What can Canada learn from Sweden’s business culture?

Canada’s “insular” tech startup firms can learn one key thing from Swedish firms: openness, says the Ambassador of Sweden to Canada.

Sweden’s small size and geographic positioning on the fringe of Europe foster an open attitude when it comes to receiving ideas from the rest of the world, said Teppo Tauriainen during a visit to Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. Meanwhile Canada’s large presence in North America and sole border shared with a friendly superpower to the south might leave our startups with a more inward-looking mentality.

“I think that could be one area maybe Canadian companies aren’t as brave as Swedish companies are,” he says.

But the Ambassador considers that Canada and Sweden are at their root very similar countries that have a lot to learn from each other. Tauriainen spoke with ITBusiness.ca at an event showcasing innovation from early-stage Swedish companies in the field of ICT, clean technologies, and life sciences.

Companies on exhibit included Tobii Technology, which has developed an eye-tracking computer interface that is advanced enough to allow users to play Asteroids or type their name simply by looking at a specific points on a screen. Another firm, Nocturnal Vision AB enables any video camera to see in the dark. Its technology can be implemented using hardware or software, and has been commercialized for use in the auto industry and is now being licenced for mobile phone applications.

Helping startup companies take a great idea from inception to commercial application is a challenge that Canada and Sweden share, Tauriainen says.

“There are thousands of ideas out there, but the question is how many of them are sustainable?” he says. “It’s excellent that we have a thousand buds that flower, but we also need to develop systems where we can take care of those that are really interesting.”

To that end, the Swedish government funnels $300 million per year into research and development in the private sector through Vinnova, an agency with a mandate to foster innovation much in the same way MaRS does out of Toronto. Vinnova is trying to create a fully developed “knowledge triangle” by combining the efforts of early stage entrepreneurs with academic institutions to create products for the commercial market.

Sweden’s large public sector, much like Canada’s, can play a role in achieving that, says Peter Eriksson, director of industry development strategy at Vinnova. “It needs to be an engine for innovation, not a hindrance for innovation.”

Swedish Incubators and Science Parks also directly assists startups in need of unique intellectual property with its 42 incubator locations and 33 science park locations. It’s seen as part of a strategy to attract multi-national corporations to set up shop in Sweden and invest resources in local companies.

The regional strategy results in some eye-catching architecture. Slides shown by Magnus Lundin, president and CEO at the government body, depicted a soaring, post-modern skyscraper made of glass and concrete surrounded by green lawns dotted with smaller buildings. Another incubator based in a dense urban area is placed adjacent to a river, and triplet buildings are back-ended by a large, flat structure that leads to a a semi-circular building at its end.

The shared resources will help smaller firms, he says. “We are trying to help SME companies act as if they are large enterprises.”

Canadian-Swedish trade increased by 75 per cent between 2000 and 2010, according to the Trade Commissioner of Canada’s Web site. Though the balance of trade is tilted heavily in Sweden’s favour, with Canada exporting $460 million to Sweden in 2010 while importing more than $2 billion in goods.

Brian JacksonBrian Jackson is the Associate Editor at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.
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