Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on December 12, 2008

12/12/2008 – 11:00



Last week I wrote that if I were the boss of Iceland I would bet my money, or rather the nation’s money, on innovation rather than large-scale labor-intensive industries, such as aluminum smelting, which some people seem to think is the solution to all of our problems—never mind the fact that the world market price of aluminum is plummeting.

However, there are plenty of creative, ambitious and hard-working Icelanders out there who share my opinion that it would be a mistake to rely too heavily on only a few industries. They would rather see Iceland become a platform for a host of companies of different genres and they are working towards making that happen. Like me, they believe innovation is key to the reconstruction of Iceland’s economy.

Such companies are known as sprotafyrirtaeki in Icelandic, literally “sprout companies,” but more commonly referred to as start-ups or starters. The term is not new in Iceland and has become somewhat of a fad in recent years.

Business magazine Frjáls verslun published a list of 100 starters to watch right before the collapse of the economy, and shortly thereafter Björk stepped forward and presented innovative companies she had been working with.

So the problem is not that we don’t have innovation, the problem lies with the government, which doesn’t seem to realize the potential in start-ups. Instead of giving young and promising companies the support they need to thrive, which with time can become valuable sources of income for the economy as a whole, the government searches for easy short-term solutions. Or so it seems.

The Icelandic media is stepping up by reporting on initiatives aimed at encouraging innovation and there appears to be a lot going on in that field.

The Iceland Academy of the Arts, Reykjavík University and Bifröst University are cooperating on three projects aimed at encouraging innovation and education, among them an interactive online starter development center entitled “I Am Innovation” where people will be able to share their business ideas and seek partners.

There are also umbrella organizations for innovation, such as Klak Innovation Center, whose purpose it is to enhance the growth of start-up IT companies.

I wanted to find out if and to what extent the government is supporting Klak’s important initiative and asked the innovation center’s CEO Eythór Ívar Jónsson, who is also an associate professor in entrepreneurship at Copenhagen Business School.

Jónsson said the government’s support to Klak has not been at all sufficient. He explained that although Klak and the companies supported by the center operate within the private sector, it is important to receive funding from the government for the first three years of their existence, often referred to as “death valley.”

During the first three years companies are spending but not earning money and during that period investors avoid them like the plague. During that period many promising companies give up, in many cases because of lack of funds. Therefore the government should step in.

Such support is not thought of as charity. Jónsson explained that the government has to adopt a different attitude towards innovation and realize that investing in starters is beneficial for the national economy.

Many of these companies (it is too optimistic to believe that every company will survive) will flourish and deliver profits for the state treasury. It will take time, though, five to ten years, and the government wants to see money flowing in right now.

For this reason the government was reluctant to support innovation before the crisis hit and now there is no money. Or is there? It is all a question of prioritizing, Jónsson stated.

Had he really made an effort talking to the appropriate ministries, I wondered. At that, Jónsson laughed, saying that he had spent eight months arguing with the Ministry of Industry. People seem positive and eager but then nothing happens. However, Jónsson is hopeful that Minister of Industry Össur Skarphédinsson will soon start lobbying for innovation for real.

After all, the Ministry of Industry does operate the Innovation Center Iceland which recently launched Torgid, “The Square,” a trade center offering facilities to young promising companies to work on their business ideas. Thirteen companies are operating there already.

Skarphédinsson himself discusses Torgid on his blog while referring to himself as the “Minister for Sprout Affairs,” describing how his ministry has been flooded lately with innovative ideas from people who are determined to turn this crisis around and transform it into a business opportunity.

“That’s how adversity often creates new opportunities that didn’t exist before and creates an environment which enforces and fabricates new business opportunities in the form of mini sprouts,” the minister writes. “We don’t mess around in the Ministry of Industry. If we see a good idea we’ll make it happen in an instant.”

So is this a sign that times are about to change? I certainly hope so.

In my last column I wondered whether any Icelanders would respond. Many foreign readers did and had some excellent ideas at that, but not a single native.

That leads me to conclude that despite the fact that is among the 20 most popular websites in Iceland, week after week, after Eve Online the most popular English-language Icelandic website and a regular source of information for foreign media outlets, it goes unnoticed by most Icelanders.

Therefore, I’m going to bring the website, and this particular column, to the attention of the “Minister for Sprout Affairs,” and see whether he would like to contribute to the discussion on the international platform that this website represents.



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