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Smart and green, Tartu attracts talent

Tartu, situated on the banks of the magnificently flowing river Emajõgi, will celebrate the 1000th anniversary of its birth in eight years’ time. It is home to one of the oldest universities in northern and eastern Europe, which has played a pivotal role in the development of the city. Before the “Athens of Emajõgi” transforms into the European Capital of Culture in 2024, Tartu will present its smart solutions at EXPO 2020 Dubai.

“Tartu will present itself as a smart enterprise environment at the EXPO, introducing various collaborations taking place with local companies,” says Deputy Mayor Raimond Tamm.

The exciting activities the city has planned for its year as the European Capital of Culture will also be introduced. The year titled “Arts of Survival” will focus, among other things, on sustainable city and countryside culture, movement and mental health, intergenerational co-creation, critical awareness and cross-sectoral collaboration.

All of it is available in abundance in Tartu and the surrounding area. The EXPO exhibit will be based on videos which demonstrate life in a very smart city of 100,000 inhabitants.  One of the smart city solutions Tamm mentions is Positium – a company which deals with data analysis based on mobile positioning, which helped the city develop a new public transport network. In addition the buses using the network burn locally produced biogas as their fuel.

In collaboration with the telecommunications company Telia, Tartu is developing an innovative IoT platform and with a “smart city portalas its basis. This allows users to see in real time the movement of public transport, the current traffic situation, how many electric car charging stations are in use in the city, and how many city bikes are available in parking spaces. Constantly collecting and analysing traffic data enables the city to plan traffic strategically. The smart city portal continues to grow and it will soon start to relay information about the energy use of buildings as well.

Tartu_Mana Maasik

Photo by Mana Maasik 

Green and digital city

In the last two decades Tartu has focused on developing electronic and mobile services. In addition, the City Council has been paper-free since 2003 and all documentation is electronic. Tartu is also the first community in the world to implement mobile parking services and has digitalised most of its services. According to Tamm, the aim is to offer a great living environment for Tartu residents and a simple business environment for entrepreneurs. At the same time, this youthful city tries to be an attractive testing ground for new solutions and, as Tamm says, those do not always have to succeed in the end.

This gives only initial insight into the smart solutions in use in city. In order to increase pedestrian safety, the company Bercman Technologies has installed the first smart pedestrian crossing. Soon the second one will be installed, which will make use of the opportunities of the 5G network. Whereas today the system signals when a vehicle or a pedestrian approaches the crossing, in the future the pedestrian crossings will directly communicate with vehicles via the network and they’ll automatically slow down.  The remote air conditioning system created by the company Fortum is also moving the city toward a smart and green future. The system is the first of its kind in the Baltic states and uses river water to cool the air. In comparison to typical technology, this system saves up to 70% on greenhouse emissions.

In a city which is bicycle friendly in Estonian terms, many residents and visitors already have made use of bike sharing for the past three years. There are 750 bikes available in 69 parking lots. Two thirds have an electric motor, giving extra power whilst pedalling.  According to Tamm, this city-wide project has enjoyed a lot of success: “The active use of bike sharing has been much higher than the average in the world.”

In the framework of the grand project SmartEnCity, the ecological footprint of Tartu has been reduced by remodelling eighteen Soviet period apartment blocks into almost zero-energy buildings. The energy use is being monitored and there are solar parks on the roofs which help to move the energy balance in a positive direction.

“All those buildings have CO2-based ventilation management, meaning that the CO2 level in the air is continuously being monitored and the ventilation intensity is adjusted accordingly,” explains Tamm. He claims that the development of a smart city is only possible in successful collaboration between other sectors, like entrepreneurs and universities.

Tartu_University of Tartu_Riina Varol

The University of Tartu – photo by Riina Varol 

The university helps in managing the Corona crisis

The University of Tartu, founded in 1632, is also increasingly turning its face towards society. Due to the Corona virus, which as an uninvited guest turned the world upside down last spring, the university had to promptly transfer to distance learning. Fortunately, the adjustment was unproblematic as e-learning has been implemented at the University of Tartu for the last twenty years and a strong team of educational technologists exists. “All data indicates that we managed the transfer very well,” says Aune Valk, Vice Rector for Academic Affairs.

