Global citizen Keira Nicole Soutar graduated two years ago from the EIT Digital Master School. That was not the end of her European adventure. She did a postmaster at EIT Digital to help start a new company and just started a PhD career in Finland. “Being part of EIT Digital is a step forward in understanding innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.”
Soutar moved to Europe in 2018 to start the EIT Digital Master School programme Human Computer Interaction & Design at KTH University. She had chosen the Aalto University to finish the dual-degree masters and moved thus from Sweden to Finland. Having international blood running through her veins – “my mum is Canadian, and my father is Scottish”- moving to Europe was not a big thing. Soutar is Canadian from birth; her parents took her to live for years in the United States, in Germany, Australia, and back to Canada, where she did her bachelor partly at the University of Waterloo and partly at the London Global University in Great-Britain.
Why did you choose to do your masters in Europe?
“I learned that studying in Europe is quite organised and that European professors push your boundaries to apply theory in practical or real life use cases. Clearly, I was good at spitting out theory on paper. I wanted to know if I would also be good at the European way of studying and I wanted to visit European countries. When I found out about the EIT Digital experience to study at two universities in two countries, it seemed a good match. Luckily, I do appreciate the European way of studying. It is more oriented on utilising your learnings and preparing you for the working world. I found it a much easier way to collaborate with individuals within your cohort and the professors are keen to know how you think and why you think in a certain way. Based on what I have heard from friends who are doing their masters, I would say that the North American way of studying is more interpreting information and having exact answers, while the European way is more about utilising your brain and the theory for practical purposes.”
“I chose KTH for I have Swedish friends and culturally I get along with them. From television series, I knew the language a little bit; going to Sweden would be a good way to improve my language skills. Besides, I like the winter and the prospect to ice-skate a lot, seemed interesting. Initially, I had chosen the University of Trento in Italy for my second year. But at the Kick-Off in Aalto, I met professors from the Aalto University and the track coordinator, and I felt that this university would be pushing my boundaries I wanted to explore, so I applied to switch my second year to this university.”
How do you look back on the EIT Digital Master School?
“It was really good. Having the ability to connect with many students from different (EIT Digital Master School) tracks, whom you would not necessarily know otherwise, is amazing. You were allowed to do hackathons and have time to utilise your learnings and participate in a lot of things that the EIT Digital nodes are organising. That is pushing your boundaries just as the internship and business cases experiences. I did my internship at a Swedish tech design company called Thisis.Deploy. I have worked there the summer before on a chatbot project. It was quite hard to do a thesis in a company in another country than where you live. It pushed my boundaries even more. In the second year of study, I was a student consultant for three months at Kone during the Business Challenge Experience. We – myself and other students – worked on a case on how buildings can become smarter and secure. The best moment during the EIT Digital Master School was definitely the EIT Digital Summer School. It was the cherry on the top.”
You went to the EIT Digital Summer School Wellbeing in Eindhoven. How did this put the cherry on top?
“It was fast and totally out of your comfort zone: You work with other people whom you hardly knew but became the best mates of EIT Digital after all. We could use our innovation and entrepreneurship knowledge and get something done within just two weeks. The coaches were great too, pushing us to come with an innovative solution on a real business case. Sometimes it felt rough, but they really wanted you to excel. It wasn’t just all work, we had fun too. We did VR games and through company presentations, we understood how companies put research and development into practice. Behind the setup of the summer school was a thought process: we were not just making things up; we utilised everything we learned before into practice. Practice by doing is a fun and dynamic way of learning for just two weeks of the summer.”
What is one of the learnings that sticks with you?
“When it comes to the business side is that – especially in this Corona- era – you cannot always prepare for your future, you need to adapt. In theory, it is easy to have an idea for a solution, create an interface and design. But what actually happens is not concrete. EIT Digital made learning concrete by giving real-world business case scenarios. This teaches you that a great solution may not necessarily be market proof. You have to ensure the market fit. That is one of the lessons that I learned.”
Does the EIT Digital Master School stand out from other master schools?
“It does stand out. It is attractive to have two universities; you can see different things and learn in different ways. Another great advantage of EIT Digital is the connections that you can make. You can communicate with more people than just the people and friends in your track. It gives you more knowledge and more understanding of what can be done with ideas. The minor innovation and entrepreneurship is understandable. Even without a business school background you build a firm foundation about this topic and utilise this knowledge as well.”
After your study, you worked at the EIT Digital Innovation Activity Smart Sound Home*. What was your role?
“I had a post master position a SmartSound Home at the Finnish EIT Digital co-location centre. My primary work was on the application side and doing user studies. I did a lot of market research, interface design work and pilot testing. This we did with nurses to see what did work and what not. The EIT Digital co-funding is ended now, but the project is continuing with Finnish business funding, the pilots will be done in March and the owners are registering it as a full company. I aided the founders in making their first step into the business world.”
* SmartSound Home is a fully automatic safety monitoring and wellbeing tech solution for home care based on Artificial Intelligence. It analyses sound events that affect the safety and wellbeing of elderly people and alerts health care professionals when necessary. In a EIT Digital Innovation Activity, multiple EIT Digital partners work together to found a new start-up. Partners within SmartSound are the Tampere University, home service organisation Hoiva Mehiläinen, engineering firm Mativation and the Swedish tech company Minut.
You are doing now a PhD in innovation management. How did you get there?
“I just started a PHD innovation management at LUT University. My background is computer science and international business. Once the PhD opportunity came by, I found that the EIT Digital experience I had, pushed my application further. Being part of EIT Digital is a step forward in understanding the innovation, technology and the entrepreneurship side of things. In the technology world, most people are focused on just technology and miss out on the business part. In my research, I am going to understand why it is that certain sectors of business can be so adaptive to innovate and are keen on trying different things and pushing boundaries, while others seem to want to remain stagnant and “not fix something that is broke”. Pushing two sectors of study together is rather new. Hopefully, my research will add companies in the future.”
How is life in Finland compared to Canada or the US?
“I enjoy it! It is not too different from Canada. As in Canada, people are close to nature. Life is easy here. Almost everything is digitalised, and available in English. Everybody here speaks English pretty well, and I have yet to run into major issues. The language is challenging though. I tried reading the signs once on how to pay for parking, and was completely lost. The words in Finnish are so long but luckily, they are also always in Swedish, so it makes things a little easier. Finland also has a really good work-life balance. You are expected to work 37.5 hours a week, and if you are to work more, usually there will need to be a good reason and you can always request overtime pay or workdays off. In Canada, we work closely with a lot of American companies. They expect you to work longer than 5 pm. The work-life balance is therefore more challenging. I do count myself fortunate enough to live and work in Europe now. I hope others in EIT Digital from non-EU countries will also be able to stay and live the sort of ‘European dream’.”