Creating a community for Nordic startups

Innovation House leverages Silicon Valley's tech community, expertise to offer business guidance

Nordic Innovation House started out as a Norwegian initiative in October 2011, with an office in San Francisco to help startups develop and scale their ideas. But after realizing that its growing list of tenants needed to be closer to Silicon Valley, the Innovation House opened a post in downtown Palo Alto. Since last September, that post at 470 Ramona St. has been a co-working space, incubator, resource center and networking hub not only for Norwegian startups but also up-and-coming entrepreneurs in and from Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland.

"This is a collaboration between all the Nordic countries," said Yvonne Ericsson, Nordic Innovation House's community manager. "To have a hub where we can work together, where all the Nordic startups can meet, everyone will benefit from that."

The Innovation House is co-funded by Nordic Innovation, a Nordic institution working to promote cross-border trade and innovation, and a coalition between Nordic countries' government agencies, including Innovation Norway, VINNOVA-Sweden, Innovation Center Iceland, Innovation Center Denmark and Team Finland/Finpro.

Prior to last September, the Innovation House had 53 companies under its belt — a majority from Norway — but since then the organization has opened its doors to 33 new companies, including startups and the biggest Nordic venture-capitalist firms, Ericsson said.

"We say that we are a collaboration, but we are a resourcing center, we are a networking hub, we are a soft-landing space," she said. "So, we are kind of taking care of all the Nordic people."

By expanding its offerings to all Nordic countries, the Innovation House is strengthening the Nordic community of startups and network of connections, said Gro Eirin Dyrnes, director of Innovation Norway in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

"We are like brothers and sisters when we come together here, and we feel very close," Ericsson said. "People are very helpful whether it's sharing strategies, business cards, connections. People are really helping each other, and that's because they come here and it's home away from home. We have the feeling that this is a Nordic environment."

The house provides 32 workspaces for entrepreneurs, as well as facilities, including a conference room, a board meeting room, kitchen and lounge area — complete with IKEA furniture — in a light-filled, two-story space featuring crisp white walls and high ceilings.

Companies can rent a desk ($1,000 a month) at Nordic Innovation House or sign up for a virtual office ($1,200 annually). The virtual office is for companies interested in the U.S. market but not ready to commit resources to a physical presence, Ericsson said.

Its list of tenants is a long one, including Elliptic Labs, which specializes in ultrasonic gesturing technology; Kahoot!, a game-based education system for schools, universities and businesses; ThingLink, a platform for creating interactive images and videos for web, social, advertising and education channels; and Apon, an app development company.

One of the house's success stories is Fuse, a team of technologists with more than 10 years of experience with mobile apps and graphics technology. Fuse has been working with Nordic Innovation House for four months, but "Their connections proved valuable from day one," Fuse CEO Anders Lassen said.

"When we were ready to take the step out of stealth development in Norway and establish a U.S. presence, the Nordic Innovation House was a natural choice for us. The location is ideal, and we get a lot of help and useful introductions from the crew that runs this place. Here we are close to both other Nordic startups and the Bay Area tech scene in general."

The company has offices in Palo Alto and Oslo, Norway, with about 20 employees and, through Nordic Innovation House, has hired its first U.S. employee, an Adobe and Samsung veteran who now serves as Fuse's U.S. general manager.

"With an office and infrastructure all set up from the day we arrived, we could hit the ground running," Lassen said.

To help its companies succeed, Nordic Innovation House offers a range of programs, including Tech INCubator, a four-week technology incubator program offered to startups with potential for international growth; the Norwegian Entrepreneurship Program, which offers graduate students firsthand experience in entrepreneurship through classes at UC Berkeley; the Business Bootcamp, a two-day program designed to provide Norwegian entrepreneurs with important business skills and insight for taking a business global; and SCALEit Ignite Bootcamp, a one-week program for Danish startups.

"These programs have worked out quite well for us," Lassen said. "It really helps level the playing field for Nordic startups when competing on an international stage. "

Another success story is ThingLink, which allows users to annotate images and video with rich-media links. ThingLink founder Ulla Engestrom started building an early prototype of ThingLink in the garage of her Guinda Street home in Palo Alto in 2008.

After raising seed funding and putting together a tech team in Europe, Engestrom moved back to Palo Alto last spring.

"We learned about NIH at the point of time when we were looking for an office space in downtown Palo Alto," she said. "NIH has been very welcoming and cooperative in finding us a flexible arrangement where we could start small and grow as we hire more people."

In the past two years, tens of thousands of brands and publishers have signed up to ThingLink to drive engagement with interactive images and video, she said. Today, the ThingLink community has 1.5 million content creators and serves 85 million interactive images.

"Through the NIH network we have met with established Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that can help the company move forward with their connections and experience," she said.

The Innovation House also tracks its companies to see how they progress and to identify practices others should follow, Ericsson said.

"Like now, we are saying ... keep the development in Sweden or in the Nordic region because we have really good people up there, but bring sales and marketing to the U.S. to start with. Don't move over the whole company. You should be present in both parts," she said.

Although the Innovation House has 86 tenants, Dyrnes said they haven't set a cap on how many companies they'll take in.

"We're focused on having a good community," she said. "As long as we have the right companies, we have said 'yes.'"

"We would rather expand than say 'no' to a good company because it's our mandate to see Nordic companies grow," Drynes said.

Added Ericsson: "This is a journey for ourselves also. We are reaching out and working closely with Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland to build a strong brand and a vibrant Nordic community."

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1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 1, 2015 at 10:48 am

Strange! Sounds like they are using Palo Alto to better themselves for their own country. Sounds quite exclusive. It's the case of businesses wanting that "Palo Alto Address" and feeling that in order to succeed they need to be here. What happened to the concept of bringing together different business cultures adding to the diversity that Palo Alto seems to want so bad? The city councils adoption of the word vibrant is creating all sorts of oddities and this is truly one of them.

8 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 1, 2015 at 11:03 am

It is completely usual, in that Indian engineers here, and Asians in high tech, also have very tight networking and professional support organizations. I welcome Nordic Innovation House!!

6 people like this
Posted by Great
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2015 at 10:10 pm

I agree, welcome!

What is there not to like about the virtual offices which don't require building out physical space?

Their return on Palo Alto square feet must be higher than the companies which are trying to build mega campuses here.

Their model seems ideal and great fit for Palo Alto.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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