A rendezvous with Peter Vesterbacka
Poland Today crossed paths with Peter Vesterbacka during the GreaterBayX tour in China and a chat with the tech visionary was too irresistible to turn down. Buckle up – time to talk e-vehicles, tech startups and business in China.
Peter Vesterbacka, the Finnish marketing wunderkind-turned-tunnel builder, has made a career of proving people wrong. As the CMO of Rovio Entertainment, he drew laughs when he declared in 2009 that the Angry Birds mobile game would hit one million downloads. The game series is now approaching five billion downloads. It was the same case in 2008 when he co-founded the tech conference Slush. From a showing of 300 people at its inaugural event in Helsinki, it has become the world’s leading startup event with sister events in Japan, China and Singapore. In 2016, he also attracted incredulity when he announced that he would build a 103km undersea railway tunnel between Finland and Estonia, including an artificial island to accommodate 50,000 people. This year, he and his partner Kustaa Valtonen landed €15bn in financing for their FinEst Bay Area project.
The moral of the story is when Vesterbacka speaks, listen – and listen carefully. That’s exactly what Poland Today did when we first caught up with him in June at our Belt & Road conference in Warsaw and more recently, on the sidelines of the GreaterBayX tour, a two-week roadshow of events, workshops and business meetings between the key cities in China’s Greater Bay Area. Vesterbacka is a polymath of sorts and conversations with him can venture into any realm of human enterprise, but given the setting of our meeting and his upcoming keynote address at the Urban E-Mobility Forum in Gdynia, the conversation naturally centred on his involvement in China and the e-mobility movement, including his innovative take on electric vehicle production.
What was the tour to China about and how was it organised?
It was part of what we’ve been working on with the Greater Bay Area, connecting the Finest Bay Area with the region and bringing people from these two areas together. A lot of companies from different fields took part, from education and healthcare to gaming. The Finnish and Chinese governments were doing things together. There was also city-to-city cooperation. For example, the city of Hyvinkää has been twinned with the city of Kunshan for 11 years. It was a diverse group built around slush shenzhen, with two days in Guangzhou, two days in Hong Kong, two in Shenzhen and one in Macau. These cities also happen to be central to the Belt & Road initiative.
What are your ambitions for Slush China and China in general?
We have done Slush five times before in China. The first was in Shanghai and now we also organise Slush events in Nanjing in June and Shenzhen in August. Slush in Shanghai now attracts around 3,000 people. Why did we go to China? Simple: big nation, lots of cities with huge populations. Shenzhen is central to the Greater Bay Area with lots of talented young people, so it’s a no-brainer to be there. Of course, there are differences. For starters, the core of Slush is organised by young people. 3,000-4,000 participants and 330 local volunteers were needed for the first Slush event in Shenzhen, as well as 2600 volunteers from many different countries. It was a massive learning experience. I was super happy to see 330 young Chinese people volunteering. What we’re bringing to the Chinese ecosphere is the volunteer culture and a global perspective.
Slush already commands a large presence with events in Finland, Japan, China and Singapore, but do you aim to spread Slush to other parts of the world?
We’re happy to focus on Eurasia. It has 5 billion people, 70% of the world’s population. It’s where the action is. Originally, we didn’t have plans to move outside Helsinki, but it moved organically. Bringing young people together, it makes a big contribution to the startup eco-structure.
Do you perceive that there is a fear of China in the West, particularly a fear of its size and power now and in the future?
People fear the unknown – it’s natural and human. This is why we, the Finest Bay Area, went to the Greater Bay Area: it’s best to go see for yourself. You hear the comment that the Chinese copy everything. You could say that about Germany as well. It’s an easy stereotype. China is way ahead in many areas. Of course, this can be scary, too. Yes, it’s a massive market, but people are people. They have families, they go to school, they do business together, they live their lives. It’s always important to create connections between people. People who do business together don’t usually go to war, something we’ve seen in Europe many times. How you avoid conflicts is to have good business and personal relations. That’s why walls, trade wars and things like Brexit are not good. Once you engage in dialogue you realise that people are the same everywhere. My good friend in China invited me to his house for a BBQ. I met his wife and kids, and they were talking about regular things. He said he has Japanese friends and that they are very good people, despite the history between Japan and China. It’s not the people saying bad things, it’s the governments.
