredibly refreshing to see how many female leaders there are. In the US, I’m usually the only woman in the room. Here it’s nothing special at all, which is really tremendous”.

In Bayer Nordic’s offices in Finland, 59% of the employees are female, whilst a full 67% of leadership roles are occupied by women, a figure which dwarfs those of pharma HQs in countries like the UK and Germany. As Bayer’s Miriam Holstein puts it; “When I look around the office, I see that Finland stands for equality. The majority of leaders here are female, these numbers are encouraging and reflect the fact that men and women have equal opportunities here”.

Torres, whose office is located in Pasila, agrees with this sentiment, adding that “the gender diversity I see here is the best I’ve ever seen. I have more women in my management team than men – something I’ve never experienced before”.

Diverse offices and laboratories have been proven to introduce new ways of thinking, which suggests that Helsinki’s strong performance in both gender equality and innovation are strongly correlated to each other.


MSD Finland's Manager Director Patricia Drake, who moved here from the US this year. 

Unrivalled quality of life

Another key factor that is helping attract international talent to the capital region is the city’s famed work-life balance, in which Helsinki came out on top in a recent ranking of global cities. The abundance of leisure opportunities here has also been cited as a major draw for relocating to the city, as well as the easy access to nature.

MSD’s Patricia Drake also cites the public transport as a major benefit of living in the region, remarking that “I get to my office in Espoo from my apartment in Helsinki city centre in 20 minutes flat. People here say I’m the first American to give back a company car! You just don’t need to drive here”.

 Meanwhile, Takeda’s Isabel Torres cites nature as one of the key draws of the city, saying that “I love spending my time in nature here. The seasons and the forests are absolutely gorgeous. The fact that I can hike for several kilometres in a forest near the capital city and not see anybody is amazing. The amount of space you have here is a form of freedom.”

  Greater Helsinki undoubtedly offers unique advantages for health companies and investors. How this dynamic sector will evolve and grow in the future is worth keeping an eye on.


Adam Oliver Smith – HT