Tallinn University of Technology

‘I notice the astonishment of those who have been to Estonia – often they cannot say why exactly they like Estonia, but you can see from their eyes that something touched their soul and heart. I have a feeling that what has touched them is the spirit of the place and the people,’ admits Killu Tõugu Sanborn, a researcher and investor from Estonia living in the USA.

Killu Tõugu Sanborn

Kaire Uusen | Photo: erakogu

From this autumn, Killu, who was born, grew up, and graduated from university in Estonia, but has lived in the USA for thirty years, is a member of the International Advisory Board of Tallinn University of Technology. She is a molecular biologist, but made her way to entrepreneurship and business management, and from there to the investment world. Her work today involves investing in life science companies. What does the researcher and investor who has achieved success abroad think of the potential and development of Tallinn University of Technology as well as life in Estonia in general?

You have an impressive CV and extensive international experience. You are a scientist who also feels comfortable in the financial world. How did Tallinn University of Technology find you?

Academician Mart Saarma asked me to join the advisory board of the University of Technology. To be honest, I was quite horrified at first – after all, I am not a university manager. However, I decided to trust those who invited me to join TalTech, so I agreed. I also did it in memory of my father Enn Tõugu, who was also a researcher and was associated with the University of Technology for many years. I remember how much I was in awe of the University of Technology as a child because I knew that remarkably smart and talented people who were not afraid of mathematics worked there.

Now, after the first meeting, I am very happy that such an opportunity arose. Fortunately, mathematics was not needed and the experience of working in the board was more interesting and rewarding than expected. I learned a lot, but also discovered that there is still more to learn.

What should Tallinn University of Technology keep in mind when it comes to development?

I really hope that TalTech and Estonia will understand that we live in a world where, in addition to technical education and training, the ability to deal with people and human relations becomes more and more important. This allows new solutions to emerge where technology and people can create a new quality that is beneficial to society and the world together. I see great potential here because of the very high cohesion in Estonia between different parts of society and people. In Estonia, it is very easy to find contacts between different offices, walks of life, social strata, etc. – for a person in the US, it seems like everyone knows everyone. If necessary, everything can be done very quickly in Estonia. Compared to, for example, the USA, Estonia can amend legislation and change rules relatively quickly. In addition, recent decades show that Estonia is not afraid to take risks and show initiative where it is worthwhile.

Estonia is well-educated and relatively digitally advanced member of NATO and the EU and is accustomed to thinking independently and acting quickly and decisively. Therefore, we have the opportunity to become a model of a new kind of society and business. All we need is a common will and vision for this. This requires a combination of high technical level and efficient human relations management. I have a feeling that TalTech can play an important role here.

What is your first advice to our board?

The most important recommendation is to put emphasis on every aspect that would improve cooperation, both within the university and with other universities, as well as in society at large. After all, someone has to take on this role – why not TalTech? It has so much to offer technically and scientifically, as well as through its networks, leaders, and entrepreneurs. TalTech can bring together engineering practicality, technical science and application of various fields, the visionary and regenerative, research and business-based activities of the green transition, in-depth work on economic management and governance, and a rich history of creating solutions that move society forward. In addition, it has the potential for a dynamic, smoothly functioning, and widely active human network, which could make sense of the scientific, technical, and social applications of the university and mobilise everyone to work towards higher well-being both within the university and at different levels of society.

This network of people could also lead the implementation of a new and better worldview both in Estonia and the world at large. This dynamic network should definitely include people with a different background from those from the University of Technology: artists, cultural figures, humanitarians, etc. Development based on this principle would allow the university to create much more value from already existing resources that so far have not been used to their fullest.

Nobel laureate Sir John Walker said something in the lines of, ‘Estonia is too small to compete with other Estonians.’

I was also surprised by the fact that for some reason, the university pays a lot of duplicated costs between departments. This is also true between universities – instead, the necessary resources could be shared. Aligning such costs would perhaps free up valuable capital that could support ventures with higher value creation potential.

What stands out when comparing Tallinn University of Technology to other universities in the world, especially in the USA? How different are American and European universities?

I cannot give an in-depth opinion about Tallinn University of Technology yet because this (the first board meeting with university representatives in mid-September – editorial) was my first close contact with the university. However, what stood out was the sharpness of their minds, considering the reactions and questions after our seminar about future capitals. I also noticed the directness and authenticity of the university management, board, and advisors, as well as their courage to discuss everything – both what was going well and what could be better. What I also remember is the courage to think big and with your heart, but also to point out complex goals and problems related to the behaviour of people. A certain bravery was also noticeable because being positive and setting high (or even noble) goals is not all that common in this cynical and critical world. I was very impressed by both the leaders of the university and the board, as well as the members of the advisory board – everyone was very inspiring and participation was high. No one was there to give up easily. I was happy to see people who know how to actually listen to their counterparties.

