Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner at Northzone, and an early backer of Spotify and Bloglovin, welcomed guests to Scandinavia House in New York on a steamy Tuesday evening, August 25th to a Nordic Showcase of start-ups selected by the best accelerators and incubators in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. His remarks said it best; the reason that the Nordics are kicking such serious ass in the EU, and global, start-up market is due to one word: socialism. Yes, the cohesion created by the Scandinavian model of state-sponsored education, healthcare, and – in the case of Sweden in the mid-’90s – home computing has yielded entrepreneurs better educated, better prepared, and creatively forged in markets where innovation is as much a natural characteristic as it is a personal trait. The driver for the success of large companies – from Ericsson to Kone to Lego – is also the driver for Nordic entrepreneurs.
I coined the term “Finntrepreneur” in 2011, in the wake of Nokia’s implosion. It was initially used to market ex-Nokian entrepreneurs who had taken the plunge in the start-up world. Now, four years on, the Finntrepeneur is everywhere. She, or he, are creating seminal new technologies and digital media services at a frantic pace. It is no longer cool to work for a big company in the Nordic region: start-ups are the new vitality.
And, unlike the U.S., the Nordic start-up scene is infinitely more diverse. It was not a surprise, then, to see that 6 out of the 10 presenters at the Nordic Showcase, produced by Helsinki-based Slush, were women. Women from Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. In an era where female start-up founders are still marginalized in the U.S., the Nordic Showcase proved again the power of Nordic progressivism in action. The two Slush event producers, Eva Fogdell and Ghita Wallin, are not only Finntrepreneurs, but students. Yes, Slush – the dynamic, ever-growing conference that is the largest venture confab in the world – is completely run by students from the Aalto Center for Entrepreneurship. If a group of U.S. students attempted the same feat, it would flop around like a perch on a dry dock in blazing summer heat (sorry, just speaking the truth).
For the record, the Nordic Showcase held this week may have made history, as the start-up incubators/acclerators and premier growth ventures from all 5 Nordic countries were represented. Erik Engellau-Nilsson, VP of Swedish e-commerce powerhouse Klarna, also spoke, but more as a quasi-mentor, displaying the kind of sangfroid that investors so relish: I’m here now in New York, and we have grown well, even after past mistakes. How refreshing, in this age of rocket-phase “unicorn” ambitions, to hear start-up founders and execs discuss operations and geographic expansion in mature tones.
One of the more illuminating opportunities of the evening was the chance to see Icelandic entrepreneurs present. Breakroom’s Didrik Steinsson and Tagplay’s Sesselja Vilhjalmsdottir displayed new paradigms for, respectively, workplace privacy and automatic web updates. Swedes in the house included Per Emanuelsson, CEO of Soundtrap, a mobile music education and production platform, and Sofie Lundstrom, CEO of Toborrow, a unique lending platform for small businesses. The Danish side included Thomas Helms, CEO/founder of Vaavud, a smartphone wind meter, and Gulnaz Khusainova, CEO/founder of EasySize, a personal fashion e-commerce platform. The Norwegian contingent included Jeanette Dyrhe Kvisvik, CEO/co-founder of Villoid, an app that enables users to follow fashion trends and buy the latest fashions, and Ivar Sagemo, CEO/founder of AIMS Innovation, an IT performance analytics platform for large enterprises. The Finns were well-represented in the persons of Jenny Wolfram, CEO/founder of FaceForce, a brand reputation and ad performance tool, and Katariina Rantanen, CEO/founder of Cosmethics, an iOS app that scans bar codes and cross-references ingredients with a database that enables users to make smarter product and health decisions.
The historic nature of the Nordic Showcase will be borne out in the coming months and years: more young entrepreneurs will hear of the various U.S. successes of these start-ups and accelerate their moves into the massive American market. And, yes, Slush 2015 (November 11-12 in Helsinki) will be an even more immediate barometer of how fast the Nordic venture ecosystem is growing.
In the region where the sun shines least, cohesive innovation seems to burn brightest.