The Great Northern

It´s important with a variety of companies and entrepreneurs. Innovation is often sprung from different worlds meeting.

SKELLEFTEÅ’S MOST ACTION-PACKED WORKPLACE

Are you a lone entrepreneur in need of new partnerships and a work environment where you encounter people with other skillsets? Or are you on the hunt for new blood and need somewhere to talent spot? Maybe your company needs a shot of inspiration about the opportunities that digitalization can bring? If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then Skellefteå’s new startup and innovation house, The Great Northern, could be for you.

Ingela Hällsten, Communications Manager at Skellefteå Science City, the company that runs The Great Northern, meets me in the in-house café. The café is the beating heart of the building. Small huddles are constantly forming around the tables. Freelance photographers, games developers, copywriters, programmers, consultants, and business advisors all chat together, talking about life in general, just as in any other workplace. And just as in any other workplace, it’s during the coffee break that a lot of new ideas are hatched.

“We want TGN to be a place where ideas and people that wouldn’t normally come in contact with each other are brought together so that new business ideas and innovations can emerge,” says Ingela. “It’s mainly entrepreneurs here, as they tend to be those who make things happen. Many, but not all, of the companies are startups and most of them operate in the digital, cultural or media sectors.”

TGN currently has 180 members across approximately 40 companies of varying size, but there are also organizations providing support for innovation: Nyföretagarcentrum (the Enterprise Agency), ABI (Arctic Business Incubator), Coompanion (developing the cooperative business model), and Ung Företagsamhet (Young Enterpreneurs/Junior Achievement Worldwide) are all represented. The companies can rent space at different levels depending on size. Some have permanent offices, others hire ‘fixed’ or ‘flex’ seats, which in practice gives them access to a chair and a desk space but, more importantly, a useful network of other business owners.

“There’s quite a lot of ebb and flow among the companies using the flex seats,” says Ingela. “There are various reasons for that, but it’s often because they’re growing or, if they are freelance consultants for example, because they only need a space for a limited period of time. And that’s how it should be. TGN is dependent on a constant influx of new people and ideas,” she says, but adds that they also need to keep some of the established and more experienced companies so that there is a robust mentoring system.

“It’s incredibly important for a startup to have people on site who have been there, done it, and know how things work.”

TWIN PEAKS

In 2013, the accounting firm PWC reported that business creation in Skellefteå was unsatisfactory. Too few people were setting up companies, particularly young people and women. For a municipality with ambitious growth targets this did not, of course, make cheerful reading, but it became the starting point for a conscious strategy to foster a better startup environment in Skellefteå. Traditionally, the region is strong in traditional industries, but it was felt that the creative and digital industries could be the key to a flourishing startup scene. There were already successful companies in these sectors and some available education and training in areas such as computer games, but there was no infrastructure to help startups take the next step. The idea of a house that could accommodate these types of established and startup companies together with business incubators quickly took off, and The Great Northern has been in existence since 2017.

Does The Great Northern sound familiar? The building has the same name as the hotel in the Twin Peaks television series, and various rooms and venues in the house have been named after the program’s characters and settings. Laura Palmer, The Red Room, Agent Cooper, Harry S Truman… and naturally the café is called Norma after the popular waitress. It serves vast amounts of coffee every day – coffee is included in the rent, a benefit that members make extremely good use of!

“You might want to highlight that,” says Ingela, laughing.

EMBRACING CHANGE

The building is a 1950s brick building in the centre of Skellefteå and has previously been home to both the city library and the youth centre. It has now been completely renovated with a modern feel and funky retro elements, raw chipboard, generous amounts of laminated timber, and strong, warm colors. The building has clearly been renovated in a way that respects the past but also looks to the future. And everything is in a state of constant flux – words such as ‘constant’, ‘static’, and ‘permanent’ seem to be negative terms here.

“This is Mr. C,” says Ingela, and points to a 15 square metre area where a small stage has been set up in front of about twenty chairs and a few tables. The corners of the space are marked out by timber framing, indicating work in progress.

“We’re going to put glass walls in here soon. It’ll be a perfect space for gatherings of up to about 30 people – suitable for workshops, small-scale presentations, and things of that sort. We haven’t had a suitable space for that previously. We try to adapt as needs arise.”

WHEN DIFFERENT WORLDS ARE BRIDGED

Does The Great Northern have room for ‘old-style’ industry? After all, Skellefteå was largely built on heavy industry such as mining, forestry, and energy. Yes, it does, and TGN welcomes them, though it is particularly keen to see those looking to explore new avenues involving digital innovation.

“It may be a company operating in the basic industries that’s opening an office here for its digital innovation department. Boliden, a partner in the building, is one example of that.”

Another example is the industrial group Metso, which organized a hackathon, an intensive session bringing programmers together to tackle a shared challenge. In this case, it related to the development of a product.

“It’s important that we have a variety of companies and entrepreneurs,” says Ingela. “Innovation is often dependent on bridging different worlds. There’s a lot going on between companies here; they’re always organizing seminars, pitching competitions, workshops… there’s a lot of action all the time.”

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