Vehicles without drivers – Finnish Unikie speeds forwards in digital traffic

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Unikie, a company specialised in developing demanding software, was established to use the best of Finland’s technological expertise to create wellbeing. The company’s spearhead is Unikie AI Vision, a comprehensive solution for autonomous driving in industrial environments. CapMan Growth and Tesi recently added fuel to the company’s international expansion and growth with a €12 million investment.

The five-year old Unikie’s customers already include Germany’s leading vehicle manufacturers and other world-class companies. CEO Esko Mertsalmi, one of the founders, believes the company’s success stems from it drawing on Finland’s strong tradition of technological expertise and adding innovation to the mix.

“Our operations are rooted in the specialist know-how in mechanical engineering and advanced information technology gained from Finland’s years of war reparations and Nokia’s heyday. These as a foundation, we set out to build up new software expertise. We focused on the international markets right from the start,” he says, and adds that deep software development could become a solid foundation for Finnish exports. Unikie operates in the USA, Germany, Sweden and Poland in addition to Finland, as well as has sales in ten countries.

“We want to create more jobs and wellbeing in Finland. That is not possible by remaining in the small domestic market. A digital revolution is taking place in vehicle technology, and we want to be part of it. We believe we can continue our growth path and seize our share of the growing software market,” he says.

Autonomous driving saves work

Mertsalmi points out that Unikie does not compete in the same market as companies that operate in large scale enterprise application market. The company’s strength lies in its extremely talented, well-trained and passionate engineers, who are capable of developing entirely new technology.

Unikie is an expert in developing software for the automotive industry, intelligent machines, industrial AI, maritime and smart ports, telecom & networks, and voice & messaging. The company commands many programming languages and technologies. Unikie’s competence includes embedded software, device and edge processing combined with IT systems, integrations, and data security solutions that cross them all.

The company’s spearhead is Unikie AI Vision, a comprehensive autonomous driving (AD) solution that can be scaled to the global market. Based on machine vision and machine learning, the solution is multipurpose. In a car factory, it handles the parking of completed vehicles coming off the production line. In mining, sensors and algorithms steer heavy-duty machines to within a centimetre of their destination. Autonomous driving is currently used in restricted areas, but the technology is ready to be deployed elsewhere also.

Ready for the next spurt of growth

Unikie has grown its technological expertise in stages, recruiting the best talent and focusing on sales. The international exports promotion started from day one.

“We grew Unikie into a company with net sales of €35 million and employing 300 people through revenue based funding. Exports generate one-third of our net sales, but our Finnish customers – such as Nokia and Valmet – also operate internationally. Some customers are global market leaders, such as Sandvik in mining and quarrying equipment,” Mertsalmi points out.

Up to this point, Mertsalmi has simultaneously been an executive director and an active owner. Now he is handing over his duties as CEO to an experienced business manager, whose task for the next three years is to grow the company to some €100–150 million in net sales by scaling and through focusing on technological expertise and sales.

“Appetite grows with eating, and now is the right time to take the next step. We broadened our ownership base because we preferred expanding through equity rather than debt. That way we get broader shoulders to bear any risks,” Mertsalmi quips.

The founder and CEO of Unikie, Esko Mertsalmi
Esko Mertsalmi, CEO of Unikie

Passion for development is the driving force

Unikie’s founders have 15 years’ experience in different fields of IT, communications, and technology. What has resulted is a corporate culture that attracts and retains top talent.

“We can say to job applicants they’ll get to work with the world’s leading technologies and companies. Our company values are Honesty and Transparency, Taking Responsibility, Competence and Working Together. We do the most demanding and challenging things that we possibly can, and our corporate culture supports that. That’s why we’ve come so far,” explains Mertsalmi.

Many of Unikie’s staff hold university doctorates. A passionate approach to technology is part of the corporate culture. Mertsalmi says he has never had to motivate his team; instead, he at times has to apply the brakes.

“We want to keep hold of and even increase both our passion for work and a systematic style. Also, he growth we’re aiming for won’t be achieved without sound structures,” Mertsalmi points out.

Positive impact an added bonus

Unikie takes its social responsibility and impact very seriously.

“Intelligent information systems will enable more efficient and safer transport of people and goods both overland and at sea. Vehicle manufacture is an example of the type of production in which a multitude of parts made in different factories are needed. Making component logistics digitally more visible enhances production efficiency. Transportation needs diminish, thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions, he explains.

“Today the eco-friendliness of vehicles is still measured in terms of fuel consumption. As production transparency improves, it will be possible to evaluate the whole lifecycle of a vehicle and make that the priority – for instance, as close to the manufactured vehicle as possible,” he adds.

Unikie

What it is: A company specialising in autonomous vehicles, intelligent machines, industrial AI, and software technology for networks and data security. Founded in March 2015.

Where it is: Headquartered in Tampere, Finland. Operations in: Helsinki, Oulu, Turku and Kokkola in Finland; California and Colorado in the USA; Berlin and Munich in Germany; Gothenburg in Sweden; and Szczecin in Poland.

Founders: Esko Mertsalmi, Seppo Kolari, Jani Väisänen, Mikko Eloranta and Lauri Kolari.

Personnel: Over 300 employees.

Net sales: EUR 35 million in 2020.

Products: Replicable technology platforms for various sectors.

Customers: Sandvik, Nokia and Valmet. Also many automotive manufacturers.

Owners: Founders and private owners. CapMan Growth, Tesi and Georg Ehrnrooth invested in Unikie in the November 2020 investment round.

Esko Mertsalmi

Who he is: One of Unikie’s five founders, now stepping down as its CEO and in future a member of the company’s board of directors.

Education: MSc in Industrial Management from Tampere University of Technology.

Before Unikie: COO at Filmworks; Vice President, Sales and Marketing, at Symbio; Sales and Business Director at Flander Oy.

Special: Competed in World Rally Championship with Juuso Pykälistö.