Cem Özcan and Maike Söderholm with the winner’s certificate of achievement. Photo: Ultrahack.

Hanken Quantum Hackathon, organized by Hanken’s Quantum Lab and Ultrahack in Helsinki from October 24th to 26th, aimed to discover new and innovative solutions on how to use quantum computing in a sustainable manner in the finance industry.

A team with participants from the University of Vaasa stood out in the hackathon with their submission “Unlocking ESG insights: Utilizing AI, quantum data, and geospatial framework for environmental footprint assessment of companies”.

This team consisted of five members: Cem Özcan (doctoral researcher), Maike Söderholm (graduate student) and Jyri Nieminen (programmer) from University of Vaasa, along with Reijo Jaakkola (doctoral researcher) from Tampere University, and Andrés Damián Muñoz Moller (PhD student and doctoral researcher) from the University of Jyväskylä.

Fun fact: The latter two persons outside of the University of Vaasa, Reijo and Andrés (who goes by Damián), were recruited to the team when Cem met them at the doctoral cruise he took a while back. “During this event, my supervisor, Heidi Kuusniemi, informed me about a Hackathon. Knowing their backgrounds, I thought, ‘Okay, I have an idea for a potentially winning team’, especially since their expertise closely aligned with the Hackathon’s theme. I introduced them to the Hackathon and shared the idea, which they liked. The rest, as they say, is history”, tells Cem Özcan.

Behind the Scenes

Jyri Nieminen tells that the idea for the team’s submission came together a few weeks before the hackathon, where their team looked through all the challenges proposed for the hackathon.

He explains that the team narrowed their options to two topics, but since he and Cem had already worked with ESG and satellite data on two previous hackathons last year (Cassini Hackathon 2022 and Hanken Quantum Hackathon 2022), they felt more comfortable going for something similar again.

“At our university, we also conducted on a project named Spacecasting, with the lead of Mikko Ranta. This project primarily focused on using satellite technology to predict corporate performance and evaluate environmental impacts. Spacecasting can be seen as a broader framework within which we developed our AI/Quantum integration. This development also included a specific and original approach during the hackathon, building on what Jyri mentioned and the groundwork laid by the Spacecasting project. Moreover, Spacecasting is recognized by Sitra as one of the most innovative data economy initiatives”, adds Cem.

The challenge itself was titled USE AI & QUANTUM DATA TO ESTIMATE SMALL AND MEDIUM SIZE COMPANIES ESG FOOTPRINT. “That’s why we decided to take the work we had done before and expand it a little bit and add machine learning and quantum computing into the mix”, says Jyri.

The teamwork flowed seamlessly, with each team member naturally falling into their roles and contributing effectively to the project.

Jyri tells more about their roles in the project: “I focused on the user interface for the demo, Cem went looking for usable data, Reijo did the machine learning, Damián figured out how to implement quantum computing and Maike found a great template for a business plan and started working on that and the final presentation. When anyone was done with their thing, they’d move on to either help someone else or work on the presentation.”

Hackathon provided quantum computing tools for the participants, and these were used to transform a traditional machine learning model into a quantum version by Reijo and Damián.

The team set up a Discord server, which acted as a platform for continuous discussion and idea-sharing.

The two biggest challenges

For the team, the biggest challenges they came across during the Hackathon were the business plan and the presentation, that were overcame with teamwork and help from the mentors.

1. The business model

“The business model is always challenging for projects like this, since it’s very difficult to justify why companies should pay for a service that can potentially prove that what they are doing ESG-wise isn’t really working. Now, it does help that the EU is pushing to make ESG reporting mandatory and we were focusing on small and medium-sized companies that may not have access to the traditionally quite expensive services since it requires a lot of manual work”, Jyri explains.

“Maike had a great template for a business plan which we filled out. We knew that the model should be a SaaS (Service as a Subscription) since that’s the industry standard and the only one that makes sense. However, that template really helped us find a reasoning and justification on why we were doing it like this”, Jyri says.

Cem tells that no one had a clue about how to approach the business model. This is where Maike Söderholm’s huge assistance was invaluable. “The importance of having team members from diverse backgrounds, especially someone with business expertise, cannot be overstated,” Cem continues.

2. The presentation

The second big issue for the team was the presentation. Since all the team members has an academic background and they are used to writing for their peers – they struggled to adapt their communication style for a broader audience at the hackathon. While some panel members were quantum experts, others were not familiar with the technologies.

Cem tells more about this: “The primary challenge often lies in understanding your audience and determining the right amount of detail to provide. This issue is common among all teams, likely because most are accustomed to classic hackathons, which are purely technical and involve a hurried approach to solution implementation. Fortunately, from our experience in the last two hackathons, we learned that presentation is crucial much more crutial”.

“Thankfully the mentors at the hackathon really hammered in that mentality of ‘Explain what you’re doing and keep it simple’ and Cem also kind of kept us in check, so that when we’d start getting too technical in the presentation he’d reel us back”, Jyri adds.

From humble beginnings to triumph

The two hackathons that Jyri and Cem worked on with a similar idea; using satellite data to validate ESG ratings (or the environmental part at least), earned them the 2nd and 3rd places in the competitions. However, the Hanken Quantum Hackathon was approached by the team with lower expectations, because with this one the team members felt a little bit out of their element. Idea and the challenge sounded interesting, so the team went to the competition with a mindset of having fun and “dipping the toes to test the ocean” as Jyri said.

”We are joining these types of Hackathons to test our implementation skills and see how feasible is the project itself, meanwhile we are training our presentation and material creating skills”, Cem adds.

The team viewed their participation more as a learning experience, and felt a little bit unsure of their submission, but knew that all the team members did their best.

Despite the team’s uncertainty about their chances of success, out of the 15 teams that competed in this hackathon, their submission emerged victorious and won the “Best Tech Solution” award.

When asked about if there’s any plans to continue with the same topic, Jyri tells that the team has talked about developing this into a project. “Everyone’s interested in developing this further and learning more, so it would be exciting to get actual funding for something like this”.

Cem also adds that perhaps adding the idea itself as a work package to already existing projects or the ones are getting applied would be also suitable.

Congratulations to the team!

The partners of this Hackathon were Hanken School of Economics, VTT, KPMG, IQM, Bluefors, Business Finland, IBM, and CSC