The Silicon Valley of the North

Google, the world’s most popular search engine, owes its success to its ability to always deliver exactly the information its customers want to find. So when the search engine giant went on its own hunt for a location for a new research and development office in Scandinavia, it was confident in its search results – and opened a R&D office in Trondheim, Norway in March 2006.

 
Google’s new office in Trondheim is led by engineering director Knut Magne Risvik (right). Alan Eustace (left), Google’s senior vice president for engineering and research, came to help celebrate the office’s opening in mid-March 2006.
© Thor Nielsen
Trondheim is the only city in Europe with research and development offices for three of the world’s top search engine companies – Google, FAST, and Yahoo. As Knut Magne Risvik, head of the new Google office, put it, welcome to “the Silicon Valley of Europe”.
 
Google’s choice is just the latest success story reflecting Norway’s considerable expertise in information and communications technology (ICT). Norway’s successful research and development efforts span the spectrum from top-notch software development that powers everything from search engines to new ways of managing health care information, to engineering cybernetics, which stands behind the development of petroleum finds in the North Sea, to the tracking of wild salmon smolts as they wend their way to feeding grounds in the Atlantic Ocean.
 
Ask Risvik why Norway is such an attractive place for ICT research and development and he’s got a quick answer. Norwegians “are early adopters of technology and innovations,” he said. “We feel innovation running through our veins.”
 
Tops in R&D Investments, Growth
Information from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which represents the world’s 30 most-developed countries, supports Risvik’s opinions. A recently released OECD report, “Going for Growth”, ranks Norway 4th among OECD countries in research, development and economic growth, ahead of Finland and behind Denmark. According to Statistics Norway, 68,608 people, or 2.4 percent of the Norwegian workforce, were employed in the ICT sector in 2004, the latest year for which figures are available.
But this relatively small percentage is predicted to grow exponentially, according to research from Abelia, an association of Norwegian ICT- and knowledge-based enterprises. During the past 25 years, employment in high-tech industries has grown by 160 percent. Kyrre Lekve, an Abelia researcher, says this trend will only accelerate, with the number of workers in information and technology industries eventually outstripping those employed by more traditional industries, such as the oil and gas sector.
 
“There will be a new basis for economic life in Norway,” Lekve said at a recent seminar at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. “Natural resources like oil will be more and more dependent on new technology, new businesses will be based on expertise and technology, and the common challenge will be to create a knowledge-based economy.”
Scandinavian countries, including Norway, are highly savvy when it comes to technology – so there’s considerable market pressure for Scandinavian businesses to respond to this demand. Norway is one of the most wired countries in the world, with fully 76 percent of Norwegian businesses equipped with a high-speed Internet connection. Norway is also the leader of all Nordic countries in the use of high-speed connections other than xDSL, according to a report from the Nordic Council of Ministers. Internet use in the Norwegian home is also strong, with 55 percent of the Norwegian population reporting daily use of Internet in 2005. In that same year, 74 percent of all households had access to the Internet, with high-speed access topping 51 percent – an increase over 2004’s figure of 29 percent, according to Statistics Norway.
 
But Norwegians aren’t just high-tech at home. They like to carry technology with them – in the form of high-performance mobile telephones. Norwegians sent three billion text messages in 2004, according to the Nordic Council report, and another 72 million multimedia message service (MMS) messages – the latter the most of any Nordic country. In fact, there are more mobile phone subscriptions than inhabitants in Norway, making the country a fertile real-time laboratory for developing mobile communications technology.
SINTEF Information and Communications Technology has developed a low-cost spectometer that is being used by Tomra in its material recycling machines to automatically characterize and separate, with great precision, plastics and glass.
© SINTEF ICT
 
Wireless Trondheim
Over the last year, it has become more and more common for people to have access to a veritable storm of information over the airways, as cities from Auckland, New Zealand, to Athens, Georgia in the United States develop wireless networks. But in cooperation with the municipality of Trondheim, the Sør-Trøndelag County Council, and the Trondheim Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has taken this idea an innovative step forward.
 
In parallel with building a wireless network for Trondheim’s downtown, the university will make the entire wireless network available as a laboratory where researchers, mobile technology businesses and information providers can experiment with new equipment, new software and new ways of delivering information in a wireless world. The project, called “Wireless Trondheim”, cost NOK 20 million for the first phase, in which the entire downtown and the university was set up for wireless service.
 
 “We will give them the city – companies, services, research labs – for testing ideas,” said Tore Jørgensen, special advisor to NTNU’s Faculty of Information Technology, Mathematics and Electrical Engineering. “We’ll give them the opportunity to build the future.”
 
NTNU’s ICT research extends far beyond Wireless Trondheim. ICT researchers are working on everything from building electronic databases for patient records, to cybernetics research that enables the petroleum industry to boost its production of oil and gas from the North Sea, to a wireless tag that can be inserted in salmon smolts, enabling researchers to follow marked fish as they migrate to the sea for a critical stage in their life cycle.
 

In January 2006, Stockholm instituted a new tolling system to control congestion in the busy downtown area, with technology from Q-free, a
Norwegian company.
© Q-free
From Research to Commercial Development
The demand for smart, lightweight mobile technology has also spurred Norwegian companies to be at the very forefront of developing new software and hardware to meet this need. Chipcon, based in Oslo, designs short-range, low-power wireless radio frequency devices. Its innovative products have gained worldwide attention, and in January 2006, Texas Instruments bought Chipcon for $200 million. The company is also an excellent example of how Norway’s investments in research and development can bear fruit.
 
