I recently had the opportunity to visit Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia and to talk to many budding entrepreneurs and to share some of my own perspectives on what I see happening in the US and particularly in Silicon Valley on the EdTech front. Of course, I knew that Tekes, in particular, has a number of things going on in this area (since I have been working with them over the last couple of years) and Aalto Entrepreneurship Society is perhaps the most active student entrepreneurship organization in Europe. I am also encouraged by what we have learned so far in our Nordic Edupreneuring Project, about the current activities and plans of Nordic entrepreneurs focused on education and learning. We are now in the middle of analyzing the survey results and we were pleased to have 47 companies participating (and pretty even participation from each of the major Nordic countries). And it is clear that the interest is particularly strong in game-based learning, especially delivered to mobile devices, so I suspect this is a theme I will be revisiting from time to time in this blog.

Nordic-Silicon Valley Academic Collaboration

But as I have reflected on some of the results and comments in the Nordic Edupreneuring survey, and some other things I have seen happening on the Nordic academic front recently, I thought I would use this blog post to explore some issues relating to Nordic-Silicon Valley academic collaboration and what this might mean for future entrepreneurs, especially on the EdTech front. Here are a few observations followed by some thoughts on what this could mean in terms of future implications and impact on entrepreneurs.

  • Nordic Edupreneurs Benefitting from Academic Collaboration. A number of our survey respondents noted that they are working with academics to evaluate and assess their products to determine both benefits for learners and how effective the products are in producing the desired learning outcomes. But unfortunately only a relatively small minority of the survey respondents seem to be taking advantage of the services of academic researchers, professors and even graduate students who could likely provide valuable assistance on this front. Even though we have not yet examined this issue in detail yet in the research team, it appears that this might point to a missed opportunity for startup firms, especially when many of them are already getting government grants to fund projects that will help them achieve market success.
  • Peder Saetre Center Research Collaboration Grants. I remember reading an article last year in the University of Agder publication noting that Norway was funding a new research center at UC Berkeley and planning greater collaboration between UC Berkeley and a number of different Norwegian academic institutions. Unfortunately, I have not seen anything more about any of this until recently when I heard that a Request For Proposal is now out for either seed grants or full research projects. I think this is great and I hope the result will be a number of interesting collaborative projects between Norwegian institutions and researchers at UC Berkeley, in a variety of fields, and I hope some of these projects may fall in one or more of these areas: entrepreneurship, technology, innovation and learning/education. I don’t yet know who manages the whole program (and what the research project selection criteria are) and what they intend to make public about the awards, but I hope they will be as transparent as possible, so that anyone interested in these things can benefit.
  • Finland-National Science Foundation Virtual Research Collaboration. My friends at Tekes recently informed me about a research cooperation project focusing on learning and education and funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Academy of Finland and Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, that had been launched recently. The first research projects jointly organized by Finnish and American research units are now beginning. According to the agreement, and to Jari Multisilta, Director of CICERO at University of Helsinki (who will also lead a research project exploring the use of panoramic videos in learning mathematics and science), ”The coordination of the research activities will ensure that the projects will form a logical entity and not just a group of separate studies. The aim is to create a virtual institute around mathematical and natural sciences and introduce new solutions and methods for learning." Since National Science Foundation—which had a $7 billion research budget for 2012—has for many years funded a great number of significant research project across a range of fields, including education and learning, this kind of cross-border research collaboration is very positive and should benefit US and Finnish researchers, as well as Nordic researchers more generally. I also suspect that edupreneurs—e.g. entrepreneurs focused on education and learning—may also gain significant advantages from this kind of research.
  • Stanford-Nordic Research Collaboration. As far as I know, Stanford does not (yet) have anything like the Peder Saetre Centre research funding but Stanford houses SCANCOR which enables many Nordic researchers to come to Stanford for collaboration with Stanford researchers. The director of Scancor, Mitchell Stevens, is also one of the lead instructors in Stanford’s program of Education’s Digital Future, which should be of keen interest to all educationalists in the Nordic region. HSTAR—whose director, the well-known mathematician Keith Devlin, will be in Norway (speaking at a conference of the Future Learning Lab at University of Agder) in April—and Media X, whose director, Martha Russell, will also be speaking at the same UiA conference, also have Nordic research connections and/or visiting Nordic researchers.

I am sure there are many other collaboration programs between the Nordic region and Silicon Valley—either at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, or other Bay Area academic and research institutions, and I know that Anne Lidgard, Visiting Scholar and Director, Silicon Valley Office, VINNOVA, The Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems, now recently set up office at Stanford and also sponsors Stanford Engineering’s European Innovation and Entrepreneurship Thought Leaders Series (led by Burton Lee). Enterprise Estonia has also for a number of years been a sponsor of this series. Finally, I know that Innovation Center Denmark has had, and continues to have, various forms of collaboration with a range of academic and research institutions in the SF Bay Area and other parts of the US

Potential Implications for Nordic Entrepreneurs

As I noted above, EdTech startups can benefit significantly by building relationships with academic researchers who can help them not only with needed research—including on the learning effectiveness of their products—but also to gain insights into the complex dynamics of the education market place. Many of the respondents to our Nordic Edupreneuring survey were clearly interested in the US market, as well as other international markets, and gaining a deep understanding and appreciation of how these markets operate is by no means a trivial task. It requires a lot of work, and constant monitoring as well as dialog with people who know and operate in these markets. For these and other reasons, I think edupreneurs are missing a significant opportunity if they don’t build networks, connections and relationships with academic researchers.

As my few examples above should make clear, there are many ongoing programs and networks that Nordic edupreneurs should know and learn about, and explore how they can potentially benefit by being aware of who is doing what kind of work and projects in these collaborative programs.

Eilif Trondsen