Energised Norway Sparks Tech Startups

Norwegian oil gave the country a platform that technology innovators hope to build on

If you have an idea for a startup, it’s easy to get funding in Norway; the country is awash with cash from people who’ve made a fortune and want to share their good fortune with others. Provided, that is, you want to start a business in the oil and gas industry.

The discovery of oil in 1969 gave this country of 4.7 million people enough resources to last 100 years. Up until that moment, it was one of poorest nations in Europe, its main industry being fish farming. So the discovery of oil was a bit like winning the lottery, with Norway being the sort of winner that vows not to let its good fortune ruin its life. It has planned for sustainability in everything, industry, society and the environment.

Norway’s Oil Legacy Fund contains $363bn and a visit to The Norwegian Petroleum Museum reveals almost a national sense of guilt at its good fortune. There is much emphasis in government literature on the importance of neutralising the carbon footprint of all the oil it is giving the world to burn.

Tech startups find it a little harder to attract investment funding, according to Innovation Norway, a government body set up to promote the country’s inventors abroad. Neither did Norway rank highly in an industrial innovation review conducted by the EU. Despite enjoying great intellectual capital and research, good human resources and 'relatively' good access to help for entrepreneurs, there was a reported decline in investment on innovation, said the report. It concluded that Norway was low on funds for invention, leading to fewer new patents, products or services than any of its neighbours; Sweden, for example, has three times more new patents filed. Though the richest nation in Europe by income per head, Norway's investment in IT innovation ranked alongside Malta, Portugal and Slovakia.

A few mobile startups have emerged, however. Elliptic Labs, for example, has invented a gesturing system for tablet computers, which uses ultrasound to interpret the user’s gestures, rather than light. It might sound batty but this form of ‘sight’ has greater accuracy and works in the dark.

Virtual-reality system startup Making View offers 360-degree video filming services that can make you feel like you’re actually on the location – if you’re wearing virtual reality goggles. Another mobile start up, Bipper, has created a safety app, bSafe, which can dispatch messages if you need help, record footage and give people your location. 

However, mobile startups, like mobile apps, are notoriously difficult to turn into money.

Thinfilm Electronics exemplifies a safer method of developing an idea. It started as a six-year collaboration with Intel to compete with NAND Flash. It has now created Thinfilm Memory, which uses a ferroelectric film sandwiched between two electrodes to create a non-volatile memory cell. By using voltage variations it marks out each cell (by switching dielectric dipoles on or off) to create a non-volatile source of memory.

The upshot is that it has created a means of connecting everyday items with intelligence for little expense so stick-on labels have built-in intelligence and sensor tags can be created.

Analyst Gartner says connecting ‘things’ (like boxes of goods in a supply chain) is going to be big business and predicts there will be 200 billion connections by 2020. Packaging maker Bemis uses Thinfilm smart labels on the billions of materials it produces every year so growers, distributors and retailers of foods can analyse how foods have been stored and maintained during shipping, which will result in better management of food, less waste and fresher produce.

It can also thwart counterfeiting, which has increased by 10,000% in the last 20 years, according to the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, which estimates that economies lose $600bn to criminals every year.

Theft prevention is another area that needs innovation. Hospitals lose huge amounts of valuable equipment every year, according to analysis of a series of the UK’s National Health Service Trusts’ annual accounts. In 2010-2011, a typical hospital trust wrote off £220,000 ($336,000) in stolen medical equipment in a year.

Norwegian startup Sonitor could combat this. It has invented a way to use high-definition ultrasound to tag everything from people to equipment, so that workflow improves and patients are dealt with more efficiently because equipment is located quicker. Much of the equipment in a hospital is moveable, so staff often spend ages tracing it – and it’s often missing altogether.

Security is at the heart of Norway’s newest datacentre, Green Mountain, near Stavanger. It’s run on hydropower from three different dams in this mountainous region, cooled by sea water and its premises are housed in a converted mountain. Surrounded by sea and encased in at least 60 metres of rock, this converted NATO shelter is arguably one of the world’s most secure datacentres. Another legacy of the oil industry is that it has good links to the fibre optic networks built to ferry data from the nearby oil rigs, so it’s only six milliseconds away from Britain and Europe.

Bandwidth is the fossil fuel of networking – there’s only a limited amount of it and mobile users may run out, warns Norwegian engineer and inventor Torleiv Maseng, who created the original spec for GSM cellular communications.

“Fibre will bring huge capacity but there will be a massive mismatch with radio,” says Maseng, who is pioneering the use of unused areas – dubbed ‘white space’ - of the TV broadcast spectrum for data networking.

If freed up for data broadcasts this white space could bring fast connections to huge areas of the world which haven’t enjoyed broadband yet. There are millions of households in rural areas around the world (six million in the UK alone) that could finally be connected via white space. Discovering white space could be as valuable as striking oil. But first we have to find a way to get through a very hard barrier – broadcasters don’t want to give it up.

“Today the broadcasters rule,” says Torleiv.


Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology.