Magic Leap goes to Finland in pursuit of Nordic VR and AR talent

Florida-headquartered Magic Leap has set up a company in Helsinki to gain access to Finland’s vast, Nokia- and gaming-driven reservoir of VR and AR talent.

In July, Magic Leap registered a company in Helsinki with CFO Scott Henry as the chairman of the board. The company did not return my request for a comment.

The Finnish VR and AR companies I spoke with would not confirm or deny working with the company dubbed one of the most secretive startups in the world. But considering the country’s strong know-how in technologies (especially in optics, hardware, and software) that are all highly relevant in the quest for VR/AR domination, it’s no surprise that multinational giants and hot startups are courting the country’s talent pool.

Magic Leap already had a Finnish connection through Shalinder Sidhu, a Vice President of Software at Magic Leap and former Nokia employee, who spent a year in Finland leading the development of the full software stack for Nokia’s entire portfolio of Linux smartphones.Yannick Pellet, Magic Leap’s Vice president in charge of software and user experience, also had a 1.5-year stint in Helsinki as Nokia’s senior director of Meego Devices, an open source Linux-based OS for smartphones.

What’s more, Microsoft, which bought Nokia in 2013, has its HoloLens display lenses designed in its Finland offices.


Proven talent

While Magic Leap is clearly going after talent in locations that have established themselves in fields integral to VR/AR.

Florida – where the company is headquartered – is a burgeoning gaming and graphics hub with Orlando as one of the biggest video game development communities in the US. In New Zealand Magic leap works with Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop, a special effects company.

With a formidable war chest of $1.4 billion from Alphabet and Alibaba among others, the company is uniquely positioned to lead the pack in the race for VR dominance. While Facebook, Google, and others are known to all and seen everywhere all the time, Magic Leap has opted for a more subtle, long-game, approach by going to talent-saturated, but more-remote locations such as New Zealand and now Helsinki.

Finland has a long, two-decade tradition of producing high-end graphics technologies with companies like Hybrid Graphics – sold to Nvidia in 2006 – and hardware company BitBoys – acquired by ATI Technologies also in 2006 – heralding the rise of local VR.

Today Finland’s gaming startups along with companies in hardware, software, and optics are attracting the attention of global players.

The country boasts a wealth of corporate knowledge in all of the fields that would be relevant to the next breakthrough in optical technologies. Whether photonics design and manufacturing (Nanocomp); X-ray cameras (Advacam); ALD (Picosun, Beneq); camera tech (Nokia, Microsoft); spectral imaging (Specim, Spectral Engine) optics manufacturing (Oplatek, Millog); laser tech (Cajo, Primoceler); automation (OptoFidelity), QA (Helmee Imaging) or silicon photonics (Rockley Photonics), the state of the country’s optics ecosystem is strong.

modern building and technological interface, abstract image visual

Image courtesy of Getty Images/chombosan

Software and hardware development in Finland is equally impressive with several actors in wireless comms (Nokia, Oulu University), electronics design (Skunk, Bittium), image processing (Softcolor), games (Supercell, Rovio – the company behind Angry Birds – , Remedy), animation (Fake) and of course OS (Jolla, Microsoft).

Antti Sunnari, chief executive officer and co-founder of Dispelix, a smart glass technology startup, believes Magic Leap is after Finnish OS know-how.

“The big picture is what they are looking for: what they are looking to do. No one is raising 1.4bn to build hardware. They are looking to create an OS. Symbia, Meego, Linux all have a presence here so it would make sense,” Sunnari said.

Sunnari is also of the opinion that the remote nature of preferred locations is not all about the brilliance of the natives.

“They (Magic Leap) seem to consciously stay away from Silicon Valley. They go to places where there’s knowhow. Non-compete [agreements] are illegal in California. In other places it is legal to have a non-compete,” he said.

Not only consumer-focused

In September, Huawei opened an R&D facility in Tampere focusing on camera, audio and imaging technologies for consumer electronics, in a move indicative of the global interest in Nordic startups.

Finland’s VR scene is not only about cool gadgets and gaming, says Moaffak Ahmed, the founding partner of local VC firm Superhero Capital. Through Sisu Game Ventures, a VC focused on gaming and VR, Ahmed invested in the Finnish VR companies 3rd Eye, Resolution Games, Solfar and Vizor. “We are seeing some cool stuff in more “serious” AR and VR i.e. technologies and solutions for B2B use cases. These latter ones (B2B) are actually probably the only companies currently making any notable revenues in AR/VR.”

“We are seeing some cool stuff in more “serious” AR and VR i.e. technologies and solutions for B2B use cases. These latter ones (B2B) are actually probably the only companies currently making any notable revenues in AR/VR.”