Finland, the land of vertical search engines

There are some underlying reasons behind the high number of search engine startups in Finland

tampere by kari savolainen1
Credit: Kari Savolainen

A number of search engine startups that focus on specific verticals have emerged in Finland in recent years. The country is known to encourage policies and attitudes that emphasize equal access to information. With these policies coupled with deep engineering talent and multidisciplinary know-how, it's no wonder Finns have been busy improving search since the 1990s.

The new search startups focus on very specific verticals from add and video search to business leads and sales opportunities.

AlphaSense, a search engine for financial professionals and perhaps the most high-profile Finnish search startup due to its recent $30 million round. The company is headquartered in California with developers in Finland. Other search engines include Oppex, a Helsinki based search platform for public tenders; Valossa, an AI-powered video search; Ahmia, a search for hidden services; SciNet, a visual discovery search, Klevu; search for eCommerce; and AddSearch, in-website search engine.

Ville Heinonen, CEO and co-founder of Oppex says the idea for a public tender search engine came from a common problem among colleagues who wanted to monitor public sector opportunities on a daily and weekly basis.

"They had to do a lot of manual follow-up work locally, and international opportunities were even harder to identify. There were solutions available on the market but they were usually limited to local contracting opportunities only, or the services were technically outdated (search functionality was either difficult to use or very slow). Public procurement was not very sexy area either."

As with Oppex, most startups are born out of a specific demand. However, there are a number of country-specific reasons that facilitate the growth of specific skill-sets that are driving the local search engine space.

In pursuit of accuracy and objectivity

Behind the Finnish rush to personalized search is a commitment to truthfulness and accuracy. The Finnish society has certain homogeneous cultural, political and social traits that affect approach to data, information and knowledge, and their digital distribution and accessibility.

"For Finland, being a small country with a distinctive geopolitical location, the cultural, political and economical conditions have lead the society to value the creation of objective information and expert knowledge as well as to develop methods to distribute and utilize information resources for societal benefit," said Jarno M. Koponen, the founder of discovery app Random.

Mika Rautiainen, CEO and founder of Valossa agrees.

"The need to discover information that is relevant to individual need fits well with the Nordic mindset that is concerned about individual freedom and egalitarian right to be justly informed and served."

Government-backed research funding tries ensure objectivity of scientific knowledge as part of the Finnish educational system with an emphasis on equal access to education. In 2010, Finland became the first country in the world to make broadband access a legal right for every citizen.

According to Koponen, Linux -- founded by Linus Torvalds, a Finn --  and the MyData movement both manifest this democratic trend with their focus on putting the individual in control of personal data.

"In today's ever-growing data economy, companies are hungry to utilize new data-informed methods such as advanced search technologies. Even being cautious of generalizations, solving complex search puzzles is definitely benefiting from approaches sprouting from Finland's deep engineering culture valuing expert knowledge and democratic, human-centered data and information practices."


In addition to cultural traits, the Finnish language has played a key role in the development of search verticals.

Heikki Vesalainen, the founder of for AI-power trademark search TrademarkNow, was part of a Finnish search engine project in the 90's. Vesalainen believes language is a factor when it comes to the evolution of Finnish search engine know-how.

"I think one of the drivers for that project -- and other Finnish search engine projects -- was and is the fact that Finnish language is very different from almost any other language and global search engines at the time weren't doing so well in providing relevant search results for Finnish queries. The Finnish language uses a lot of inflections and compound words. Therefore, to find a page that talks about, for example,  cars in Finnish, the search engine has to understand these inflections and so the traditional approach of using pre-generated word lists just doesn't work that well."

A country of engineers

Finns often joke about Finland being the country of engineers. While the joke might have some negative connotations, it also contains a kernel of truth: Nokia and many other Finnish tech companies were built and led by top engineers.

"Traditionally, successful Finnish tech startups are engineering-heavy -- we have tons of really talented engineers, but not that many good sales/marketing people -- so the focus tends to be on technologically challenging problems with B2B customers," said Ville Miettinen, a Finnish serial entrepreneur and computer programmer.

Finland is leading in several fields that contribute to the current wave of search companies.

"Information systems design (one of the first countries in the world to adopt national digital strategy), mobile system development (Nokia and its impact on the IT industry), long term computer science and computer vision algorithm research -- driven by practical industrial needs from paper manufacturing and industrial instrumentation -- media technology development (one of the first countries to adopt DVB, for example), and emphasis on semantic technologies," said Rautiainen.

Indeed, the country has a solid technical foundation that spurs on new high-tech innovations in the form of search engine startups that focus on solving problems with specific verticals.

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