Curious Alumni Pasi Vainikka
Created 8.5.2024
Updated 13.5.2024

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Creating new innovations requires courage, curiosity, and problem-solving skills. That is how the CEO of Solar Foods and energy technology alumnus Pasi Vainikka sees it. 

Vainikka received the first ever Curious Alumni Award on LUT's first-ever Homecoming Day. The event gathered over 2,000 alumni to the Lappeenranta campus, and took place on 13 April 2024.

”As a representative of an LUT research spinoff, I am honored to receive the first Curious Alumni Award. We LUT alumni hold great potential,” Vainikka summarizes.



Curious Alumni Pasi Vainikka ja rehtori Juhis Saksa Homecoming Dayssa
Rector Juhis Saksa awarded Pasi Vainikka with the Curious Alumni recognition at the Homecoming Day on 13 April 2024.

In LUT, there's a relaxed yet precise rock 'n roll culture

According to Vainikka, the most important thing is to enable people to shine in their own areas of expertise and to invest in the potential of individuals and teams. When experts from different fields are brought together to tackle a common problem, the ingredients for achieving something significant are in place. Processes are rarely predictable or definable in advance, but the intersections of science and industries generate unexpected, new solutions and opportunities.

”My own journey wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else but at LUT. LUT lives and breathes the present and looks strongly into the future. LUT is a unique environment for innovation.” 

Vainikka highlights the importance of LUT’s one-of-a-kind environment and all-encompassing attitude towards innovating and creating a better future.

”In my experience, LUT’s strategy is based officially on four but unofficially on five elements: air, water, energy, and sustainable business – and rock ‘n roll as the fifth. By rock ‘n roll, I mean LUT’s laid-back yet rigorous and enriching operating culture, which draws its objectives from the university’s strategy and feeds innovation. Reports, slides or words cannot change the operating culture because it’s based on the vibe that people are giving off. A good culture either is or is not, it cannot be determined,” Vainikka sums up. 

He also emphasizes the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration. 

”At LUT, different fields of science do things together. The crazier the idea, the better. You don’t need to be afraid of boundaries or let them limit you. There’s freedom to think and fail. The Soletair project and Solar Foods are concrete examples of something new emerging from the interfaces of research fields. They show that collaboration between people from different fields of science is key.”


Food out of thin air – Vainikka’s road from VTT to Solar Foods

Before founding Solar Foods, Vainikka had a lengthy research career at VTT and was involved in the Power-to-X pilot plant Soletair – a collaborative effort by VTT and LUT University – from 2014 to 2017.

”We set out over ten years ago to explore how solar and wind power could eventually produce the most cost-effective electricity in Finland and what would happen after that. In my opinion, the journey from scientific theory to modeling and practice is extremely interesting,” Vainikka summarizes. 

The collaboration resulted in a unique pilot plant called Soletair, which utilizes carbon dioxide to produce renewable fuels and chemicals. In the process, Vainikka became acquainted with people who turned out to be instrumental in the establishment of Solar Foods.

”VTT’s principal scientist researcher Juha-Pekka Pitkänen managed to produce our first teaspoon of hydrogen-fermented biomass in summer 2017, and we ended up pitching our vision to a venture capitalist at Slush the very same year. That’s how the story of Solar Foods began,” Vainikka reminisces.

Solar Foods, headed by Vainikka and stemming from research by LUT and VTT, uses carbon dioxide and electrical energy to produce a dietary protein called Solein.

The company is currently licensed to sell Solein in Singapore and has applied for a European license as well. Now, Solar Foods has set its sights on the US market. The scalability of the technology is presently being tested in a factory in Vantaa.

Pasi Vainikka
”Three years at LUT had given me a solid foundation for top grades in an international program.”
Pasi Vainikka
The CEO of Solar Foods and LUT’s energy technology alumnus

Family legacy led to LUT, and student exchange took to England

When Vainikka looks back on his years at LUT, the first things that come to mind are his family legacy at LUT and his student exchange in the UK.

”I was interested in physics and how its theories apply to practice. There’s a strong LUT legacy in our family – we have several LUT alumni, so the decision to apply to LUT was ultimately easy,” Vainikka says.

His exchange year in a master’s program at Cranfield University in England taught him the importance of hard work and showed him that skills learned at LUT can take him far in an international environment. 

”I completed the master’s program and thesis during that year abroad. My student exchange was tough but valuable because it was then that I understood what I could accomplish with hard work. Three years at LUT had given me a solid foundation for top grades in an international program,” Vainikka analyzes.


Donation to seal protection

The Curious Alumni Award includes a 500-euro donation to a charity of the award-winner’s choice. Vainikka wants his prize money to go to Saimaan Norppaklubi – an association that promotes the protection of the Saimaa ringed seal.

”Sometimes, distance helps us see what’s right under our noses. Our Lake Saimaa is the habitat of a rare seal that deserves attention and protection, and I want to donate my award to help save them,” Vainikka says.

Saimaan Norppaklubi helps protect and study the Saimaa ringed seal and promotes the coexistence of humans and seals in the Lake Saimaa area.


Pasi Vainikka

  • Graduated as a M.Sc. in energy technology with a double degree (Cranfield University and LUT University) in 2002
  • Doctoral degree in engineering from Åbo Akademi University (2011)
  • Co-founder and CEO of Solar Foods since 2017
  • Previously worked until 2017 at VTT as a principal scientist and co-founded Soletair Power
  • Contributed as a startup mentor at LUTES
  • Adjunct professor at LUT University since 2014

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