Electric cars don’t need to be dull, says Vesterbacka. He praised the design of the Nobe car and joined the company as a marketing and brand advisor.
As the keynote speaker at the Urban E-Mobility Forum in Gdynia in November, what message do you want to get across at the conference?
I want to look at the bigger e-mobility picture. What people see is electric vehicles, but we need to look at the whole world of e-mobility. One area is MAAS [Mobility-as-a-service]. The Finnish company MaaS Global has created an app merging multiple modes of transport in one transport chain through one monthly subscription. Maybe start with a taxi, train, boat, train or a taxi again, whatever it takes to get you from A-B most efficiently. It’s kind of like the next generation of uber. The other point is that it’s not just about deregulation but also about setting regulation. In Finland, providers are mandated [through the Act on Transport Services] to share ticketing functionality with third parties, so you can create the multimodal chains using many different modes.
You are connected with the Estonian startup Nobe, manufacturer of the three-wheeled Nobe 100 electric vehicle. In which other areas are you involved in the e-mobility industry?
In terms of electric vehicles, I invested in Nobe and bought one [Nobe 100], and also helped with the marketing and branding. Not all electric vehicles have to be similar. We want to bring a bit more fun and excitement to the vehicles. Nobe is itself exciting and has a super nice design. Also, the way they will be made is important. They will be built with sustainable and replaceable parts, so you can upgrade the vehicle during its lifetime, such as replace the battery if batteries are upgraded, change the panels to change the colour, and so on. Another thing is that instead of big factories, we’ll make nano/micro factories which produce about 200 vehicles per year, so they can be smaller, more local and close to the consumer, making the factories more of an experience where you can watch your car being made and test drive it. Will this approach work? We’ll only know if we try. We’re very optimistic about the model – it resonates with people. There is great interest in how we will make and deliver the car.
The Polish government wants to have 1m electric vehicles on the road by 2025 and yet the local energy market has shown no real signs of making a big move away from coal: 78.1% of the country’s electricity was generated from coal in 2018. What’s the point of having 1m electric vehicles when they’re powered by dirty energy sources?
You’re right that it doesn’t make sense to have electric vehicles if the energy is dirty. All governments need to get serious about getting rid of coal. In Finland, we are stopping the use of coal by 2025-30, but we also have nonsustainable power. There needs to be a plan to replace coal with renewables and to take a longer-term view. We need methods to use cleaner energy. It’s not just Poland; Germany has not done a very good job either. It decided to get rid of nuclear, which is better for the environment than coal. But now they’re cutting down forests. It’s always important to see the bigger perspective.
According to Poland’s national Electromobility Development Plan, the government plans to take an active role in providing public charging infrastructure, R&D and subsidies. At which point should the private sector step in to pick up the slack?
We need to get to a stage where we don’t need government subsidies. They might be needed to get things going, but over time electric vehicles will be cheaper than current models. And when you have more vehicles, they will need more infrastructure, and private businesses will be more than happy to step in. even in the us, Tesla sales have benefited from subsidies, and Norway is now leading the way with the highest percentage of electric vehicles, although they can do so because of the revenue from selling oil. Of course, it’s not black and white. But the only way to make this sustainable is to reduce dependency on government subsidies. On the global scene, right now there is a shortage of electric vehicles. Does it make sense for the Polish government to subsidise electric car production to kickstart it? It’s a good question. If not, it could delay development in Poland, which is needed now.
Peter Vesterbacka is the co-founder of FinEstBay Area Development. Previously, he served as the Chief Marketing Officer and Mighty Eagle of Rovio Entertainment. He has also worked at the original startup HewlettPackard and founded among others Slush and Mobile Monday. Lately, Vesterbacka has focused on education-related ventures, as well as developing the world’s longest subsea tunnel connecting Finland and Estonia.
Peter will be a keynote speaker at Urban E-mobility Forum in November in Gdynia. The event, co-organised by The Electric Vehicles Promotion Foundation and Poland Today, aims to help all sides of the e-transformation process to find better and more effective solutions to implement e-mobility in cities across Poland.