Sting Bioeconomy is joined by a humble veteran in the bioeconomy sector, Maria Hollander!

Maria’s path into the bioeconomy sector has not been straightforward, but now she’s a well known name in the industry with titles such as top three cluster leaders in Europe up her sleeve. When I call her up, she’s sat in a bright room in her house a little outside of Karlstad. Outside the window it’s stormy and cold, but our conversation is characterised by an energised longing for spring.

When Maria is not leading and coordinating, she’s busy on the farm where she has cats, a barn and a large greenhouse to take care of. With extensive experience in business, innovation and bioeconomy, she is an incredible addition to the team when she steps in to assist with the analysis phase of new businesses.

With a smile on her face, Maria tells us that one of the things that makes her like living on the countryside, is that there is always something to do. She paints a picture of an idyllic but busy life, and tells me about her latest project – a large polytunnel;

– The new greenhouse is 35 square meters and has very high ceilings, it’ll be a completely different environment in there. Last year there was a lot of construction that had to be done, but this year there’s a lot that’s been arranged already, so I’m looking forward to the season.

Another highlight at the farm is the renovated barn. She says;

– There’s a music system and a smoke machine and lights and those things. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, we gather all the old-timers and dance the night away, it’s great fun!

Raised in Väse

Maria grew up in Väse, and studied a technical focused high school progamme in Karlstad. After trying out a few different small jobs for short periods, she started taking courses in Systems Science at the University of Karlstad when she approached 30. She enjoyed it, but unfortunately had to drop out, and by chance she ended up at a multimedia course.

– I couldn’t afford to stay there, but I was accepted to a course offered by the employment service instead, Maria explains. The journey towards the industry she is in today began with an internship in a multimedia project. – It was truly by chance that I ended up at the company Ericsson, multimedia was so hip back then, she says with a laugh. – It’s funny, it was an almost secret project back then when we were doing it. Håkan Hagegård sang at the opera in Gothenburg and you could listen to him in real time in Hagegården outside Arvika. And then we made a CD that had some different links and interactive elements. /…/ I never did another multimedia project at Ericsson, but I stayed on as a technical information officer. And then I was there for 15-16 years. Maria climbed the ladder quickly and held various managerial positions during her last 11 years with the company. After a while, however, it was time to try something new. That’s when the CEO job at Paper Province became available.

One of the first to work in bioeconomy

While the jobs at Ericsson had mostly entailed working with customers in Stockholm, Paper Province offered a closeness to the local, regional and the forests of Värmland, which Maria had always kept close to her heart. In many ways, one can say that Maria was one of the first to work with bioeconomy in Värmland. During her time at Paper Province, a lot changed.

– When I came in, I can’t remember that we had any start-ups or anything, we generally fumbled about a lot with how to handle innovation, she says. But soon after she joined the cluster, they applied for project funding from Vinnväxt, a long-term funding from Vinnova. Vinnova were looking for the great renewal for the region and had a 10-year perspective.

A visit to Finland changed the perspective

Maria remembers well how they came across the concept ”bioeconomy” during a visit to Finland.

– We stumbled upon the word bioeconomy around 2012 and immediately felt that it was the renewal that Vinnväxt had been asking for. That holistic perspective was missing before.” The expression “third time’s the charm” fits well when it comes to Värmland’s applications to Vinnväxt, which that time had Maria, Paper Province and bioeconomy to thank for its successful application. – It’s fantastic for a cluster to get that kind of money, because then you can work long-term and not have to worry about the economy in the same way. In addition, the funding contributed to a stronger focus on innovation.

To illustrate how the mindset of Paper Province changed after the visit to Finland, Maria helps us visualise two different images. It is clear to see that she’s an experienced and pedagogical speaker when she quickly and graphically explains: – We had previously had one image that explained our business, it looked like a flower. In the middle, we had ”paper and pulp”, and the petals could be for example automation/process/energy etc. When we came to Finland, they had bioeconomy in the middle instead, and paper and pulp was just a flower petal. It shifted the whole perspective in a way, and all production from the forest becomes important with this system-wide perspective. They had picked up on the concept at the right time, and with secure funding and a stronger system approach, Paper Province grew into closer collaborations with both public actors, academia, companies, the incubator Inova and other clusters.

