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Oslo: A hub for the social startup scene

The Norwegian capital is thriving from a unique combination of business agility, a cultural receptiveness to technology, and a social desire to do good

There’s a commonly used phrase among tech entrepreneurs in Oslo at the moment: “I want to save the world, but get rich while trying.”

For all of Silicon Valley’s innovation, ASEAN’s manufacturing prowess, or central Europe’s socially driven legislation, it is Scandinavia that arguably encapsulates all three of these strands most effectively – Norway’s capital in particular stands out as one of the world’s foremost hubs for tech-based, but socially motivated, startups.

Through speaking with some of the city’s leading lights across this “startups for good” revolution, it seems more than a conscious self-positioning. Rather, it’s a natural alignment of commercial opportunity, cultural readiness and social values that is being capitalised on.

“When you go through a financial crisis and an oil price crash in the same decade, it inevitably changes investment patterns, and business outlooks,” says Sten Kirkbak, chief marketing officer at XPLORA, a wearable technology platform that was initially set up so parents could locate or communicate with lost children without arming them with smartphones at such a young age.

The invention, which has now reached the US, UK, Germany and Spain, manifested from Kirkbak’s own terrifying experience of losing his then-four-year-old son in a shopping mall, and realising that through internet of things (IoT) and communication technologies, he could connect to his fridge, television and car, but not his own child.

Converting societal common sense into commercial success, via technological innovation, was a proposition that Kirkbak managed to realise in the aftermath of both aforementioned crises – and he’s not alone.

A thriving new-look economy

Kjetil Bøhn, CEO of Quantafuel, a company using proprietary catalytic systems to turn plastic waste into high-quality synthetic fuels, agrees that diversification, not necessity, has been the mother of invention for the country.

“Norway essentially used to revolve around oil and gas, fishing and shipping, and the shift that has occurred in the past few years has affected everyone. Highly skilled engineers have looked away from those sectors to apply their skills in more socially driven domains,” he says.

“It’s been a government-driven change too,” adds Karen Dolva, CEO and co-founder of No Isolation, a company developing tools to prevent involuntary social isolation. “Since the two crises, numerous initiatives, programmes, accelerators and incubators have been created, aimed at helping tech startups.”

“And most of these startups are looking to solve problems,” adds Arne Peder Blix, CEO and co-founder of web operating system firm, Friend. “The diversification away from oil has allowed a new-look economy to thrive.”

Business receptivity

Such entrepreneur encouragement ties in seamlessly with a world-leading technological infrastructure that exists in Norway. Being a relatively small population of little more than five million people, the country also serves as an ideal testbed for new businesses looking to leverage initial market feedback and data collation before branching out internationally.

Johan Høgåsen-Hallesby, chief technology officer (CTO) of Urban Sharing, the company behind Oslo’s city bike sharing initiative and delivering the technology for Edinburgh’s first city-wide cycle hire scheme, believes this level of business receptivity has been vital to the startup community’s evolution in recent years.

“Within Norway, there’s an evident readiness: a commercial readiness to explore problem solving technologies, and a social readiness to embrace advanced technologies like AI [artificial intelligence], IoT, electric vehicles or even micro-mobility in our case,” he says.

And naturally, if there are companies with the knowhow to fill this market gap, and a clientele ready and willing to indulge, then there are investors not far behind.

“In Norway, more and more investors are developing an actual mandate and strategy to put funds into projects that contribute to a better society,” Kirkbak says. “Healthcare, education, green transportation, security – these are huge trends that investors want to be seen to be aligned with, so regardless of motive, there is lots of money being put into ideas that tackle societal challenges.”

Such business readiness is linked with more cultural notions of openness, transparency and collaboration to ignite a socially driven business movement.

This is especially the case among younger generations who don’t just want a job anymore, but a meaningful job. Whether it’s caring for the environment, making people feel safer, cutting down on carbon emissions or improving levels of healthcare, Norway seems to be one of very few countries to put its money, and inventions, where its concerns are.

“The mentality reflects what people want to be associated with, culturally,” Bøhn adds. “And it fosters a mindset shift from competition, to collaboration.

“It’s a mentality where a Norwegian person typically believes they are no better than anyone else. And further than that, they want to work for people who are the most socially acceptable, to try to create something meaningful through modern technologies.”

Social values

This ushers in the third leg of Norway’s startup tripod: social values.

As a prime example, by the end of 2019, cars will be banned in Oslo. Addressing issues of health and eco friendliness, the city is striving for social respectability and positive change. And the best part is, the population is almost entirely in favour of such a move.

“It’s obviously great for us,” Høgåsen-Hallesby jokes in reference to Urban Sharing’s bike sharing model, “but importantly it highlights values that most Norwegians already possess. Oslo has a population of little more than 600,000 people, yet we have had as many as 100,000 unique users of our bikes this year, and half of those are annual subscribers.”

It’s a fond embrace of modern technology and business ideologies that would be lost on many countries, but that encapsulates why the “startups for good” trend is blossoming in Norway’s capital.

Høgåsen-Hallesby adds: “I used to be afraid that, because we had such a big impetus from oil before, there would be an engrained laziness when it came to innovation. Our welfare system is good, and people are pretty well-off.

“But I’m so pleased to see that people have gone the other way, and the trend points towards diversification and creating a different kind of value moving forward.”

Even more encouragingly, the trend is only just getting started.

“In the Nordics, and Norway in particular, there’s something big happening from a startup perspective,” says Tharald Nustad, founder of Nordic Impact, a venture capital firm that invests in social startups. “The Norwegian business environment is receptive to the startup community, our culture aligns with the values being displayed, and our society is ready and willing to embrace the technologies on offer.

“Together, this forms a combination that can help a relatively small country solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

Read more about startups in the Nordic region

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