“Sell the science, not the hype”

Although pitching is most often done in startup circles, it works just as well for scientific purposes, too. Skolar Award alumnus Janne Hakkarainen advises future applicants to not forget the science in their pitch, but most importantly, to have fun – a mantra he also follows in his career.

Janne_Hakkarainen_Skolar Award

Skolar Award 2017 finalist Janne Hakkarainen studied each phrase of his pitch so precisely that he can still remember it word for word, several months after Slush.

“I haven’t actively thought about the pitch after the Skolar Award final, but I could still recite it from memory”, he says.

The rhythm of a pitch differs drastically from the scientific presentations researchers are accustomed to giving. When you only have a few minutes to convince your audience that you deserve a modest sum of 100,000 euros, there’s no room for mumbling.

“I’d gone over all the words a thousand times, so I practically didn’t have to think about them while I spoke. Obviously, if you’re a really good speaker you can be more creative on the spot, but for me it was good to stick to the script.”

“Share what’s worth hearing”

Hakkarainen is a mathematician and senior researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. He uses satellite data to identify the main sources of man-made greenhouse gases.

Most people are familiar with the concepts of climate change and greenhouse gases, but that doesn’t make it any easier to pitch research on them. Although Hakkarainen isn’t in his element when pitching at a startup event, he understands how compressing a complex research subject into a brief presentation can actually help in getting the point across.

“I can understand why startups have ended up using pitches as a sales tool. There’s a good reason for it: funders are busy and need to hear everything worth hearing about a subject in three minutes. If we had all babbled on about our research for thirty minutes each, it would have got out of hand.”

Scientist or salesman?

Although you have to take into account your audience’s knowledge level, pitching shouldn’t involve dumbing down scientific information.

“Sometimes the popularisation of science goes a bit too far. I find it annoying that news related to climate change, for example, is often stripped from all detail. Making things too simple underestimates the general public’s level of knowledge.”

One obviously can’t go very deep into detail about their research subject when having to present it in a matter of minutes. However, Hakkarainen finds it extremely important that Skolar Award pitches keep the focus on science. At the end of the day, that’s what the competition is all about.

“By oversimplifying, you may end up becoming a salesman instead of a scientist. In that case you might as well be selling a vacuum cleaner rather than presenting research.”

However, crafting a pitch does teach researchers a few things that can also be applied to other presentations. According to Hakkarainen, mathematicians in particular tend to fill their presentation slides with mathematical formulas that no one has the time to read through.

“I’ve tried to cut back on the formulas after Skolar Award, but it isn’t always easy!” Hakkarainen laughs.

In it for the fun

After Skolar Award, Hakkarainen has continued his research tracing where man-made greenhouse gases come from. What he wishes to do at some point is to develop his own measuring instrument. That’s also what he would have used the Skolar Award grant for.

“It’s difficult to find funding for developing equipment of my own. No one’s really in the business of providing that kind of funding to anyone.”, Hakkarainen says.

He is not worried, however. What drives him forward as a researcher is discovering new things and enjoying what he does.

“Don’t get me wrong, but I actually want to have fun at work. My goal is to develop something that no one has ever developed before.”

Hakkarainen suggests future Skolar Award finalists adopt the same philosophy. Since only one finalist can win, only being in it for the money is unlikely to pay off.

“Being chosen for the finals and having the chance to pitch at Slush is in itself a victory, it’s something you probably won’t be able to do again. Remember to embrace the experience and have fun!”

Are you a postdoc ready to go wild? Apply now for Skolar Award!