Chipcon was a spin-off from SINTEF, Norway’s technical applied research institute. The company was established in 1996 by SINTEF engineers to commercialize the institute’s mixed signal and radio frequency research. Ernst Kristiansen, vice president for research at SINTEF Information and Communications Technology, says Chipcon’s purchase by Texas Instruments is one example of how Norwegian expertise reaches far beyond the country’s borders.
 
“You can have good ideas in Norway, ideas that are at the forefront of technology, but the Norwegian market is relatively small,” he said. “A company like Texas Instruments has the world market – and it recognizes good new technology when it sees it.”
 
SINTEF is no stranger to economic spin-offs and world markets, Kristiansen said. The group’s work with diffractive optical elements has enabled the design of a spectrometer that identifies materials and gases using infrared light. Tomra, a Norwegian company that specializes in reverse vending machines for the collection of for-deposit containers, has used this technology to develop a high-tech recycling machine that can automatically sort recyclable wastes.  
 
Nordic Semiconductor, formerly Nordic VLSI, is another semiconductor company that specializes in microchip design for wireless communication and multimedia in wireless audio, gamepads, keyboards/mice and intelligent sports equipment. Infineon Technologies SensoNor has a different focus – the automobile market. Its Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems (MEMS) are used in everything from airbags to tyre pressure monitoring to rollover sensors.
 
Automobiles are also key for Q-free, a company marketing electronic systems that allow for electronic payments of road tolls and traffic congestion charges. Early in 2006, traffic in Stockholm began to ease as the city implemented a congestion charging system with the help of Q-free’s automatic toll collection technology.
 
Developing mobile technology also demands innovative software, which is where software development companies like Opera come in. Opera grew out of Norway’s largest telecom company, Telenor, and is now an independent company offering the Opera web browser, which operates over a wide range of platforms, operating systems and embedded Internet products.
 
Trolltech is an Oslo software company that has developed a cross-platform C++ GUI tool, called Qt, which can be used in software development. Some of its customers include the Sandia National Laboratories in the United States, which has used Qt to develop software to visualize and analyse data from the Space Shuttle. The company also has produced Qtopia, an application platform and user interface for embedded Linux in mobile devices, used in four of Motorola’s Linux-based smart phones.
 
Investing in R&D
Norway has traditionally based its economy on the natural resources at its command, whether fish in the vast Atlantic, or oil in the depths of the North Sea. But Norway recognizes its future lies increasingly in high-tech, said Anders Kluge of the Research Council of Norway’s large-scale programme on ICT, called VERDIKT. The VERDIKT programme will span 10 years, ending in 2014, and currently has an annual budget of NOK 120 million. That budget will eventually grow to NOK 500 million, Kluge said.
 
Kluge said the Research Council decided that ICT merited this strong level of research support because ICT businesses and research efforts are such a rapidly growing market, because ICT itself is so critical in supporting essentially all academic research, and because ICT is so important in the daily lives of Norwegians. “Everyday life is increasingly reliant on ICT,” Kluge said. “It has a huge impact on society as a whole.”
 
Among the projects newly funded by the council is the development of MEMS steerable antennas for automotive radar to aid in reducing fatal traffic accidents, and a project to develop a platform for radio frequency identification (RFID) to be used in the consumer market.
 
Simula Research Laboratory is a unique independent research group which conducts basic research in communication technology, scientific computing and software engineering. The laboratory is based at IT Fornebu, Oslo, which itself has been designed as an ICT incubator area. The Simula software engineering team’s Magne Jørgensen was ranked first in his field in Europe and third internationally by the Journal of Systems and Software in 2005, while Simula itself was ranked third in Europe and 14th internationally.
 
One of the lab’s more unusual projects is the development of an efficient and accurate simulator of the heart’s electrical and mechanical behaviour. This kind of simulation can be useful for everything from drug development to improving electrical defibrillation, said Joakim Sundnes, Simula’s research director for scientific computing. “We can do quite realistic simulations of electrical activity on pieces of the heart,” Sundnes said. The group hasn’t simulated the whole heart yet because it is so computationally demanding, Sundnes said, adding that better equations and more computer power would eventually solve the problem.
 
IT Fornebu is an information technology and knowledge centre that has been built in Oslo’s former international airport – Fornebu. Nearly 80 IT and IT-related businesses are located at the technology centre.
© Morten Brun/IT Fornebu
So Much Information, So Little Time
Search engine technology has long been an important part of Norway’s contributions to ICT, even before Google’s arrival in Trondheim. CognIT in Oslo specializes in search technologies that use linguistic analysis rather than statistical frequencies of keywords to “understand” the overall context of documents it is searching.
 
Risvik, Google’s new Trondheim office chief, led the development of yet another search engine, AllTheWeb, for FAST, a Oslo-based company founded by NTNU graduates. FAST’s success helped put Norwegian ICT research and development on the map, which helped attract other search engine companies like Yahoo to Trondheim. 
 
Trondheim’s attraction lies in its “great talent pool – and its great technology university”, Risvik said of NTNU, his alma mater, adding that Trondheim has been ranked as one of the top 50 high-tech cities in the world.
 
Sør-Trøndelag County is planning on building on this new high-energy concentration of software engineers to entice related companies to the region, said county mayor Tore O. Sandvik.
 
“There’s no doubt that the presence of Google makes Trondheim much cooler, and makes us much more visible,” he said. “Why can’t we be the Silicon Valley of the north, and attract other technology companies? Why not come to Trondheim?”

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