– Now, bioeconomy is a big word throughout Europe, but we got the funding and were able to catch on just as the concept was on the rise. If you googled bioeconomy at that time, you got maybe 40-50 hits. Over a 10-year period, so much has happened. Today, Paper Province has a close collaboration with Sting Bioeconomy. Maria explains, – we realised how great it is to have a specialised incubator connected to a cluster in a particular industry. Then you have that network and those contacts, and the combination is strong!

With sustainability as a driving force

Now, Maria has entered new chapter where she is both a self-employed consultant and employed part-time at Filipstad Municipality, in the project New Industrial Industrialization in Värmland with sustainability as a driving force. In her role at the municipality, she gets to help small and medium-sized companies review their operations from a sustainability perspective. When I ask Maria what sustainability means to her, the answer is well-formulated and specific.

– Through my job, I became much more aware of sustainability perspectives. Above all, ecological sustainability has played a central role in Paper Province, she says. She emphasizes that sustainability is a complicated subject, and that it is always important to think about the big picture and context before drawing conclusions. – You could say that the forest industry has had some kind of revival over the last years, because in many ways it contributes to so much good. But I find it difficult sometimes, there are so many conflicting opinions. That’s why we need research and debate, it helps us to get better and better. /…/ Those of us who have worked with the forest naturally think that the forest is good and that you should be able to use it – but within reasonable limits.

When I ask how Maria’s view of the bioeconomy has changed over the past 10 years, she answers wisely and thoughtfully; – It has always been about using renewable materials in society, preferably in a circular economy. What we have realised later is that not everything is good just because it is fossil-free or renewable. Wood or cardboard may for example not always win over plastic, it depends on so many different factors. It’s never black or white, it’s always a trade-off. Materials are in short supply, and this is true when we talk about almost any kind of material.

Maria is also concerned with sustainability on a personal level. She explains that she often buys Swedish produce, grows her own vegetables in her greenhouse, and sorts garbage. But she also admits that it can sometimes feel challenging to think about sustainability.

– Staying within the limit of 1.5 degrees for example, I don’t think we can do it anymore. It’s not a given that this is going to work. But then other days you hear about a new solution and then hope is rekindled.” Maria emphasizes that solutions can often be found in a mix of technological innovation and behavioral change. She exemplifies this with the forest industry;

– Both forest fires and bark beetle infestations can be mitigated by planting mixed forests. So it seems like Mother Earth knew what she was doing from the beginning. Perhaps we need to look more at nature’s own solutions. Birch hasn’t been that popular, but now there are companies such as Reselo that make material from birch and make sure that we can get a return for it as well.

The region has been Maria’s base throughout her life. But through her job, she has also travelled to some of the world’s forest industry hubs.

– Since Paper Province was seen as a very good cluster, we were invited to talk a lot about cluster development and forestry. Maria has lectured in Finland and Canada, among other places, but thinks it is more important to focus on the results of travel than the actual travel. With determination, she clarifies what she means;

– It’s great when something comes out of it – you can travel, travel, travel and meet, meet, meet – but to achieve tangible results is really difficult. And it is often a very long processes. That’s the case for a lot of people of course, but especially when we’re working with trees.

When I talk to Maria, I am reminded of the beauty of letting many steps take you towards the same goal over a longer period of time, which once you get there can feel more valuable and unique than if you had been stressing the journey on the way. Maria is impressed by Sting Bioeconomy’s international collaborations and sees how the region benefits from international contacts and companies. – The fact that Sting Bioeconomy has received funding and an okay to work internationally with that money is incredible, because Värmland is not self-sufficient in startups. We benefit from each other and a long-term perspective is important. She continues, – I’ve met many of these start-ups in different contexts before as well. It’s always so fun to meet them. Young and old, they always have so much energy and glow. When you can help someone develop their dreams, you get a kick out of it.

Maria will participate in the analysis phase of the startups that come to Sting Bioeconomy for help, she will open doors and match-make. It is not impossible that she will also lend a helping hand with planning events. She concludes; – It’s fun to be able to pitch in a little where needed, I hope to be able to do as much as possible. And it’s going to be fun to keep learning – I’m never fully taught. We are very much looking forward to working with Maria and seeing what she will bring to the team!

A-match Play launched

A-match is the investor forum where you meet well-prepared companies that present tomorrow’s business ideas with short pitches. Starting May 17th, you can view the