I know one thing about American and European universities: American universities are incredibly expensive compared to Europe! My older son recently enrolled at Purdue University, so the topic of tuition fees is very relevant in our home. During my time at the TalTech Board, I heard that there are no good solutions regarding tuition fees in Estonia. This seems to be short-sighted on the part of both the state and the private sector – it would be beneficial for both of them to create a system either in the form of direct or, for example, student loans that are repaid based on future salary. I am very sorry for Estonian students for whom university studies create a heavy financial burden.

What are your expectations regarding participation in the Tallinn University of Technology International Advisory Board? What do you have to offer the university and Estonia?

TalTech has a decisive and very meaningful role in the well-being of Estonia. I think that Estonia, in turn, has an important and meaningful role in the well-being of the world.

In the narrow sense, my professional and life experience is in financing innovation. In the broad sense, my experience lies in supporting and catalysing societal innovations. Both go hand in hand in the work and impact of the University of Technology on Estonia and the world. This means that the well-being of the university and its impact on society in both the narrow and broad sense also concerns the well-being of Estonia and the world. Many key figures in Estonia have graduated from TalTech (or whatever it was called at that period of time). The share of technical education and training in the world is constantly increasing. In terms of Estonian technical education, the University of Technology is both the foundation and the mortar that holds technical buildings and building blocks together.

My role might be giving a new perspective: I see things that people living in Estonia might not notice. I have been very lucky to witness the birth, growth, and development of many companies and innovations, which allows me to detect certain patterns based on gut feeling that I hope will be useful in improving the well-being of both the University of Technology and Estonia. I have financed innovation for 22 years, both as a venture capitalist and in venture lending; I have funded dozens of California life sciences companies to the tune of more than 750 million dollars. Before that, I was a CEO and molecular biologist in biotech companies.

You visit Estonia at least once a year. What does a person living abroad think of this small country?

I can tell you how my friends and acquaintances view Estonia – both those who have been here and those who have only read and heard about Estonia. For many, Estonia is a slightly mythical ‘little country that could’. Most of them do not know how small Estonia really is. I live in San Diego, a city of 1.4 million people. I notice the astonishment of those who have been to Estonia – often they cannot say why exactly they liked Estonia, but you can see from their eyes that something touched their soul and heart. I have a feeling that what touched them was the spirit of the place and the people. It is what you remember when you forget all about the events and meetings. You feel it in your heart and it makes all of your memories more meaningful. It is hard to describe, but easy to feel.

Estonians are quite critical of their country. Looking from afar, is there anything that could be better here?

There were discussions at the university about how good Estonians are at thinking with their own heads and how much initiative they have and how capable they are to do things on their own. However, in this context, the inability and perhaps unwillingness to cooperate becomes especially clear. It seems to me that working together is not seen as valuable as working independently. Good cooperation between sovereign partners allows to create a new quality, which cannot be achieved by working on it alone.

I would love for Estonians to start appreciating working together more. During the regaining of independence, many understood this; I just hope that they would realise this again and teach others that anything is possible when working together. As such a small nation, we should stick together in a way that ensures the highest possible quality that can only be achieved by working together.

When Estonia learns how to get along well and then how to work together, we can demonstrate what becomes possible thanks to this. I can already imagine history textbooks teaching future generations that Estonians used to not know how to get along with each other and did not understand the value of cooperation, but at some point, they decided to learn it, which brought about exponential changes showing the whole world that this is the way to achieve greatness. Thanks to this, the world changed for the better.

I use the word ‘learned’ because getting along with yourself, with others, and the world around us can be learned and taught. Why wait? Why not make this our next Tiger Leap project? This topic is also very relevant in California, which tends to be the place where a lot of new ideas are born.

A few years ago, I saw the Dalai Lama. He talked about the importance of emotional hygiene: how to control, for example, anger, frustration, and anxiety. Turns out he was right – in the years since that talk, these emotions have become much more prominent in the world... Brushing your teeth helps prevent painful cavities. Similarly, controlling our emotions can prevent a lot of pain. Once we learn to do so, we will be able to get along better and work together for a common goal.