Nordic Countries Unite to Take on Silicon Valley

Paula Salomaa is the Community Manager of the Nordic Innovation House in Palo Alto, California.

Today, the Nordic brand is coveted in the United States. Nordic Innovation House provides Finnish companies with Scandinavian support.

The West Coast of the United States is not a bad choice for technology startups dreaming of world conquest, as Silicon Valley is a hub of investors, cutting-edge research, technological expertise and networking. Competition is tough, however, and without existing networks, a small and unknown Finnish company would soon become disheartened.

“Nordics are the blondes who speak with the same accent and insist on getting their hands dirty.”

A couple of years ago, the Nordic countries came to the realization that small nations must pool their strengths and assets if they are to succeed in America. The result was the cooperative project Nordic Innovation House (NIH), which brings together startups in Silicon Valley under the umbrella of the Nordic brand, offering them a soft landing in a new operating environment.

“We used to have Team Finland – that is, Finpro and Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation – representing Finland here alone. Today, cooperation with other Nordic innovation centres and a common Nordic brand help us gain visibility and find valuable contacts,” says Paula Salomaa, Finnish Community Manager at NIH.

Since summer 2014, when the originally Norwegian innovation house was turned into a pan-Nordic project, Nordic Innovation House has taken under its wing nearly 150 small or medium-size enterprises, as well as a dozen investors from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

One of the nearly 30 Finnish companies at NIH is OptoFidelity, a Tampere-based company specializing in the testing of smart devices. The company made the leap from Tampere to Silicon Valley a year ago, and is set to increase the number of its US employees from three to five by the end of the year.

“Nordic Innovation House was an important platform for getting started in the States. It was so much easier to join an existing community, rather than rent premises and figure out everything on our own,” says Pertti Aimonen, CEO of OptoFidelity.

Toimitusjohtaja Pertti Aimonen johdatti OptoFidelity-yrityksen Piilaaksoon pohjoismaisen yhteistyön avulla.
Toimitusjohtaja Pertti Aimonen johdatti OptoFidelity-yrityksen Piilaaksoon pohjoismaisen yhteistyön avulla.


Valuable community support

Nordic Innovation House provided OptoFidelity with an existing community, guidance, meeting facilities and an address in Palo Alto. A physical base in the US is a crucial signal of credibility, apart from making it easier to set up meetings. Along with the location, the most important asset to OptoFidelity was the presence of other Nordics in the community.

“The other Scandinavians give you lots of ideas, as well as leads for finding the best partners. References are important in the States, whether you are choosing lawyers, recruitment agencies or people to handle visa matters. Without references you are lost,” says Aimonen.

It is the community that keeps OptoFidelity a member of Nordic Innovation House, although the company already has a foot in the door in Silicon Valley. According to Aimonen, Nordics are on the same wavelength because of their similar cultural backgrounds.

“There is a general atmosphere of mutual assistance in Silicon Valley. The philosophy is not ‘kill and take’ but rather ‘give and take’ – give, take, network. We are now in a position to be able to help newcomers ourselves.”

Industrious blondes from five countries

According to Paula Salomaa, Nordic Innovation House is a brilliant example of the similarity of Nordic countries. Nordic societies are staunch supporters of development and education, and their business environments are very safe. As well, their risk-taking capability is fairly small, the companies are usually quite old and a lot of improvements can be made in their marketing.

“The other Scandinavians give you lots of ideas, as well as leads for finding the best partners.”

Finland is still in its post-Nokia period, and in Norway falling oil prices are forcing the country to search for new avenues of development. The Nordic countries share similar backgrounds, strengths and challenges, and according to Salomaa, a common brand is a good way to exploit such synergies.

“From the Silicon Valley perspective, all Nordics are more or less the same. They are blondes who speak with the same accent, and instead of sitting around a table, they insist on getting their hands dirty. All Nordic countries are recognized as major players in gaming, clean tech, security and the industrial internet. There’s no point in building our individual brands here,” says Salomaa.

Although Nordics have a good reputation in Silicon Valley, OptoFidelity’s Aimonen stresses the importance of patience and perseverance.

“You need to have presence in Silicon Valley for some time before you can get sales working. You mustn’t give up if the first or even second sales meeting yields no results. Export promotion is a sustained endeavour, and Nordic Innovation House offers assistance that used to be difficult to find.”

Text: Laura Manas

The 2016 winner of the Millennium Technology Prize, biochemical engineer Frances Arnold, works at Caltech, the prestigious California Institute of Technology, which is an important part of the solid reputation of high technology in California.

Read also the related  interview with Anne Berner, Finnish Minister for Nordic Cooperation.

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