Bergen’s tech startup ecosystem is looking to simultaneously harness and break away from its cultural instincts to convert local innovation and entrepreneurship into more tangible global success stories.
In both Norway and Sweden, there is a concept and unwritten law called Janteloven, translated as “The Law of Jante”. It accurately explains much of the world’s perceptions of the region as a socially driven, kind, humble population – direct attributes that can certainly help startups get off the ground as part of a collaborative and supportive ecosystem.
However, it’s also potentially a drawback in smaller up-and-coming startup environments such as Bergen, as innovators’ reluctance to “stand out” inhibits many companies’ scaling phases.
One company to break this mould is Motitech, a startup that has already expanded outside of the Nordics through its innovative combination of immersive video technology and specially adapted exercise bikes. With a host of additional international ventures on its doorstep, the organisation’s chief business officer, Stian Lavik, explains why the company is something of a Bergen anomaly in setting its sights so broadly from such an early stage – it was established in 2013.
“We don’t have ‘The American Dream’ in Norway,” he said. “We don’t wake up each morning and think ‘how can we be successful?’
“Rather than opting to stand out and shout about our achievements or ideas, the culture here is more about being sociable, looking after each other and building relationships,” said Lavik. “From a startup perspective, this has a lot of advantages, as support is so vital in those early stages, but it can also present challenges when these businesses look to scale, or expand internationally.
“For a small city like Bergen, this is especially important as, while we don’t want to lose our identity, startups have to think more globally and extravagantly if they’re to be successful.”
This realisation has hit home in recent years, with an ecosystem transition seemingly underway.
Especially through the local university, the focus has shifted towards scaling, rather than starting up, with a host of training courses, programmes and incubators on hand to guide the abundance of ideas in the city, towards tangible evolution.
“There are so many small businesses in Norway, and the majority work in more traditional industries such as construction or oil and gas,” said Lavik. “This demographic naturally aligns to the traditional Norwegian way explained earlier.
“However, there is no lack of innovation or digital savviness in this country either, and that’s why it’s so important that these founders are being mentored to think outside of this cultural instinct.”
Essentially, Bergen’s startup fraternity is now being urged to retain the best of Norwegian personability, while sacrificing just a bit of that insular, humble intuition to reach wider audiences.
An intent to scale
Support and education is so vital for a city so early in its startup evolution; a role that StartupLab has taken on since its arrival in the city a year ago.
Based in Oslo, the startup facilitator started in 2012 and has grown to become the country’s largest incubator. Working alongside around 100 companies each year to elevate the reach and traction of software and hardware innovators, Bergen StartupLab is now looking to repeat that success in the “capital of the West”.
Erlend Waaler heads the Bergen facility, and explains how StartupLab is rewarding a passion and intention to “scale”, not just “start”.
“The companies we work with aren’t individuals looking to be put in teams,” he said. “They’re already established for the most part and have done their market research. We target companies who are beyond the very early stages but need guidance and support to reach the next level.
“These companies are often brilliant at building concepts and products, but we help them understand the difficulties of actually penetrating the market, and how to evolve their businesses as well as their products.”
StartupLab also invests in around 10% of the companies that walk through their doors, but for the majority they’re a launching pad towards the outside world. Banks, global tech entities such as ABB, municipalities, high profile investors – the supporting cast required to propel great ideas into the global marketplace.
One such great idea comes virtue of 7Analytics, a business founded in 2018, that is going through the StartupLab accelerator programme this year.
The startup’s premise encapsulates the best of traditional Bergen, and how the city needs to evolve moving forward. It’s a merge of technological innovation, industrial tradition, networking prowess and global ambition.
Helge Jørgensen, co-founder at 7Analytics, said: “The company is built on the combined power of oil and gas, city planning and computer science. Our key product is the FlomKube (FloodCube) which has evolved from years of stormwater management, combined with our knowledge from oil and gas fluid modelling. It utilises AI and machine learning to create a much more efficient solution with higher accuracy.”
Digitising industrial heartlands is a perfect representation of Bergen’s startup transition in the tech space, compounded by the globally relevant subject matter.
“During the first half of 2020 we have received considerable grants from Innovation Norway, secured investors, and been included in StartupLab’s highly successful accelerator programme,” said Jørgensen. “Bergen is the only municipality in Norway to have a single plan for water management.
“Its industrial tradition, combined with an increased focus on helping startups grow, makes it the perfect place for us to start as a local tech business with international ambition.”
A proud city
Bergen’s evolving status in the tech startup sphere is only likely to grow from this point, with its peripheral infrastructure – incubators, investors, events – plugging gaps in the overall ecosystem. Simultaneously, these developments are triggering a gradual mindset change among those who wish to leverage the ecosystem.
“Just because there isn’t the American Dream here doesn’t mean the population isn’t entrepreneurial,” said Lavik. “Far from it. The social network here is fantastic, and so are the ideas. The one thing lacking was that urgency to turn good ideas into global success stories.”
Waaler said: “Bergen is a very proud city. Even with tech, the population is very digitally minded, and we’re renowned in sub-sectors such as media-tech. However, traditionally, innovation has been targeted towards areas such as oil and gas or fishing.
“With SaaS companies, the journey is still early, but the cash, the ideas and the intent exist. We’re seeing the overall startup ecosystem evolve on the right trajectory to capitalise on those factors.”