Innovation Leaders Club x SEB Growth programme: Future Economic Trends

27 June / Sille Võsaste

The Innovation Leaders Club organised a joint event together with the SEB growth programme on the topic of future economic trends to address the question “How can we strategically manage the development of new services, business models and processes?” 

Find event gallery HERE.

SEB presented a picture at the event of the directions in the digital revolution and of economic trends. The innovative companies Helmes, Astro Baltics and MyDello discussed digital developments in the financial sector, giving insights into innovation projects and sharing practical examples and opportunities for cooperation.

Executive MBAs from Wharton Business School also attended the event to learn about the broader transformation of the economy, developments in digital culture, and the background of the e-government in Estonia. They wanted to analyse how the nation became a leader in virtual citizenship and social services, how this is different to the experience in the United States, and what synergies this creates for local business. They were further interested in cross-sectoral cooperation and the various initiatives through which the country has supported entrepreneurship, and in technological innovation and the startup culture. Thirdly they plan to analyse some case studies of globally significant Estonian enterprises and offer solutions to various challenges. This also gave a great opportunity for Estonian companies to network and connect with stakeholders in US so that they could analyse the opportunities in that country and find ways to collaborate with US partners and expand there.

The event was opened by Edward Rebane, Head of SEB Digital Banking, who began by saying that we have come to a perfect place to discuss innovation, before introducing the day’s agenda. He was followed by opening words from Martin Goroško, Head of Business Development at Tehnopol Science and Business Park. “We have held events for the Innovation Leaders Club for at least two years and this is by far the largest event that we’ve had”, he said.

“Not only do we have a really vibrant startup ecosystem in Estonia, but there are still very many large corporations and public organisations that are striving for innovation”, he said, noting that “this is why we brought together large private and public companies, corporations and sectors, since when we have become one of the largest communities striving towards innovation. It’s all about learning from each other, communicating with each other, taking the best practices and implementing them; it’s about making smart investments, investing in the future, working together with startups and so on. And this is something that the Innovation Leaders Club represents”.

Going digital but staying personal 

Edward Rebane and Märten Liinat, the Head of Digital Sales and Automation at SEB, presented the history of SEB and talked about the digital transformation of the bank. Their goal has been to double their digital sales, but how can an old and quite conservative bank do that without achieving the opposite result? The answer is by “using legacy as our force”.

Edward and Märten covered many points about what was done to digitalise the bank. They explained proactive customer activation, modern digital channels and digital products like straight-through processing (STP). But maybe the most important aspect of digitalising is people, explained Edward.

“A good plan does not always mean you will have smooth sailing”, Märten said as he started to unveil “the nine circles of hell”. Whatever your company, he said, everybody has their nine circles of hell and their own struggles, like the conservative history carried by an old bank. He explained that they have had lots of ideas over the years but most of them have hit the walls of IT and business development resources.

Eventually they managed to make a really simple “needs tree” by asking the customers what bottlenecks and other problems they have encountered, and after doing that research they had the data with which they could:

personalise offers and communication;

automate tasks and content;

orchestrate between channels.

Wine drinkers and beer drinkers

Peeter Koppel, a strategist in SEB private banking, gave a great presentation about economic trends and future directions. “I will try to explain to you my understanding of what’s happening in the world today – it’s not good. The biggest trouble we have is inflation”, he began his presentation, after which he explained the whole process of how we have arrived here.

“The biggest problem in the global economy is that we have huge amounts of debt, especially on the government side. When interest rates increase, those debtors are not going to be feeling so good. If you look at Europe, everyone, or all the countries, who is drinking beer, is basically fine, but everyone who is drinking red wine, they are, well, practically insolvent. So this means that you have inflation, you don’t know where it’s going and you have interest rates which should be higher considering all the other factors.”

“When you don’t know the level of inflation, when you don’t know how interest rates will develop, then you don’t know what is going to happen to economic growth. So everything is in a fog. This morning was quite foggy – the situation is quite similar”.

Peeter talked about how the price of money is going up. In the long term too, but it is difficult to say by how much. The situation today will reward those taking risks, but those risks have to be thought through. As for startups – “the valuations of startups have also come down and you are not going to be raising any millions with happy faces anymore.”

To a question from the audience about the euro area, Peeter answered that the beer drinkers in the euro area will eventually pay for the lifestyles of the wine drinkers. That is because there are considerable differences in their productivity levels, and if you put them together in the same currency zone without transfer mechanisms, you’re going to have trouble, and that trouble is already here.

