An outsider’s insider view of Iceland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Join me on an entrepreneurial journey from Reyjkavik to Iceland’s innovation decelerator in the Westfjords.

Bjørn Lapakko
Sep 30, 2019 · 10 min read

Startup Norway is supporting the Norwegian entrepreneurial ecosystem with events (Startup Extreme), investment and fundraising facilitation and education (Angel Challenge), and community via co-working (Startup Campus). To extend and grow our impact, we need to build excitement, communities, and interest not just in Norway but also internationally — in the hopes, this brings Norway’s startup ecosystem additional foreign investment, talent, and founders.

As a part of this mission, I spent the week in Iceland as a speaker, mentor, and general ecosystem explorer. Below is what I learned, who I met, and a few ideas about how Norway can collaborate with Iceland.

This was the second time I visited Iceland. The first was for Startup Iceland, an event dedicated to celebrating their ecosystem. During that trip, I was pretty inspired by this small country’s global ambitions and diverse range of founders specializing in CPGs, Gaming, HealthTech, and more. For these reasons, I needed to return.


Upon my return (Sept. 13), I was invited to speak at an event in Reykjavik and mentor in the Icelandic Westfjords.

I started my trip by sharing my story along with some advice for aspiring founders at Gulleggið. Gulleggið is a business plan competition run by Icelandic Startups for entrepreneurs to get their business ideas noticed. The winner of the competition wins Gulleggið’s trophy and 1.500.000 ISK. Maybe what is most impressive is that of the 2,483 companies to go through the program, 71% established businesses, and 76% of those are still operational.

During my talk at Gulleggið and again in the Westfjords during my mentoring session, I spoke about the importance of establishing core digital marketing KPIs, processes, and consistency while opening yourself up to serendipitous moments. If you think about a tracker on the hunt you’ll have a good idea what I emphasized — while on the trail you’re simultaneously keeping pace with your prey but your senses are alert to any sign the trail has gone cold or diverted another direction. If that isn´t clear…

My real-life example had to do with my previous employer — Funderbeam — where we had a solid growth strategy, process, and consistency in place but to capitalize on serendipity, I also had Google Alerts (and more) set for our brand name. This is because I always wanted to see who was talking about us. Ultimately, this led to a moment where I came across a peculiar Twitter post.

It caught my eye for a few reasons:

  1. Everything was written in Kanji except for our brand name
  2. There was a packed audience listening to a speaker
  3. That speaker was using images from slides we hadn´t distributed publically

Based on these few things, I was triggered to immediately follow up.

During this time at Funderbeam, we had a fairly loose open-door policy. It served to host delegations and platform users to meet us and understand our business in greater detail. But it also served as a way to test our pitch and various methods of communicating with investors and founders. At the time, it was debated whether this was worth our time — maybe we should charge a fee, maybe we should make them register on our platform, or maybe we should not do it all together. Ultimately, we decided to continue these activities, which happily led to the following events…

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In short, my talk and the following mentoring session in the Westfjords were essentially about how magic moments can happen but you usually need discipline, process, work-ethic, and consistency behind the scenes in order to identify the opportunity and harness its power.

“I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” — Thomas Jefferson


Shortly after this event, I met with Gummi Hafsteinsson, founder, investor, and former VP of Product for Siri — Gummi has had a long-standing career in Silicon Valley but has recently returned home. It was my pleasure to have some coffee and discuss how the Nordic ecosystems can continue to build greater collaboration amongst each other. It’s my hope that we’ll get him to share more of his insight and knowledge at Startup Extreme as well as the other great ecosystem events like SLUSH, TechBBQ (2019 speaker), Startup Iceland, TechChill, TNW, etc.

It was this conversation which brought up a few ideas I´ve unsuccessfully pitched to other event creators which will hopefully gain traction. Essentially, the crux of one of these ideas focuses on packaging keynote slots in order to entice more international speakers to be interested in contributing to the growth of our regional ecosystem. For example, TechBBQ, Startup Iceland, and Startup Extreme would offer one high-level speaker three keynote slots, at three different times throughout the year, and in three growing ecosystems.

If event creators or ecosystem leaders are reading this, we at Startup Norway want to collaborate with you so please reach out to me directly.


The following day, I journeyed from Reykjavik to a small town in the Westfjords — Þingeyri for Startup Westfjords. Continually inhabited since 1787, Þingeyri is one of the oldest settlements in the Westfjords and inhabits about 260 people. In this small town, something special is being organized by the Blue Bank — a startup deceleration program.

Their program is designed for startups, individuals with ideas, organizations, companies, or anyone working on an innovative project to spend a few weeks in the Wesfjords of Iceland in a high-tech — low-stress environment.

It’s a chance to disconnect from your ordinary life and give your project the time and focus it deserves.

Myself (Startup Norway) and Karl Guðmundsson (Promote Iceland) discussing collaboration between the Icelandic and Norwegian ecosystems on The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service — Ríkisútvarpið.

