President Alar Karis at sTARTUp Day — “The Future of Innovation in Estonia”

We asked for sTARTUp Day 2024 visitor feedback, with one of the questions being about the most memorable speaker. The most popular answer was Alar Karis, the President of Estonia. We decided to put it in writing and share it with you, so you would not feel left out in case you missed it.

The interview was conducted by Priit Salumaa, the CEO & Founder of Better Medicine.

Priit Salumaa

We know you're connected to Tartu and live close by. Before becoming president, you had strong connections to academia and entrepreneurship. Maybe you can give a little bit of your back story of who you were before becoming president.


President Alar Karis

Tartu is my hometown – I was born here and educated here. I've also lived in different parts of the world, including Tallinn, London, and Hamburg. I spent 5–6 years in Rotterdam, where I did most of my research and wrote my best publications. I was invited back to continue at the University of Tartu, and then I was selected as a professor of molecular biology and developmental biology.

However, my Ph.D. was in parasitology, and I decided to change my life and switch to molecular biology. It was scary in a way — everybody was trying to clone animals and change genes in organisms, which is what I wanted to do.

Back in 1999, I founded a startup company at the University of Tartu. It made genetically modified organisms, which means it made mice. We were in the headlines — ”Professor Alar Karis is making mice," and the price for one mouse was about the price of a new car.

Everyone thought that I was going to be rich. But it's deep tech. That means it took a couple of years to create this mouse, and then we had to start selling it.

We didn't have sTARTUp Day back in 1990. Finding investors was extremely difficult, and we made mistakes. We told the investors that we are very good scientists, but they didn't care. They wanted to know how to profit from this.

The market was there because biotech companies and universities needed these animals to test drugs. However, I had to sell my share because I became the Rector of the University of Tartu, and I couldn’t do both at the same time.


Priit Salumaa

Estonia is a small country, and Tartu only has 100,000 people. Yet, when we look at the world, somehow we have had those amazing successes and famous IT companies. Why do you think that is?


President Alar Karis

You need some kind of example. We have Skype, and then young people want to create their own Skype. Also, people from small countries look around more properly than people from big countries.


Priit Salumaa

Where do you see us as a small community? Should we try to create more next-level startups in Estonia?


President Alar Karis

IT is not a slice of cake—it's a layer of cake. That means IT should be in every company, in everything.


What we do is not anything special. Yesterday, I had the Vice President of Ghana visit me in Tallinn. He mentioned that they will have compulsory coding classes at schools and that every student will have a tablet, so maybe they are progressing faster in Africa than us. We have to be careful to provide this leadership.


Priit Salumaa

What should we do to have more companies produce really expensive mice?


President Alar Karis

When I started creating mice, everybody was scared. Now people are scared of artificial intelligence.


People thought everything was going to be genetically modified and that people were being cloned. We don't have to be scared because there are laws and regulations and there are technology limits.


Priit Salumaa

When we look at the world today, we have an economic crisis, a security crisis, and a war going on next door. Given this constantly changing world and these security threats, how should the Estonian tech sector respond? What should we do to be more resilient or help Ukraine?


President Alar Karis

We do already — we are present in Ukraine with tech and military companies.

Our rhetoric and contacts are very important to not scare away investors. When I go abroad, I always invite people to visit. There are many investors already. For example, there is a company in Narva, the Russian border city, that is going to make magnets for electric cars and wind turbines. They got a $100 million investment. I ask investors to come and take a look themselves and take business people with me on my trips abroad.


Priit Salumaa

I've personally gone on state visits as part of a business delegation, and this has been very helpful and practical, especially for a small startup, because you can invite your local partners to the receptions. Besides these state visits, what do you, as president, do to support enterprises and entrepreneurs in Estonia?


President Alar Karis

When the president or a minister goes on a visit, they open certain doors, which maybe companies themselves are not able to do. When I come back, I invite the same companies to my office to have a follow-up conversation.

Making contact is easy, keeping it is a completely different story.


Another rule is that if you can't compete with the company, you collaborate. We collaborated with a German company, and they opened the doors to the market. This is why I'm trying to invite Estonian companies along and later discuss the matter with them as well.


Priit Salumaa

But you also do other things because you visit companies. You go to kindergartens and schools, but you also go to companies. This is often motivational or a morale boost for the companies.


President Alar Karis

I visit as many companies as possible, which is also educational for me. I know what's happening in different countries, and when I return, I talk to our companies. Hosts usually want to show me museums and labs when I go abroad, but it's important to go to different companies and compare what's going on in Estonia.


Priit Salumaa

I would also encourage everybody, even small startups, to join foreign ministry-organized state visits. These are usually very well organized and offer a different level of access, especially if you are interested in the target country.



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