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Gothenburg – a hotbed for early startups

Sweden’s second-largest city is by no means the biggest startup hub in the Nordic region, but its global reach is a distinct advantage

In the south of Gothenburg, Sweden, sits Chalmers University of Technology. For decades, it has fostered generation after generation of skilled engineers looking to ply their skills across the city’s thriving industrial landscape.

But in more recent years, Sweden’s second-largest city has experienced a change of direction when it comes to innovation, and startup success is fast becoming the ultimate goal.

The university itself has responded in kind, paving the way for the Stena Center, a hub built specifically to support the rise of the startup community, encouraging the businesses within it to scale up in offices across the facility as they grow.

“Until a few years ago, the startup culture didn’t really exist here,” said Adam Torkelsson, co-founder and CEO of Equilab, an app for the equestrian community that has already taken the business around the world in terms of users, and across many offices at the Stena Center as it expands.

“Even when I was at Chalmers in 2014, it was only really here that saw substantial startup activity,” said Torkelsson. “But since then, it’s exploded across the city. We now have tech events here, hubs, incubators and venture capitalist companies rising, and lots of examples of digital startups growing successfully.”

Torkelsson described the current startup ecosystem as perfect in size – big enough to class it as successful, while small enough to still facilitate collaboration.

“Whereas Stockholm has grown so much that it can sometimes be difficult to get in contact with the right people in terms of initial business advice or collaboration, we don’t have that problem here,” he said. “There are so many companies popping up with good ideas, and each has a mentor they can go to directly for advice and assistance.”

Inevitably, much of this happens at the Stena Center, which acts as a perfect microcosm of the budding ecosystem around it. Another success story there is Trine, a digital crowd investment platform for profitable solar energy initiatives in developing countries. It has already generated €15m in project investments.

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The company’s co-founder and COO, Andreas Lehner, said: “It’s so accessible here, to get your foot in the door and take advice on board that will improve your chances of making it.

“Gothenburg’s evolution from industry technology to startup technology has been organic, as the innovations are often still being targeted towards industry. The difference has been a mindset change where engineers or entrepreneurs want to fix problems and fill smaller market gaps rather than be cogs in bigger machines.”

In essence, Gothenburg is a startup startup hub. Its burgeoning ecosystem presents an opportunity to find gaps and solutions where larger businesses struggle to manoeuvre.

Many of the companies thriving there now are taking advantage of a unique commercial proposition, compounded by being a partner of choice in a new and exciting environment.

Lehner added: “There is a huge social impact scene here and we are an impact company. It is a natural synergy that helps businesses like ours to grow. A lot of tech-driven startups here are trying to solve real needs, going where large corporations, institutions or banks don’t want to go – in our case, via energy projects in countries as far afield as Kenya, Senegal, Pakistan, Myanmar and other emerging markets.

“Companies like ours can enter these niche areas and sectors, and partners appreciate the flexibility and pace at which we can do so.”

A similar example of addressing a wider industry’s niche shortfall is Remente’s mental health proposition, an app that helps consumers and businesses to better understand the link between personal self-esteem and psychological wellbeing, and often business success. 

“Gothenburg is a great place for a service such as ours – we’re a small city, but that forces us to think big,” said Remente’s co-founder, Niklas Forser. “It encourages every new startup to be even more entrepreneurial and broad-thinking in their visions.”

Focusing on global challenges

The city’s industrial history has made international exports a familiar notion, so the need for startups to do the same has been met with enthusiasm rather than trepidation.

For Gothenburg, the vision has gone beyond expanding its commercial footprint to fixing global problems, not just those in its own backyard.

Trine’s Lehner said: “Gothenburg is the most sustainable city in the world, but that doesn’t mean that companies like ours are focusing inwards. It means we’re trying to apply that same philosophy in places that need these solutions more.

“A lot of companies here in Gothenburg are focusing on real global challenges, going in with a question of ‘how can we fix this problem?’, not just ‘how can we fix this problem here?’.”

The one remaining shortfall – which, if fixed, could escalate Gothenburg’s startup evolution dramatically – is national-level support for its willingness to plug gaps and solve global challenges via technological innovation.

Remente’s Forser said: “There are export organisations here in Sweden which are now starting to aid SMEs’ and startups’ journeys to international markets. However, this trend is still finding its feet and, with one of the government’s agencies, we recently became only the first SME that they’ve helped – a belated gesture that might seem a bit odd considering that the vast majority of our business, and that of most other startups, is outside of Sweden.”

Like Remente, Gothenburg’s startups are famous in their offices and around the Chalmers facility, and they are famous around the world – but they’re not famous in Sweden. They don’t need to be.

Arguably more than any other Nordic city, Gothenburg has the potential to make a positive global impact via its digital startup revolution.

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