Good innovation = social innovation?

Professor Tyler Wry from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania gave a presentation about good innovation. It turns out that in the global rankings the US is one of the most innovative countries in the world. Over 400,000 patents are issued in the US each year. The professor gave a great overview of the innovation processes in the US and how some of them have become really influential.

He gave the example of Warby Parker, a unicorn of an American online retailer of prescription glasses, contact lenses, and sunglasses that has revenues of over 540 million USD. Their products might not be very innovative, but their business model certainly is!

He talked further about his field of research – how innovation for good leads to good innovation. Social and environmental goals have become almost as important as financial goals in business today. He has found from a large amount of research that a lot of company founders pursue impact goals.

Socially driven innovation or social innovation is fundamentally a good thing “because if you take the desire to make money and marry it to financial purpose, often times, what’s going to happen is you’re going to be pursuing multiple goals that are in tension with each other”, he explained, adding “so the ideal case is that you just find a solution where you can profitably serve some market, where there is a social need, and if you can do that, it’s wonderful because it is symbiotic”. But as good as it sounds, social entrepreneurs very often find that this is difficult to manage, because the two ideas of doing good and making money must be traded off against one another. “Impact focus seems to correlate with quality”.

How to excel in innovation in Old Europe

Business development manager at Helmes Maarja Kaasik told a great story about the experience of creating innovative financial solutions in Old Europe. Helmes was the first IT company to be officially registered in independent Estonia. They make products for internal use, as they build world-class product teams for their customers. They work with critical systems and most of their clients are global companies. It should be noted that Helmes is often given full responsibility for the projects of the companies they work with.

Speaking about innovation in Old Europe, Maarja chose two projects to illustrate the subject, telling the stories of the OECD and Bonnfinanz. “The OECD is in the heart of international cooperation today, as 80% of world trade and investments are covered by OECD members and key partners. And Helmes has been a part of the OECD for eight years by now, building different systems for them”, she explained. As a digital innovation partner of the OECD, Helmes has made them a global open-source platform for example.

“The main lessons learned are that IT is about people, it is a people business and the main challenge in our experience is communication. Especially in such large-scale projects”, Maarja said. She also highlighted the need for patience, rapid adaptability, and flexibility as other lessons learned.

Another good example of Old Europe innovation that Maarja gave is Bonnfinanz, with whom Helmes has worked together. Bonnfinanz is a German financial broker company, a corporate startup as Maarja described it. Their problem was that they needed to create all their information systems from scratch, but they had no in-house development team and they had only 18 months to do it. Helmes was involved after another German company recommended them, which really shows how much references matter.

The lessons learned from this project are once again the importance of communication and also that remote work is the new norm. It is very exciting that they have moved from subcontracting into partnership.


Expected levels of innovation: when Estonia thinks of innovation, we think of machine learning, AI, predictive data analysis and so on. But what the client might actually need is a way to gather data from a pdf file. And that is a huge step in innovation for them. You have to be realistic.

Persistence: innovation might seem scary, especially when a company that is at the beginning of their innovation journey thinks of innovation in terms of e-government and AI. We have to be persistent, not take the first three answers of “no, we are not ready yet” seriously, and show them that even small steps are worth it.

IT is about people: we are all people and we are all involved together, so relationships are really important on the road to innovation.

The Astro Baltics and MyDello stories 

SEB Growth Programme alumnus and Public Relations Manager at Astro Baltics Priit Pint discussed projects and directions for cooperation. Astro Baltics is an Estonian company with high-level IT skills and 23 years of experience, whose goal is to offer more sophisticated and smarter IT solutions on the market. It is one of the leading developers of filling station solutions in Estonia, making solutions for payments, control equipment and hardware.

Priit talked about how their vision is to improve the work processes of companies of all sizes, and to contribute to the growth of the company through various IT solutions. He explained and talked about many great, real-life examples of Astro Baltics’ mission to provide unique, customer-centric and flexible business software, and self-service solutions that enable customers to achieve maximum business efficiency.

Magnus Lepasalu, Development Manager at MyDello, gave a presentation about logistics and whether he believes that they will become fully automated at some point. As achieving this is the goal of MyDello, then unsurprisingly yes, Magnus believes that logistics will in future become fully automated. MyDello is currently on a mission to connect all the parties in supply chains.

Magnus recounted their struggles and success stories, talking about how they have gone from the SEB Growth Programme three years ago to where they are today in one of the world’s biggest industries.