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Cultivating collaboration and innovation between MIT and Denmark

New MIT-Denmark program is poised to send its first students overseas for internships and research.
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Photo: Stew Milne

“Denmark has some of the best working conditions in the world. I’m eager to learn more about the customs and culture, especially as it pertains to the workplace,” says sophomore Evie Mayner. Mayner will be one of the first students to travel to Denmark via the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, thanks to the creation of a new program that connects the country with the MIT community.

The Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) has provided support to MIT to launch this new Denmark program, which sponsors students to work in Denmark on internship and research opportunities. This is part of an effort to attract international talent to Denmark in several key industries in which Denmark and Boston are mutually strong: life science, information technology (IT), and engineering.

The idea for a Denmark program first came about during a January 2018 visit from DI Chief Operating Officer Thomas Bustrup and his delegation. With support from Industriens Fond, DI was able to contribute three years of funding as a catalyst for the program. MIT-Denmark began in September 2018 and will officially launch over the summer when the first cohort of MIT students is sent overseas. “Ideally,” says Mayner, “I’ll be bringing back to the U.S. some of the energy, innovation, and healthy habits that characterize the Danish lifestyle.”

Due to overwhelming interest, the original objective of sending 10 students to Denmark this first year had to be abandoned. Over 150 students applied to the program, while approximately 40 Danish companies and universities wanted to host at least one student. To meet the demand from both directions, the program is now sending 20 students — still far fewer than what is possible, based on interest.

Denmark has gained attention in recent years as the idea of "hygge" — a Danish word that roughly means coziness — has become a trend. Similarly, Denmark has been named the second-happiest country by the World Happiness Report and has placed in the top three for seven years in a row. Another selling point is the brand of sustainability that Denmark has embraced. In 2018, Denmark ranked third out of 180 countries on the Environmental Performance Index, having ranked fourth the previous time the assessment was made. Beyond this, Denmark has a cultural legacy of respect and consideration for the environment.

One example of Danish commitment to sustainability is MIT-Denmark host Aquaporin A/S, a global water technology company dedicated to revolutionizing water purification through the use of industrial biotechnological techniques and thinking. “In Aquaporin, we believe that innovation is driven by gathering people with different scientific background, culture, and perspective,” says Mads Andersen, head of Aquaporin Academy, the company’s student program. “Collaboration between industry and academia is a perfect platform to exploit this, and we are therefore extremely happy and proud of being part of the MIT-Denmark program. The hope is also that the MIT students will be inspired by the Danish way of working with a focus on sustainability and work-life balance.”

Mayner is one of the first MIT interns spending the summer at Aquaporin A/S and is intrigued by what she has learned about Danish workplace culture. “I am especially excited by the idea of a high degree of worker autonomy with open communication, which I think will be valuable for my career and personal development.”

While buzzwords around Denmark — clean energy, work-life balance, and hygge — make it an easy sell for students, the program is also helping tackle a concern with the Danish workforce, as companies struggle to fill vacant positions. This problem stems from a combination of factors, including a shortage of candidates with backgrounds that match Denmark’s growing industries, primarily engineering, life science, and IT. Another aspect is a sheer numbers game — most people who want to work in Denmark are already working. “Danish businesses are thriving, and more and more companies find themselves in a position where they have to turn down orders due to lack of highly-skilled specialists,” says Linda Duncan Wendelboe, head of DI Global Talent. “We need more young talented people to consider Denmark as their next career destination. Thanks to a long tradition of collaboration between civil society, private and public sectors, academia and entrepreneurs, we are often ranked among the most innovative in the world. At the same time, sustainability is a fully incorporated part of the business strategy in many Danish companies.”

MIT-Denmark students will not only build relevant experience toward their academic and professional development, they will also get a taste of what it means to live in a modern welfare state, work in one of the best countries for business, and take new approaches to innovation and entrepreneurship the Danish way. Many host companies and universities view this as a way for students to dip their toes in Danish culture, hopeful that they will consider Denmark in their career paths not only for the strong industries in IT, life science, and sustainability, but also for the life-quality benefits. Other organizations hosting MIT students include 3Shape, Copenhagen Business School, COWI, Denmark’s Technical University (DTU), Grundfos, LEO Pharma, Maersk (the first company to make a match with an MIT student), SPACE10, University of Copenhagen, Visma, and several start-ups housed within BLOXHUB, among others.

Similar to other MISTI programs, the MIT-Denmark program will send students to Denmark on internship and research opportunities ranging from three to 12 months, all cost-neutral to ensure this opportunity can be accessible to every student at MIT.

The establishment of the MIT-Denmark program comes around the same time as greater involvement of Denmark in the Boston area. In January of this year, a new Danish Innovation Center (ICDK) — which will be a work to build stronger relationships between Denmark and the Boston health and life science community, both on the commercial and research side — opened in Kendall Square. To officially open ICDK, the Danish Minister of Science, Technology, Information, and Higher Education, Tommy Ahlers, visited Boston to also get a greater feel for the technology and innovation environment in the area.

The ICDK is a combined effort from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education and Research currently being led by Science Attaché Torben Orla Nielsen. At the same time that the Danish government has a growing interest in the greater Boston area, so do Danish companies. A Danish investment firm is backing the offshore wind farm in New Bedford, while renewable energy powerhouses, such as Ørsted and Vestas, are making their mark on the implementation side. Furthermore, both larger companies and smaller Danish start-ups have opened up offices in Boston in the last couple of years. Danish household names such as Novo Nordisk, Danfoss, and LEO Pharma have a handful of staff at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), with a smaller Danish biotech company, Medtrace, nearby.

MIT-Denmark Program Manager Sydney-Johanna Stevns has big dreams for the program. “There is such a wealth of opportunity and innovation in Denmark; connecting this to MIT has been naturally synergistic. In a few years, I expect we will be sending three times as many.” The Program’s Faculty Director, Kathleen Thelen, is excited about deepening MIT’s connections to Scandinavia: “This is such an incredible opportunity for MIT students to experience a different culture but in a way that is also firmly anchored in their chosen fields of study.”

MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives creates applied international learning opportunities for MIT students that increase their ability to understand and address real-world problems. MISTI collaborates with partners at MIT and beyond, serving as a vital nexus of international activity and bolstering the Institute’s research mission by promoting collaborations between MIT faculty members and their counterparts abroad. MISTI programs are made possible through the generosity of individuals, corporations, and foundations.

For more information, email or contact country program managers directly. MISTI is a program in the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

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