How Skolar Award helped a postdoc land massive funding

Skolar Award alumnus Juha Koivisto recently received a quarter million euro research grant – and his experience at Slush played an important role in bagging it. 

One of the most memorable pitches at last year’s Skolar Award included an extremely energetic researcher and a bright red fire extinguisher. Although the extinguisher is no longer in the picture, the energy remains: Juha Koivisto from Aalto University is working on a model on how particles affect the behaviour of different foams. The model could make labs much more energy-efficient than they are now.

How are things since last year’s Skolar Award?
Great! I recently received a 250 000 euro grant for postdocs from the Academy of Finland. The three-year grant is for the same general research subject I pitched last year at Slush. The idea itself is a bit different but I was able to use some parts of my Skolar Award application and pitch in this application. The pitching experience has also helped in some hackathons I’ve attended.

Excellent! Would you say that was the main take away from the competition?
The whole process was very interesting. For once you get to do something like this, explain your work and try to make it as appealing as possible. However you have to cut some corners and simplify a lot and that can be challenging in terms of scientific validity. But there aren’t many chances like this for a young researcher. You don’t lose anything if you apply.

Last year you seemed to be comfortable on the stage. What’s the best thing about pitching?
The Slush audience was very different in comparison to the audiences researchers usually attract. I think you benefit the most when you present to people who have no idea what you do. It’s very challenging to simultaneously pick the most relevant parts of your research, communicate its scientific legitimacy and be entertaining. Slush was a nice change because I do basic research and it’s not that usual to present it like I did at Skolar Award.

Why do you think that is?
All research is interesting and it will appeal to any audience as long as it’s presented appropriately. Basic research is usually so theoretical that it’s hard to visualise it in a slide deck, for example. It proceeds in small steps and the results might become applicable only decades from now. However I think we should try to envision those applications and paint them with a bigger brush.

You certainly did that last year: you took a fire extinguisher on stage to concretize your foam research.
Yeah, it was quite dramatic but at least it caught people’s attention! I think a bit of showmanship is always good on stage. But if you bring a prop, make sure it relates to your pitch.

Text: Kristiina Markkanen