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Post-Nokia, Angry Birds, Finland’s tech scene is thriving

Finland might not be the biggest or best known country in Europe, but it's been behind two of recent history's most popular technology exports: Nokia and Angry Birds.

At their prime the two companies dominated their respective industries in mobile phones and mobile gaming. But since then, the two companies have had a bumpy ride. Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, just this year axed over 200 jobs, while Microsoft announced last year it would slash 18,000 jobs, many in Finland from the devices unit it bought from Nokia.

But far from being bitter, Nokia's tech workers have regrouped and are set on building the next big mobile and gaming companies.

"Nokia gave a huge amount of self-esteem to the Finnish high-tech industry," declared one ex-employee Torulf Jernstrom, who is the co-founder of a mobile gaming firm Tribeflame. Jernstrom's company is behind the game Benji Bananas


‘I bump into gamers at bars’

Source: Rovio Mobile

The Finnish games industry has seen strong growth with turnover doubling from 900 million euros ($961.8 million) in 2013 to 1.8 billion euros in 2014, according to Neogames, a Finnish non-profit games industry organization. At the same time, the country's gaming industry employed 2,500 in 2014, up 13 percent from the year before.

At the same time, out of the 237,437 mobile developers in Europe, 9 percent are in the Nordic countries, according to data from StackOverflow.

"When you go to a bar and you always bump into someone working in the game industry," Lauri Konttori, a former Rovio creative director and now co-founder of mobile games firm Cool Surf Club, told CNBC.

Konttori's comments highlight how widespread the gaming industry is in Finland but also how those employees from the likes of Nokia and Rovio have moved on to create their own start-ups. Altogether nearly 70 percent of Finnish games studios are less than five years old, according to Pollen VC.


‘Unique’ environment

One of the major factors behind Finland's mobile games industry growth has been what Konttori describes as a "unique" sense of community where start-ups share their ideas and tap into the wealth of knowledge gained from Finland's bigger tech firms. KooPee Hiltunen, the director of Neogames explained that all companies are after the international market.

Alcatel-Lucent's CEO Michel Combes (L) and Nokia's Chief Executive Rajeev Suri
Thomas Samson | AFP | Getty Images
Alcatel-Lucent's CEO Michel Combes (L) and Nokia's Chief Executive Rajeev Suri

"Finland is a small market, we don't have a domestic market, so they don't compete within Finland, they cooperate and this is a cornerstone. They compete on the international market," Hiltunen told CNBC in an interview.

Nordics better than U.S. for games

And investors are certainly being drawn in. Index Ventures, one of the most prominent venture capital firms in the world, has been actively investing in gaming companies with an interest in Finland. It was an investor in Supercell, the Helsinki-based firm behind popular mobile game "Clash of Clans" which is now valued at $5.5 billion according to reports. Index is no longer an investor, but Ben Holmes, a partner at the VC firm, said he is looking to invest in other Finnish gaming firms, which are more suited to becoming gaming entrepreneurs than their U.S. peers.

He said they look for entrepreneurs who had taken on board all the lessons of what had and hadn't worked in the past. "And you're more likely to find that in the Nordics than U.S," Holmes told CNBC.

"A lot of U.S. entrepreneurs are not gamers by heart, they are tourists. They have seen lots of money in games and have come in with spreadsheets and want to make a game and the think just with a spreadsheet they can create a good design."

Still Finland accounts for just 1.4 percent of the overall mobile gaming revenues, according to market research firm Newzoo, and Hiltunen said companies need to diversify beyond games into films and merchandise - much like Angry Birds has - in order to grow the market.

"We want to ramp up this industry in Finland and one way would be to do a similar thing that Rovio has been doing - taking the game industry to a whole new level as entertainment," Hiltunen said.