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Startup Agency and World-making in Neoliberal Finland


In Finland, startup entrepreneurs are increasingly talking about doing things that ‘really matter’. Amidst growing cynicism towards business-as-usual and disappointment with politics as stagnant and ineffective, startup entrepreneurship has assumed an expanding social mandate as the tool of choice for addressing all manner of social and environmental problems.

With my research interests in political participation (and lack thereof), I approach startup entrepreneurship theoretically as a type of political, worldbuilding agency. In other words: how does one change the world with a startup? During the course of a year in the Helsinki startup ecosystem, I spent time with entrepreneurs, investors, employees and other professionals working to understand how they employ and experience startup agency.

One of the startups I spent time with was Origin by Ocean, a company making ingredients for the chemicals industry from invasive algae and excess nutrients in the ocean. It is a ‘regenerative’ business model in which the positive impact on the environment scales together with the business itself. I spent time with the company as it was preparing to complete a new round of investment and scale up from labs to factory scale.


Harvesting seaweed

In the future, Origin by Ocean hopes to purchase most of its algae from a business ecosystem of seaweed farmers and gatherers. For now though, gathering seaweed for the biorefinery can be as straightforward as a drive to the local beach. The feedstock team team knows from experience where one can reliably expect sargassum algae to have washed up onshore. Occasionally the team engages in impromptu public relations as dog walkers and other curious passers-by stop to ask why they are gathering bagfuls of dead seaweed.


Investors' visit

A long awaited and exciting day as potential investors are taken for a tour through the labs in what is hoped to be the decisive event of a months long courtship. Here the investors are at the end of their tour in the applications lab. They are introduced to the seaweed ingredients in their final form, as part of products like moisturiser, sunscreen and ice cream (where the algae-based ingredient helps create a premium consistency worthy of important guests).


Scaling up

Though the prospect of their first factory is on the horizon, there are more immediate customer orders that require something larger than a bucket to fulfil. Here equipment bought from an out-of-business brewery finds new life preparing larger batches of alginate. There is no guarantee that the transition up from bucket scale is without trouble, and so the crew observes anxiously whether the solutions react as planned.