From Helsinki to Tallinn: The man who wants to tunnel under the Baltic Sea

In 2009 Peter Vesterbacka launched the video game “Angry Birds”. A good ten years later, the Finn is devoting himself to a bigger task: He wants to build the longest railway tunnel in the world between Helsinki and Tallinn: 100 kilometers long to connect Scandinavia and the Baltic States.

Peter Vesterbacka is a kind of Finnish Elon Musk. The 52-year-old has been fascinated by startups since his youth. In the 90s he seeks and finds contact with Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who laid the foundation stone for today's Silicon Valley in a garage in Palo Alto. The US founders of HP are so impressing Vesterbacka that he wants to do something big himself. His breakthrough came with Rovio, a Finnish game developer. 51 games have been brought onto the market without great success. "The 52nd game was Angry Birds," says Vesterbacka in the ntv podcast "Learned again". To date, the video game series has been downloaded a total of 4.5 billion times.

But that's not enough for Vesterbacka. In 2016 he left Rovio to do something even bigger. Since then he has acted as an investor, is in constant contact with young, promising companies and networks them with one another. "The tip of the iceberg", as he calls his main project, is the construction of a 100-kilometer-long railway tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn. So far, the capitals of Finland and Estonia have only been connected by ferry. But a trip takes almost two hours. Too much, think Vesterbacka and his colleagues from the startup community.

Trip with the ferry "annoying"

"We had the idea of ​​building a tunnel during a startup event in Finland. It was in 2016. After the first day of the conference, we sat down with Finnish and Estonian friends in the evening and talked about how close we are in the startup world But it's annoying that it takes two hours by ferry to travel back and forth between the two countries. Then we thought we should build a tunnel, "says Vesterbacka, looking back.

That evening the idea actually takes off. Because that startup conference is high-ranking. Vesterbacka took the chance and went to the table of the then Foreign Minister of Estonia, Marina Kaljurand. "I said to her: Hey, we've decided to build a tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn." The politician then started laughing. "That was motivation enough. When people are laughing, you have to make them stop laughing."

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<p class=Peter Vesterbacka's trademark: After leaving the games industry …

(Photo: picture alliance / dpa)

Vesterbacka and his colleagues call the tunnel project "Finest Bay Area", then they set up a planning company of the same name. And "Finest" is more than just a play on words from Finland and Estonia. The entrepreneur and investor sees great potential in the greater Helsinki-Tallinn region, which has been so closely interwoven for many years that it is often referred to as "Talsinki". "There was no cooperation during the Cold War, but that has changed since Estonia's independence in 1991. Since then, commuter traffic in the region has increased year on year, with ferries carrying over ten million passengers in 2019," adds Kustaa Valtonen who works as a project manager for the planning company.

The interest in the tunnel is also so high because the startup industry is booming in both cities. The "higher-faster-further-thinking" is particularly pronounced. Vesterbacka played a major role in this, because in 2008 he launched the so-called "Slush" event and has made it one of the most important tech conferences in Europe in recent years.

Five "unicorns" from Estonia

"That is why we now have one of the liveliest startup ecosystems in the world in this region," says Vesterbacka and backs up the assessment with figures: Five "unicorns" – young companies worth more than a billion euros – were founded by Estonians. In addition to Skype, the mobility startup Bolt, the money transfer service Transferwise and the software companies Playtech and Pipedrive belong to the illustrious circle.

… only the "Angry Bird" is missing on his red hoodie.

(Photo: Finest Bay Area)

About 200 unicorns come from China, but almost 1.4 billion people live in the Middle Kingdom, while Estonia has a population of just 1.3 million. "In Estonia it takes 300,000 people for a unicorn, in China it is seven million," Vesterbacka calculates.

The former game developer is convinced that a tunnel will make the metropolitan region even more networked and more attractive. In his opinion, "Talsiniki" has the potential to become a "European Silicon Valley". "The region is a huge unicorn factory. The point now is to keep increasing the density of talent. If we bring Helsinki and Tallinn together, it's a metropolitan area with more than two million people. And when you have a high density of talent, it develops automatically lots of unicorns. We need that in Europe. We have to get much better, especially in the area of ​​technology. "

The technology minds of the future should find a home on a heaped island. This should arise from the rubble that the tunnel boring machines bring from the ground in front of Helsinki and provide space for work and a home for 50,000 people.

The money for the gigantic project is to flow from China. A Chinese financial holding is providing 15 billion euros. But that is exactly what many see critically. They fear Beijing's influence and fear that the tunnel could become part of the New Silk Road.

Vesterbacka does not yet have a building permit anyway, and documents are missing, including on the environmental compatibility of the project. Nevertheless, he and his team are sticking to a very ambitious goal: the tunnel should be ready by 2024. "We will use 16 tunnel boring machines. That way we can finish the tunnel within two years. And then we have to build stations, lay rails and so on", reports Vesterbacka and is aware that it will be "scarce". The 52-year-old has been working on the project for five years. "There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes, a lot of meetings with powerful people, all the lobbying." In order to adhere to the ambitious schedule, it must "start at the end of this year or at the latest at the beginning of next year".

"Metro connection" between Helsinki and Tallinn

A lot is possible, but would a tunnel also serve its purpose? In any case, the idea of ​​connecting the two capitals with tubes under the Baltic Sea has been around for a long time. "People here have been talking about it for a hundred years. This dream has been around for a long time because these two capitals are so close to each other. With a tunnel we would have a kind of metro connection between the two cities," says Valtonen.


A possible side project of the tunnel is a raised island in the Baltic Sea.

(Photo: Finest Bay Area)

Politicians have also been dealing with the issue more intensively for a number of years. In 2018, the result of a state-commissioned feasibility study was published. Accordingly, the costs would be higher than the economic benefit without external financing, the project could only be realized with a financial injection from the European Union, it was said at the time. Unless the state does not take over the project, but Vesterbacka. He has the Chinese money in his back.

An EU funding is again not excluded, as the tunnel could dock with the so-called "Rail Baltica". This is a high-speed rail network that has been planned for years between Tallinn and Warsaw with a connection to Berlin. The new heads of government in Finland and Estonia can gain significantly more from the project than their predecessors. It seems unlikely that the tunnel will be ready by 2024. Vesterbacka is also obviously concerned: "We still have a lot of work to do." Basically, the "Angry Birds developer is optimistic that the tunnel will be built:" Some people have already stopped laughing and realized that we can do it. "

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. (tagsToTranslate) Economy (t) Start-ups (t) Finland (t) Estonia (t) Bridges and Tunnels (t) Baltic Sea (t) China (t) New Silk Road (t) Baltic States