Business development · 19 June 2017

Norway’s Startup Extreme highlights the best of an ecosystem coming into maturity

Startup Extreme 2017 - Day One - Bergen
Day one of Startup Extreme 2017 in Bergen

It’s a small Nordic country with a population of just five million, but Startup Extreme showed what Norway has managed to achieve with limited resources.

Putting Norway’s fledgling startup ecosystem firmly on the map was the aim of Startup Extreme 2017, an annual three-day event that’s fast becoming an essential diary fixture for the growing population of startup founders who call the Nordic country home.

Dipping its toe in the waters of another of Europe’s promising startup scenes, Business Advice spread its wings and travelled to Norway to meet the crème de la crème of the country’s entrepreneurial talent, at Startup Extreme. We wanted to find out what the UK could learn.

Held on 13 June in Bergen, the country’s second city and officially the rainiest in Europe, the Startup Extreme conference brought together hundreds of Norway’s founders, investors, corporates and other key startup community players, giving them an arena to share thoughts, exchange ideas, and learn from one another.

Now in its third year, Startup Extreme has become a landmark event. The conference is viewed by its organisers as a major opportunity for Norway’s startup ecosystem to connect with the rest of the world. With the Norwegian love of nature and outdoor activity well-known internationally, extreme sports proved the perfect theme for a conference teaming with delegates that were keen on honing the art of taking calculated risks.

Startup Extreme 2017 - Day One - Bergen

The day kicked off in typical “extreme” Norwegian fashion with a death-defying display of tricks and flips from four top BMX riders, who also happened to be startup founders, before some key figureheads in Norway’s startup scene set the tone for the conference with their opening remarks.

Attendees heard from Maja Adriansen, founder and CEO at Startup Norway, the umbrella organisation behind many initiatives for entrepreneurs in the country, including Startup Extreme and Angel Challenge, Norway’s first training programme for angel investors.

She said: “Five years ago, Norway was virtually invisible on the global startup map. We lacked exposure – nobody knew we were here. But, in 2017 we are stronger than ever, with many more entrepreneurs launching successful companies in many sectors.”

Knut Wien, an Angel Challenge founding partner, explained to delegates how kick-starting the investment scene in Norway had proved crucial to the evolution of the environment for startups in the last few years.

“We’ve seen things progress In Norway from a startup ‘community’ to what you could call an ecosystem, with all the stakeholders, including investors and corporates, now working towards the same goal,” he said.

After a keynote speech from renowned polar explorer Børge Ousland, a celebrated son of Norway whose list of achievements includes numerous expeditions to both North and South poles and solo coast-to-coast crossings of the Arctic and Antarctic, delegates were themselves free to explore and participate in scores of panel sessions, talks and pitching events throughout the day.

Startup Extreme 2017 - Day One - Bergen

During one session, which saw a diverse mix of startup founders from across Norway given four-minute quick fire rounds to pitch their business to a room full of investors, Business Advice discovered more about the startup ecosystem with some leading voices from Innovation Norway, the country’s state-owned enterprise development bank and supporters of Startup Extreme.

Pål T. Næss, the director of entrepreneurs and startups at Innovation Norway, explained how a huge drop in the global price of oil – the commodity Norway has traditionally pinned most of its economic hopes on – since around 2012, has propelled the country’s startup ecosystem forward.

“Business is asking where Norway will get its revenue from in 20 to 30 years,” Næss told Business Advice. “The oil price went from around $100 to $40 a barrel in the space of a few years, which triggered the government to look more towards innovation and entrepreneurship.”

There are parallels to be drawn between the drive for innovation in the UK and that in Norway, but whereas the oil price crash may have woken Norwegians up to the idea that diversity in the economy was vital for long-term stability, in the UK the 2008 financial crisis didn’t prove as much of a catalyst, for neither politicians or businesses.

Government-backed organisations like Innovate UK and Nesta have played a growing role in putting entrepreneurship on the UK’s business agenda, but the economy still relies heavily on the finance sector, with banking and insurance contributing £142.2bn to the UK exchequer last year.

For small UK businesses, there remains an over-reliance on lending from traditional banks, that could spell trouble for the economy once Brexit negotiations begin in earnest and the likelihood of larger financial corporates looking to move away to set up in a less uncertain environment increases.

 Image copyright Dan Taylor

Regardless of Brexit, high street banks face further consolidation. A recent government review estimated that UK firms would see a funding shortfall of between £84bn and £191bn in the next three years.

Small business owners desperately need to find new, reliable sources of funding to meet their potential to grow and employ staff. UK decision makers could learn from Norway’s new emphasis on the need for serial entrepreneurship, private equity and venture capital.

Jeanett Sandmo, Innovation Norway’s head of strategy for entrepreneurs and startups, added: “There’s also been a cultural shift [in Norway]. When I began working with angel investors in 2013, all of them wanted to remain anonymous, as silent partners. Now, entrepreneurship and innovation on Norway is ‘sexier’, and the investors are all at Startup Extreme.”

Back to the Startup Extreme programme and Business Advice sat in on the conference’s Angel Challenge final, which saw six disruptive Norwegian startups battle it out for a chance to win investment worth around £100,000 with rapid, five-minute pitches to a panel of angel investors.

LifeKeys, a mindfulness app that’s making psychology more accessible for thousands of people across the Nordics, won the challenge, delivering a slick presentation to beat founders from companies as diverse as a growing Norwegian seaweed-as-a-snack manufacturer, to a tech startup that’s using cutting edge temperature technology to safeguard turtle breeding initiatives around the world.

As the Startup Extreme conference drew to a close, the team behind Norway’s largest co-working space for creative startups, 657 Oslo, took to the stage to give delegates a glimpse of what the future might hold for Norway’s startup ecosystem.

With centres for innovation and startup hubs continuing to crop up and mature in various parts of the country, digital leader and partner at 657 Oslo, Sigri Sevaldsen, told attendees how, with increasing collaboration between cities and cross-innovation between startups in various sectors, the only way was up for Norway’s startup ecosystem, but that it was now the time for the investor scene to really gather pace.

Sevaldsen explained: “The innovation scene in Norway is maturing but it has not yet been fully developed. Angel and seed funding is becoming more and more available, but we’re struggling still with venture capital. To the venture capitalists in the room: We need you!”

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London. He previously worked as a reporter at Global Trade Review magazine.

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