Making young people proud of their own background

Apr 8, 2021

Vreal is an education technology startup that opens the world to young people and helps them become aware of their own history. At the same time, Helsinki aims to become the learning capital of the world.

Johannes Söderström, CEO of Vreal, has a dream. He wants to help especially young people in Finland and abroad to become aware of their own history. To achieve this, Vreal has developed a service that enables virtual tours of cultural destinations, including places that are unknown to the general public.

“We combine virtual worlds with livestreamed guided tours. For example, you can walk around in a museum or church in a virtual world, listening to stories about the place told by an on-screen guide. It makes a big difference when a guide explains what you are actually looking at and why it’s so interesting.”

Founded in summer 2019, Vreal sells its service to museums, which provide their services to schools.

“We want to show the world to people who cannot visit places on site. Students can visit Finnish museums or places in India, for example, which they do not even know exist. You can visit a small local church, for instance, where the guide explains why it’s important and the students can ask questions.”

Who needs your service?

Mia-Stiina Heikkala, a startup business advisor at NewCo Helsinki, follows developments in EdTech, the learning and education technology industry, and helps startups in the business. There are more than 250 EdTech companies in Finland, most of which are located in the Helsinki region.

“The sector is relatively new but globally, it’s growing annually by around 20 per cent,” says Heikkala.

According to Heikkala, understanding the realities of everyday life in schools is critical for EdTech companies. Her job is also to remind entrepreneurs of the basics:

“Do you have paying customers? Do teachers actually need the application your company is offering? It sometimes comes as a surprise when there is no demand for your bright idea on the market.”

Mia-Stiina Heikkala encourages companies in the EdTech industry to develop their sales and business expertise and to be bolder in marketing. She says that we still have a lot to learn about education exports.

“Finland is one of the world’s leaders in education and I see a lot of companies that base their marketing on that brand. You must be careful not to abuse it, however. Education exports should be sustainable and scalable, with Finnish pedagogy integrated into the business.”

The internet offers an international market

Johannes Söderström

Johannes Söderström, CEO of Vreal.

In addition to Johannes Söderström, Vreal has one salaried employee and he is based abroad. The two are in daily contact but have never met face-to-face.

“We both believe in this product, but there are, of course, occasional misunderstandings between us. That’s why having to put everything in writing is really useful. If that fails, then the idea just wasn’t good enough,” Söderström says.

For users image quality is important, but Söderström says that the image is just the surface.

“There’s two years of coding behind it. The platform that the service runs on is our own, built by us. The things that you don’t see are what sets our service apart from all the others. We also carefully consider when it’s the best time to shoot,” says Söderström, who is a professional photographer.

A few Finnish museums have already purchased Vreal’s service and will test it during spring, and negotiations are currently under way with the Egyptian minister in charge of museums. The goal is to shoot as much video as possible in Egypt.

“We also have a video team in Delhi, India. There are great locations in Finland, but there is so much more to see around the world. With the service available online, there is international market potential, too. Our goal is that in autumn, our service will be livestream 24/7.”

A bureaucratic country where help is always available

Mia-Stiina Heikkala is excited because she is leading a project designed to boost and promote companies such as Vreal – and more. Helsinki Education Hub, which will start operations in autumn, will be the first in the world to combine learning and education startups, Finnish pedagogical expertise, an innovative learning environment and academic research into a single world-class export product.

“There has been a demand for something like the Hub for a long time. The Hub will also have an early-stage incubator to develop products and services that the market needs. Helsinki wants to be the learning capital of the world,” says Heikkala.

Vreal’s Söderström praises Helsinki and Finland.

“Although this is a very bureaucratic country, institutions like Business Finland, the ELY Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment and others area easy to work with. NewCo Helsinki is great at finding partners, and getting honest feedback and meeting people who believe in you has been invaluable.”

Johannes Söderström says that success for him means being able to help young people feel pride in their background.

“We live in a world where everything is the best, the biggest, the most important. We forget that there is much more in Egypt than the pyramids, or in India than the Taj Mahal. We also forget the mediaeval churches built by our own ancestors, which are still in use. We should know them better and be proud of them.”

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