Tahko Ski Lift Pitch is known for its thrilling atmosphere and unexpected outcomes. This year, the jury, led by Mika Sutinen, awarded an additional €10,000 to a startup called Finnish Companion, which focuses on education and non-profit societal impact. In essence, Finnish Companion is a website and app that makes Finnish language learning accessible by offering a free dictionary, translation, pronunciation support, word breakdown, and conjugation/reverse-conjugation. It also provides neuroscience based free repetitive exercises and drills, a browser extension for real-time subtitle translation on YLE Areena, and a collaborative platform for teachers to share notes, lessons, and other materials with their students.
The Founder and Story Behind the Startup
Dr. Zak Allal, the founder of Finnish Companion, is a multi-talented individual. He is a U.S./Algerian-trained medical doctor and neuroscientist based in Finland, an alumnus of Singularity University (Google/NASA), a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a pianist and composer who speaks six languages, with Finnish being his seventh. Allal’s first encounter with Finland occurred while he was working for Google/NASA in the United States, where he met two Finns. At the time, he knew only about Nokia and the fact that Finnish is one of the most difficult languages to learn.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, Allal found himself back in his home country, Algeria, where he got involved with the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM). During this period, he took the time to contemplate his ideal location for settling down. After extensive research, he determined that Finland would be the perfect country for him, given its outstanding societal structures and overall way of life, including its top-notch education system, economic freedom, global liveability, gender equality, and social mobility. Subsequently, Allal explored different opportunities, secured a job offer, and ultimately relocated to Finland.
The Birth of Finnish Companion
Finnish Companion was born from Allal’s personal desire to learn Finnish. “When you’re working with a patient from North-Savo who is in the emergency room and experiencing a stroke, you need to communicate in Finnish. As I began learning the language, I identified three challenges. First, there are not enough learning resources available for foreigners learning Finnish. Second, learners face difficulties with word and phrase construction, such as conjugations. Third, there are limited real-life learning opportunities for foreigners in Finland since Finns often speak English to be helpful,” explains Allal, outlining his reasons for founding the startup.
The Journey to Tahko Ski Lift Pitch
Initially, Zak discovered the Tahko Ski Lift Pitch through personal contacts who invited him to join the competition. However, just a few weeks before the event, he nearly canceled his participation due to incomplete visual materials. After receiving some encouragement, he pushed the design agency to expedite the process, resulting in a polished pitch complete with an appealing logo and visuals.
On the first day of the event, Zak’s turn to pitch was scheduled in the last group, allowing him time to observe other competitors and gauge the level of competition. “Some of the pitches were good, while others were not so impressive. I thought I might have a chance to be among the top 20, but I didn’t expect to win the competition, as there were stronger business ideas ranging from cancer research to environmental solutions,” he reflects. After his pitch, Zak had an opportunity to review his performance, as one of his friends had recorded it. Watching the video, he felt that his presentation went well and believed he still had a chance to make it into the top 20.
During the Networking Dinner with his friends, Zak received a surprise visit from one of the jury members, Mika Sutinen. Sutinen explained that Finnish Companion would not be among the top 20 startups, but instead, the jury had decided to award an additional €10,000 to the company as it had presented the best idea and pitch in the competition’s history. According to Allal, Sutinen justified the decision by mentioning that the competition was for profit, while Finnish Companion was a non-profit organization.
“When Mika approached me, I thought he might still be uncertain about whether Finnish Companion had made it into the top 20. I assumed he might need additional information about the company. When he revealed what was going to happen, I was completely overwhelmed and felt like I was floating on cloud nine. It was truly unbelievable,” sums up Allal, describing his emotions.
When asked about his future plans and whether Allal has any intentions to convert his startup into a for-profit business, he replies:
“I am not going to change this. It will remain non-profit and continue to serve as a supportive Finnish learning website and app without replacing classroom teachers. I received support for Finnish classes when I arrived in Finland, and I want others to have the same experience. I hope that my app and website will help others learn the language.”
In the near future, Zak plans to add other languages to the app to assist those who do not speak English. For instance, by including Ukrainian, the app will help Ukrainians learn Finnish using their native language. Additionally, Zak aims to recruit someone to work on the Finnish Companion content, expand the number of schools using the Finnish Companion, and grow the start-up further. Alongside these endeavors, he remains committed to working in neuroscience and neurology, fields he is passionate about.
In the picture: from left to right Tommi Taskinen, Zak Allal, Jorma Turunen, Mika Sutinen, Mikko Jalkanen, Jari Osmala and Antti Haapakorva.