On 24 April, Erik Puura joined TalTech as Vice-Rector for Entrepreneurship. He wrote on his Facebook page: ‘Strangely enough, I have never looked for a job since I returned to Estonia from Sweden in 1999 with a PhD in engineering. I’ve simply been recruited, I have chosen suitable offers based on my gut instinct, and I’ve never regretted it. Therefore, a PhD in engineering is definitely worth it.’
Sulev Oll | Photo: Ants Vill
What were your thoughts, plans, or ideals when you accepted the position of Vice-Rector for Entrepreneurship at TalTech and where do you want to take the university in this field?
Despite growing up in Mustamäe, TalTech was an undiscovered world for me. Since enrolling at the University of Tartu in 1982, I had visited TalTech perhaps a few dozen times for various events and meetings.
From 2003 to 2012, I developed and managed the Institute of Technology of the University of Tartu, and from 2012 to 2022, I was Vice-Rector for Development. I left that job after a decade because I felt that the limit for occupying a managerial position in the same institution was somewhere between 7 and 10 years.
After a year away from management, however, I began to realise that I should take on another challenging position. The phone call from Rector Tiit Land who proposed to discuss the possibility of becoming a vice-rector was remarkably well-timed. However, I am a pragmatist by nature, not an idealist. Every job must produce results and time must be spent as wisely as possible to achieve them.
To answer your question about direction – I’m still meeting and talking to people at the university and outside, and by the end of the summer, I’ll propose a concrete plan. I will be focusing on four areas: business cooperation, research-based start-ups, student entrepreneurship as a form of practical learning, and developing the image of a business-minded university. These are all interlinked, so the most effective course of action must be planned together with academic staff, support units, and external partners.
How does the governance of TalTech differ from that of the University of Tartu?
One of the first questions I asked when I took the job was: is TalTech the one, the only, and the main university with a key objective to contribute to the development and growth of Estonian businesses?
I admit that I did not get a very clear answer to this question. Perhaps the best answer is written in the current development plan: it is the most innovative and entrepreneurial university in Estonia, and as a research university, it values, balances, and connects research, teaching, innovation, and contribution to society equally.
During my first weeks here, I have come to realise that the four schools of the university are all very different and have widely varying needs and opportunities, whereas very close cross-university cooperation is needed for innovation. This is what creates unlimited new opportunities. I have already learned that, in addition to the schools, the Estonian Maritime Academy must never be forgotten. Regardless, the overall governance of universities is broadly similar.
Another important issue – the development plan of the university and its related strategies should be longer than a few years. This would help distinguish between the most important trends better. For example, if the university wants to generate significantly higher revenues from the creation, protection, and commercialisation of intellectual property, the current steps will lead to possible results in 5–10 years at the earliest. Setting long-term goals on other issues would also be safer and more efficient.
What kind of a leader are you?
First of all, I am always interested in the bigger picture. When analysing a topic, I try to position it in the broadest possible context. My PhD in chemical engineering and my specialisation in modelling complex hydrogeochemical environmental systems also seem to contribute here.
I have tried to apply a scale of importance for different topics of discussion and have discovered that, very often, less important topics receive much more attention than more important ones.
Thirdly, I am punctual about deadlines and times. At some point, I discovered that there are three types of people: those who finish their work early, those for whom a deadline is the best motivator (but they are often stressed before the deadline), and those who don’t meet deadlines. I have been a category 2 person myself, but recently, I’ve discovered that I am partly shifting towards the first.
I should also add that I think of moves and combinations in advance, meaning I also like to play chess. I have trained myself in prompt decision-making with one-minute speed chess; it is a great feeling to make 60 good moves in a minute and then check-mate your opponent. By translating this into leadership, we get fast decision-making and action in the name of results.
Are there any concrete plans in the pipeline?
I am writing these answers at the start of my fourth work week. Together with the industry cooperation team, we will review the list of strategic partners of the university and plan partnership meetings. We will discuss how to raise awareness of intellectual property and showcase best practices, while keeping in mind that each school needs a different approach.
I will contribute to preparing the green strategy of the university because industry cooperation has great potential in aspects related to the Green Deal. I will meet with external partners to discuss the most efficient way to organise the PR of an entrepreneurial university.
Unfortunately, I have already had to turn down many invitations to various exciting events, because going with the flow would leave no time at all for my actual tasks. By the latter, I mean discussions with deans, heads of departments, and research groups, meetings with external partners, and work meetings with the staff members of the Technology Transfer Office.
Everyone seems to be trying to keep up with the fast pace. The biggest skill here is to make choices about the most efficient use of time.
And finally, who will come out on top in the competition between the universities, Tallinn or Tartu?
This question is apparently about basketball or some other sport. The role of universities in society is to contribute to the development of a smart and competitive country through teaching, research, and cooperation with businesses, the public sector, and each other.
Naturally, there has to be healthy competition, but also a lot of cooperation. When looking at the research groups of the universities, there is still relatively little thematic overlap between them in terms of research, knowledge, and skills. And what is even more interesting – in many cases, these research teams from different universities also collaborate in a meaningful way. However, the divide is caused by the fact that so many are competing for the grants that the state offers to universities through various measures that there are only enough funds for very few in case of some measures. Clearly, many good research and development projects are now falling by the wayside.
Moreover, when it comes to business cooperation opportunities, then these are in the hands of each university. Furthermore, one of the main opportunities for development is international cooperation. TalTech’s participation in the EuroTeQ consortium and its direct links with many foreign universities offer many opportunities.