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Nordic Startup Awards highlight region's next wave of innovation

Nordic startups celebrated at annual awards ceremony, but where next for the region's fledgling IT firms?

Startup businesses and individual talent were recognised at the final of the 2015 Nordic Startup Awards (NSAs), with educational and social technologies picks of the prize winners.

The competition started by finding national winners across 10 categories from each of the five Nordic nations. Those that were successful in their locale were added to shortlists for the regional awards – and then battled it out at the grand final in Helsinki on 27 May.

In excess of 13,000 public votes were cast all around the world, acknowledging the individual investors, developers, founders and journalists from the region, alongside those fresh startup companies and ventures making their mark locally, regionally and internationally.

Norway's venerated Mesh workplace was recognised as best office space, while Bergen-based gaming startup DirtyBit topped the best bootstrapped category.

The best accelerator programme award was given to Iceland's Startup Reykjavik, best professional investor award went to Sweden's Creandum, and best social entrepreneurship startup was awarded to Denmark's Be My Eyes, an app that lets blind people contact a network of sighted volunteers for help via live video chat.

People's choice a surprise

Some 22 judges – representing a range of companies and organisations, from HP to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and top Nordic businesses – supplemented the popular vote to determine overall winners in all categories, except the wildcard people's choice award.

This award went, somewhat surprisingly, to little-known Danish startup Unipegma, an online subscription service enabling students, academics and professionals to enjoy near-universal access to digital books and materials in most study subjects and syllabuses.

“I was really happy,” said Unipegma founder Camilla Hessellund Lastein. “The people's choice award means more to us because we rely entirely on our users, so it's validation of the concept.”

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Unipegma is still pre-launch, still negotiating with partners and investors, and still has fewer than 100 Twitter followers and less than 500 Facebook fans. It wasn't the obvious people's award, yet it taps into a blossoming educational technology industry – one that Nordic startups are embracing.

“People are still trying to take on the book as a media, and trying to optimise tech and software to create better solutions for students,” said Hessellund Lastein. “Education is an area where there hasn't been much development and evolution.”

Education technology for the world

Asmund Furuseth is vice-president of business development at Kahoot!, which won best startup in the Norwegian heat, but lost out in the final.

Kahoot! is another educational app that launched in 2013, and now serves 13 million active global learners each month. Some 90% of users are in the classroom, while big clients such as PwC and DNB Bank use the platform to assist in staff training and education.

“Globally, the market for how you learn is growing,” Furuseth told Computer Weekly. “Education has been built on a fast food model where you want as many people as possible going through a system and ending up with a known job. But these days we don't know what kind of job you'll have when you've finished your education, so education has to change and adapt to jobs that will be available in the future.”

Furuseth believes the early success of Kahoot! – which was built using open-source and freely available tools – serves a global need to learn niche and new skills. For him, knowledge-driven economies, such as Nordic nations, are in a strong position to lead in e-learning.

“Competence-based industries are what we excel in, and to have the workforce, we need to be extremely good at educating our talent and getting everyone up to a really high level,” he said. “It's not so much about the revenues; we're very much focused on the impact we're generating globally. If you can help increase learning, that will have a huge and positive impact all around the world.”

Going social

Although new Nordic ingenuity looks set to boost and champion educational technology in years to come, the region's momentum in social media is hard to stop – especially now there's more emphasis on user experience (UX) and design.

Nordic Startup Awards winners

  • Best accelerator programme: Startup Reykjavik (Iceland)
  • Best office space: Mesh (Norway)
  • Best professional investor: Creandum (Sweden)
  • Developer hero: Martina Elm (Sweden)
  • Founder of the year: Kristo Ovaska, Smartly.io (Finland)
  • Startup journalist: Neil Murray, The Nordic Web (Denmark)
  • Social entrepreneurship startup: Be My Eyes (Denmark)
  • Best bootstrapped: DirtyBit (Norway)
  • Newcomer: Unacast (Norwat)
  • Best startup: Falcon Social (Denmark)
  • People's choice: Unipegma (Denmark)

While the best newcomer award went to Norway's Unacast social media platform, the best startup gong went to Falcon Social, a Danish social media management tool for business.

Falcon listens to – and compiles – output from five million sources, and converts the resulting data into actionable intelligence for marketers to use, both easily and at scale.

The company counts 50 developers among its 200 staff and boasts a roster of professional users, such as drinks giant Carlsberg.

According to Falcon's head of product marketing, May Laursen, the company is just one example of great design and UX that marks the second wave in Nordic technology innovation.

“The first wave of software was more about solving a problem, but now we're focused on being user-friendly to a much greater degree,” she said. “In Scandinavia, especially, design and quality is a big thing, and that was obvious at the 2015 Nordic Startup Awards.”

The NSAs

This year's awards event was the biggest yet in terms of participation across all five countries in the Nordic region, as well in as in sponsorship, the number of votes cast and social media buzz.

Originally inspired by the Startup Weekend event, the NSAs began in 2010 to recognise the thriving, growing, momentous Nordic startup scene just as world beaters such as Spotify, Rovio, Soundcloud and Issuu were coming up.

Although Nordic companies have played on a world stage for some time, NSA co-founder and CEO Kim Balle said the awards were designed “to celebrate and give recognition” – something the region struggles to do.

“It really means a lot to the people who win, and can be a great inspiration to others,” said Balle. “Besides creating cross-regional connections, it also makes the Nordic ecosystem visible to the outside world.”

The years to come will probably bring bigger and bolder Nordic Startup Awards, along with more global kudos for the region's startups.

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