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Keep an eye on Norway: Its startup scene is about to go huge

TechCrunch TechCrunch 20/06/2016 Haje Jan Kamps

I spent a lot of my formative years in Norway, and have been periodically checking in on the Norwegian startup scene. The first time I went and had a look around was about five years ago, and what I found back then was pretty dismal. So, when I headed back to Norway this week to take a deep dive into the Norwegian startup scene at the Startup Extreme conference, I have to admit: My expectations weren’t that high. And boy, was that unfounded.  In just a few short years has gone from been a pretty bleak affair to being a real — if nascent — startup ecosystem.

Norway has been a bit of an underdog in the Scandiwegian startup scene for a few years. Need proof? Quick! Name one Norwegian startup that isn’t the obvious one… But despite not basking in the limelight, it hasn’t exactly been withering away in the shadow of the relative successes of its other Scandinavian brethren either.

For one thing, partially in response to the cratering price of oil — on which Norway has traditionally been heavily reliant — the Norwegian government has doubled down on supporting startups both financially and through training and advice, with what appears to be one of the most supportive environments for startups I’ve come across yet.

A strong level of support is going to be important for a number of reasons: In a lot of successful startup ecosystems, there’s a strong drive to help new startups. This may take the form of ‘smart money’ (i.e. investors who don’t just drop money into the startup for equity, but also offer advice, contacts, or other ways of championing their investments), procedural advice, or operational know-how. For example; if you are in a very active startup ecosystem, it’s possible to get a lot of advice around how to set up employee share options, how to deal with operational challenges, or how to deal with brand protection or patenting. Peer learning is a powerful first step to form a baseline for what to expect before getting swept away by lawyers and accountants — in a new ecosystem, the peer learning isn’t as readily available, and seeing the government working with the startup scene to help plug that gap is refreshing.

In addition to the government, the Norwegian royal house has thrown themselves into the mix. HRH crown prince Haakon of Norway (which, given he is next in line to the throne, means he can legitimately be called King of the North, right?) opened the event with a funny (“In 1600 we invented clocks and started being late for everything”) and engaging speech about the history of innovation and entrepreneurship both in Norway and beyond.

Leveraging the luxury of having a small startup scene — necessarily so, the whole country only has a population of 7m — the government-led startup support infrastructure is reaching a tremendous proportion of Norwegian startup companies. Of course, accepting assistance in any shape is voluntary, but the ease with which it is available is head and shoulders above what other governments in Europe are able to offer.

The size of the ecosystem also means that it quickly becomes a tight-knit community. That could arguably go both ways, of course, but at least the channels of communication are open. My impression was that it appears that if your startup is able to formulate the right question, chances are pretty decent of being connected with the right persons to help you find a solid answer.

The Startup Extreme event was interesting — and oh so very Norwegian — in itself. It was extremely inclusive (people graciously switched from Norwegian to English whenever I joined a conversation; I didn’t let on that I speak fluent Norwegian), and the recurring feedback was that absolutely everyone was very approachable; unusual at startup conferences and, in my experience, downright rare in Norway. Day one was a pretty straightforward conference, but at the end of the day, the majority of participants were loaded into buses for the extreme part of Startup Extreme; Two days of sky diving, wild water rafting, eating sheep’s heads, and staying up until the sun sets (i.e. never) was all on the menu. And, with this being Norway, the next point on the program was drinking as if your liver is an invading enemy force that can only be repelled by viking-immobilizing quantities of aquavit. It sported the perfect mix of activity and downtime to give its participants an opportunity to have the sort of deep conversations that makes this type of event worth while.

Five highlights

Five years ago, I found that the startup scene in Norway had a handful of players and very little support infrastructure to go with it. Today, it’s a completely different world. I look forward to diving more in depth over the next few months, but here are a few tasty morsels to get you started…

Futurehome is making all your smart home bits talk to each other

If you’ve tried to build a ‘smart home’ recently, you’ll have spotted that most devices are pretty dumb; or at least they’ve been struck by the Tower of Babel curse: Getting them to talk to each other is bloody hard. Starting with their home market in Norway, but rolling out internationally later, Futurehome is one to keep an eye on.

No Isolation is tackling isolation challenges for children with long-term illnesses

Children suffering from long term illness often struggle with crushing isolation issues, and according to No Isolation‘s CEO, 80% of children with severe disabilities have no friends at all. This is the problem the company is tackling with a product launching later this year; a fantastic startup than can hand-on-heart say they’re making the world a better place.

Staaker is a drone that follows you around

Wear an armband and your drone will fly slow (or fast) circles around you as you make a half-hearted attempt at avoiding to kill yourself on the ski slopes. Very impressive tech; if you’ve not heard of Staaker yet, don’t worry; soon, you won’t be able to avoid it.

Nabobil is taking on Turo, Getaround and co with some truly astonishing numbers

Nabobil (Norwegian for ‘Neighbor Car’) is a sharing economy for cars platform – much like Getaround et al. The company is showing some truly impressive traction, and while it’s currently only serving the local market, it has some ambitious expansion plans up its sleeve and a pretty impressive plan of how to get there. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Fish food company MiniPro wins startup pitching competition

I was surprised to find a fish food company winning a startup pitching competition; but on closer reflection, it’s the perfect story to illustrate why Norway’s isn’t like other startup ecosystems.

All the startups I can’t talk about… yet

A number of the startups I met with in Norway — both as part of Startup Extreme and separately — aren’t ready to share their full stories yet. But they will be, and when they do, you know where to come looking for you – that’s right; your favorite green-mastheaded tech site. Stay tuned.

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