Thanks to the Blue Bank and their sponsors: The Westfjords Development Fund, KERECIS, ArcticFish, and KPMG — Þingeyri has become a hub for founders, digital nomads, and creatives. They don’t invest cash into projects but the hosts and local community commit their love, hospitality, and care to support the progress of people’s ventures. Because of their generosity and kindness, I will take a lifetime of memories back to Norway.

Particularly from the local entrepreneurs I met during the program. For me, having relatives who are farmers in Minnesota and Australia, I am really drawn to these small communities who are working to sustain their lifestyle and revitalize their communities. So often, these small towns have an aging population and a reducing job pool as opportunities move into larger cities. In Þingeyri’s case, this program serves in part as an opportunity for the local community to learn, collaborate, and be inspired by international entrepreneurs. While also building Þingeyri as a destination to bring your venture or as a location to bring your team and refocus or hone your venture’s direction.

The sights of the Westfjords and more info below

Our Hosts:

Arnar Sigurðsson — The Blue bank

Software developer and entrepreneur. Founder and former CTO of Karolina Fund. Now manager of The Blue bank.

Arnhildur Lilý Karlsdóttir — The Blue bank

Blue Bank manager and a yoga teacher. Holds an MA in literature. Former project manager U.N. University Gender Equality Studies.

Other Mentors:

Karl Guðmundsson — Promote Iceland

With 20 years of international experience in strategic leadership roles. Has participated in four start-ups in Europe and the US as well as working in large international corporations.

G. Fertram Sigurjónsson — Kerecis

Founder of Kerecis, the company using fish skin to treat human wounds. Forging an important connection between science, technology, and knowledge with economic growth. Winner of Icelandic Innovation Award 2018.

Rünno Allikivi — Funderbeam

Startup founder, CEO, and Investor with 10+ years of building and growing companies in Scandinavia and the United States. Now expanding the first global startup stock exchange to introduce tradable private investments in the Nordics.

Erik Andersen — Summit Summit & Tera Ventures

Erik is an entrepreneur turned VC. His work with Techstars in London parlayed into a director role with the leading early-stage tech startup accelerator in Central and Eastern Europe.

Based in California after 4 years in Europe, he is a key player in the bridge between the US and Europe. He is active with other programs such as Entrepreneurship-in-Residence Europe (EIR Europe).

Melkorka S. Magnúsdóttir— Icelandic Startups

Project Manager fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in Iceland by supporting startup growth within and out of Iceland through business accelerators and various projects at Icelandic Startups.

Edda Konráðsdóttir— Icelandic Startups

Experienced Project Manager fostering the vibrant innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Iceland by helping startups grow within and out of the region through business accelerators and various projects at Icelandic Startups.

Þórarinn Bjartur Breiðfjörð Gunnarsson — Fab Lab Ísafjörður

Specialist in prototyping and digital manufacturing. Manger of Fab Lab Ísafjörður, a fully equipped prototyping workshop with 3d printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, etc.

A few of the decelerator participants:

Kerecis

Kerecis develops fish-skin products to heal human wounds and tissue damage. Fish skin helps wounds and burns heal quickly because it is rich in Omega3. They have grown to the point that their product, Kerecis Omega3™ Wound, is available for patients of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and is listed on the Federal Supply Schedule, which provides surgical and diabetic solutions to the VA and Department of Defense (DoD).

ArcticFish

Arctic Fish is farming its first generation of Salmon in the pristine environment and conditions of the Westfjords.

The Seed

The Seed is a startup on a mission to radically improve the labor market integration of refugees and immigrants in Europe. They are building a digital tool that enables efficient and transparent integration of refugees into the workforce. The solution will be tested and further developed within the framework of a public-private innovation partnership with Danish municipalities.

#FabLabIsa

The core job of the FabLab Ísafjörður is to create a playfield for entrepreneurs, companies, educators, and organizations where ideas can be tested fast with a low threshold of risk and cost.

Djúpið

Djúpið is an ocean-related innovation center with production capabilities suited for the forming period of a startup.

Icelandic Startups

Icelandic Startups help startups grow within and out of Iceland by accelerating their businesses and connecting them with leading experts, investors, and global startup hubs. Their services are free of charge and range from the seed of an idea to first rounds of funding, and product launch.

They even have a music accelerator program!

Tera Ventures

Tera Ventures invests in future global category leaders at their seed stage. They focus on born-global digital startups creating network effects, applying machine learning, and other enabling technologies to business models which will become the infrastructure of and deeply impact our future lives.

Their region is Estonia (incl. eligible e-residents), Finland, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.

Funderbeam

The global funding & trading platform — Connecting ambitious companies with smart capital, and creating unique liquidity for investors.



Final Thought: Work and travel with those you can trust, who support you, and pose with you in various scenarios. Thanks, Arnar for inviting me to the Westfjords! If you are interested in joining their 2020 program, please feel free to reach me directly… or connect with Arnar via LinkedIn or their website.

Startup Norway

Supporting the startup ecosystem since 2011 with support services like AngelChallenge and Startup Extreme.

Bjørn Lapakko

Written by

Minneapolis ✈ to Tallinn ✈ to Oslo

Startup Norway

Supporting the startup ecosystem since 2011 with support services like AngelChallenge and Startup Extreme.

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