CEO and Ph.D. Jouni Rissanen pioneers a sustainable alternative to concrete

Rissanen katsoo suoraan kameraan yläviistosta, taustalla metsää ja taivasta

In 2020, Jouni Rissanen was employed with the help of the PoDoCo program. He’s now CEO of Keko Geopolymers, a company that manufactures an environmentally friendly alternative to concrete. The application period for the PoDoCo program for the fall of 2023 is from October 15th to October 31st.

In September 2023, on Oulu’s Hupisaari Island, four sturdy stone letters are erected to spell out the city’s name. While some media outlets report that the landmark is constructed from eco-friendly concrete, Jouni Rissanen prefers to refer to it as geopolymer concrete. He serves as the CEO of Keko Geopolymers, the company responsible for crafting the Hupisaari Island letters. Keko Geopolymers specializes in manufacturing, researching, and developing geopolymers by harnessing industrial byproducts.

“We are developing materials similar to concrete but without using cement as a binder; instead, we use geopolymers based on industrial byproducts. Roughly estimated, 5–8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are caused by the production of cement used in concrete,” Rissanen says.

Where does this high-performance material find its best applications, then? Geopolymers are inorganic materials that are as strong and dense as concrete or minerals. In addition to concrete, they have been used in ceramics, in stabilizing harmful substances from the mining industry, as catalyst support structures, and even in the storage of radioactive waste.

The PoDoCo program turned a Ph.D. into a CEO

Rissanen earned his Ph.D. in process engineering from Oulu University in 2020. However, climbing the academic career ladder didn’t appeal to him as he approached graduation. Numerous grant applications and professorial roles didn’t feel like the right fit.

Jouni Rissanen sits on a bench and flashes a bright smile.
Jouni Rissanen photographed in his home city Oulu. Photography by Kati Leinonen.

The timing was right, then, when his university colleague Juho Yliniemi invited Rissanen to join his newly founded company. Rissanen was intrigued by the circular economy aspect of utilizing industrial byproducts, aligning with his desire to make a positive impact in the world. 

“Juho saw a lot of untapped potential in applying geopolymers. He decided to do it himself, as no one else was,” Rissanen says jovially.

He enjoys occasionally getting his hands dirty (or immersed in geopolymers) since hands-on experience provides valuable insights into materials and practical challenges.

In 2020, Rissanen secured funding from the PoDoCo program, which places doctoral graduates in companies. The Nessling Foundation granted him 30,000 euros in funding within the program.

“Funding was crucial, especially in the early stages of the company. It enabled me to have an income even though the company wasn’t fully formed yet,” he says.

A winding career path led to groundbreaking entrepreneurship

A career in geopolymers wasn’t Rissanen’s childhood dream. During his studies, he worked at a steel mill during the summers, where slag was produced as a byproduct. Slag can be used as a raw material for geopolymers. Around that time, he learned about the use of fly ash (a byproduct of wood combustion) in circular economy applications during a lecture.

“I marched into the office of Professor Mirja Illikainen. She specializes in industrial byproducts and circular economy. Mirja suggested using fly ash as a binder for cement in my undergraduate thesis,” Rissanen recalls. His interest in the subject grew as he delved deeper. 

“It’s funny how something starts to interest you when you work on it long enough. You have to be careful about what you get into – you never know how many years you’ll end up spending on a topic,” he says with a laugh.

Originally, Rissanen wasn’t even supposed to become a researcher. After completing primary school, he studied visual expression in a vocational institution. He then completed military service, trained as a security guard, graduated from adult education high school, and worked summers in industry. Eventually, he started studying environmental engineering at Oulu University.

A young company with growth ambitions

Since 2021, Jouni Rissanen has served as the CEO of Keko Geopolymers. Initially, the transition from academia to business came with a lot of new information and challenges. Rissanen and Yliniemi were navigating uncharted waters. However, within four years, the company has found its footing.

Jouni Rissanen sits on a rock and looks to his right. Behind his back is a grey sea or lake.
Photography by Kati Leinonen.

“Our customers are primarily companies that either produce significant amounts of industrial byproducts themselves or develop technology that generates byproducts. We’ve also undertaken different projects and experiments for municipalities and municipal companies,” Rissanen describes.

The company’s projects include a geopolymeric floor for a parking garage at the Lohja Housing Fair, traffic barriers for Lounais-Suomen jätehuolto, a municipal waste company, and a geopolymeric artwork created in collaboration with a local artist for Oulu’s Kiertokaari (a company specializing in waste management and sorting).

The aim is to hire several full-time employees sooner rather than later. Rissanen is optimistic about the company’s growth prospects: As the circular economy advances, there may be unexpected needs for new types of materials.

“We are open to all sorts of interesting partnerships,” says Rissanen.

Jouni Rissanen’s tips for PoDoCo funding applicants:

  1. Start early. The application period lasts for a month and a half.
  2. Maintain a good relationship with the company that will employ you and create a workable plan to kickstart the project.
  3. Write a concise and clear application that even non-experts can understand.

The PoDoCo Autumn application round is open 15.9.-31.10.2023.

Read more about Keko Geopolymers here.