At the same time, the university rushed to the aid of the community by putting together a value offer of monitoring programmes for the Prime Minister, in order to understand the real situation with the spread of the virus. By now this so-called package of Corona measures also includes many smaller projects which focus on reopening schools, testing students, measuring ventilation, and so on.

“It is the first time in my experience that the government and the university are strongly putting their thinking minds together,” says Vice Rector for Research, Kristjan Vassil, in praise of the collaboration.

The University of Tartu is constantly searching for new study formats tailored to people who already have been active in the labour market, the key words being micro-degrees and one-year masters programmes. According to Aune Valk, the university is also looking for talents from Estonia and abroad which is greatly helped by the fact that, within the last decade, the university has risen by over 200 positions in international university rankings and is today securely placed in the top 300. Foreign students are primarily attracted to Tartu because of the opportunity to undertake top level studies in IT, natural sciences, international relations as well as semiotics. About half of the foreign students remain to work in Estonia after graduation.

Recently the university founded an asset management company, which participates in research-heavy initiatives which spring out of the university and invests know-how, not money. Kristjan Vassil says that the aim is to create a portfolio of own companies. Another aim is to increase foreign financing and the quality of published research. Again, the data speaks for itself: in 2016, there were 34 University of Tartu employees among the world’s top one per cent of cited researchers; in March 2021 this number has risen to 71.

With its unique role in the world, the University of Tartu has a dual mission. On one hand it is a top research centre and on the other hand it has to promote local language and culture and carry out research in those areas. Vassil considers knowledge transfer to be very important and one of the forms it takes at the University of Tartu is industrial residency.

“All academic employees of the university have the opportunity to go work for a company for up to three years or to found a company themselves, he says. “For this period, the university guarantees that their job is maintained and they can return to the university within three years.” Such a security network guarantees the transfer of knowledge into companies and that scientists are free to test themselves.

sTARTUp Day - photo by Kiur Kaasik

sTARTUp Day – photo by Kiur Kaasik 

Think locally, act globally

One example of successful knowledge transfer is the university spin-off company Antegenes. The company works in a new field – the precise estimation of the risk of common cancers. According to current Estonian statistics, every third man and woman will become sick with one form of a malign cancer during their lifetime. Many most common cancers are not discovered early enough when the treatment would be more effective. This is a problem, not only in Estonia, but globally.

According to Peeter Padrik, CEO of Antegenes, the company was created in order to bring new genetic information into use in healthcare. The current selection includes genetic testing for breast cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and melanoma. The tests can also be used in combination. “We provide people with a risk assessment, interpret test results and, according to the risk level, give guidance about how to decrease the risk of cancer,” explains Padrik.

He is convinced that their solution needs to be accessible to the world. The company has already started collaborating with a partner in the United Kingdom and soon joint programmes will begin in Sweden, Norway, Spain and Portugal. The success to date has been helped by synergy with the university, which has a strong background in biological and clinical medicine and computer science, as well as the e-healthcare system which allows for easy data exchange.

Thinking big and creating synergy is also the basis of the enterprise festival sTARTUp Day, which has been held in Tartu since 2016, organised by eight organisations. According to Marili Vihmann, chief organiser of the festival, it is their goal to spread start-up thinking and bring smaller similar events under one roof, whilst also offering companies international contacts. “We want to showcase Tartu as a great entrepreneurial environment and to put it on the world map as the city with the greatest start-up mentality in the world,” says Vihmann.

There are already over a thousand startups in Estonia. The compact size of Tallinn and Tartu and the intense network of communication give them an edge which cannot be found in Silicon Valley. Whereas many start-ups used to set their sights there, the situation has turned around. “Many teams have come to Estonia from Australia or Israel because they have heard that it is the best location to build their startup,” says Triin Kask, Programme Manager of sTARTUp Day.

She adds that it is equally possible to create a unicorn in Estonia as in Palo Alto but, in the case of Tartu, the added bonuses are cooperation, accessibility, the amount of talent and the existence of national support systems. Also, the seven local unicorns who have already created big waves in the startup world are a valuable resources for entrepreneurs just starting out.

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