By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
So…why? At first blush, the two cities seem like total opposites. They’re 5,000 miles apart. Oslo gets very cold; Austin very hot. Oslo is an ancient city, founded in the 11th century; Austin, by comparison, is an infant. Oslo is Nordic: Northern lights, Vikings, lots of fish. Austin is Texas: Western vistas, cowboys, barbecue. But…both cities come from economies that have relied on oil and gas for their prosperity. Both are centers of culture and innovation—vibrant startup scenes. Both are live music capitals. Both have great universities where they’re working on med tech, as well as incubators and accelerators for ed tech, clean tech and space tech. Both believe in a form of cultural democracy—Oslo’s is institutionalized whereas Austin’s is implied. Both have an East Side that’s in the midst of a redo.
And much like SXSW, Oslo Innovation Week is an opportunity for Norway to showcase its technology to the world.
At Cutting Edge 2015, an event at Oslo Science Park at the University of Oslo, companies demonstrated everything from robots that perform construction jobs like drilling holes in concrete ceilings to a hybrid rocket engine to software for virtual reality games. One booth showed a product similar to Spot on Science’s HemaSpot—part of its offerings as a chemical analysis contract lab.Another booth had a solar kitchen that can be taken on camping trips and barbecues, but One Earth Designs’ Chief Marketing Officer Even Haug Larsen said that’s only the beginning. The solar concentrator is seven times more efficient than PV panels. The material the solar collector is made of is seven layers thick, lightweight and has withstood years of testing in desert sandstorms as well as cold Nordic winters. But eighty percent of the company’s sales actually are in the U.S.; Texas is one of its top four states. The Norwegian founders met Wellesley and Harvard graduate Caitlin Powers of Boston when visiting the city a few years ago and they decided their technologies would work best together.
For Norwegians, building companies with American partners has the obvious advantage of accessing a huge market. But they’re not the only ones that benefit. The World Economic Forum ranks Norway’s higher education and technological readiness six out of a possible seven. Its innovation, though possibly held back by a more conservative European culture, is still at five out of seven—though the U.S. only ranks about five and a half out of seven. The country is rich with engineers, a leader in healthcare and social and gender equality. And they’re early adopters.
“We identified a lot of places with shared interests like music, art, film, technology,” said Hege Tollerud, communications executive for the Oslo Business District. “They’re both compact cities. They’re small, not just geographically but hierarchically. If you Tweet a VC you can meet them an hour later for coffee. They’re both fast growing. Oslo is the fastest growing capital city in Europe.”
And while Austin’s getting a lot of attention, Tollerud said maybe Oslo has the freedom it has because “No one’s paying attention. There aren’t expectations. We have the freedom to create without anybody looking.”
To some degree, they’ve never sought an audience. Norwegian culture is all about being understated and humble. Tooting your horn is looked down upon and it’s far preferable to give credit to everyone else in your organization. Everyone, including the Crown Prince and the successful CEO of a major company are approachable by everyone. Sometimes, Norwegians say, they go too far with the humility. It hinders their ability to promote their companies.
By contrast, Austin may be too used to getting attention said Fred Schmidt, head of international for Capital Factory. He’s promoting international startup collaboration not just for Capital Factory but for educational institutions, other incubators, the whole city.
“After seven years of winning the number one best of everything awards we’re getting very complacent and full of ourselves and we’re not trying as hard,” Schmidt said. “We’re not showing up…. Austin is still thinking small: ‘Why should we travel around the world? We’re number one! Everyone’s coming to us!”
Though he credits Austin Mayor Steve Adler with having an international mindset, he said that other countries spend tens of thousands to bring delegations to create partnerships with Austin and Austin is rarely willing to spend $1,000.
“That just shows me Austin’s got some growing up to do when it comes to the international landscape and responding to those overtures at a more professional level,” Schmidt said. “We’re not looking like the serious aspiring city of the future that we want to be.”
Austin is, in many ways in the U.S. landscape, where some of our partners such as Dublin, Oslo, and Hackney are in Europe’s. They’re not the first cities people think of but they’re vibrant cities full of smart people and “there’s a lot going on.” Just as it’s easier to get attention for your idea in Austin than in Silicon Valley, it may be easier for U.S. companies to find entry into Europe through these less competitive portals.
“Norway has a stated and purposeful intent to become a world leader in certain categories…,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes the underdogs of different markets join forces and become the new competitive strength.”
Editor’s note: Lahey’s trip was sponsored by Oslo Business Region, which puts on Oslo Innovation Week and the Norwegian Consulate in Houston.