“The governments of the Nordics share a mission to become the most sustainable and integrated region in the world”

Accelerating  innovation

Niklas Karvonen, community director of the Nordic Innovation House Tokyo


DECEMBER 2021 The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Michael Holmes

Niklas Karvonen has been community director of the Nordic Innovation House Tokyo since it opened in May of last year. His experience in trade promotion for Finland, at a Japanese startup, and in event planning and community building for a coding education firm made him an ideal candidate for the role. He is also an advisory board member to Japan’s Innovation Leader’s Summit and a startup mentor for the city of Kobe.

What is the Nordic Innovation House?

It is a community platform for businesses from the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. We are a soft-landing centre for Nordic startups, scaleups, and growth companies in the tech field to support them with market entry.

We are a government-backed organisation, supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers and Nordic Innovation, and operate on a non-profit basis. At our five locations — Hong Kong, New York, Silicon Valley, Singapore, and, as of last year, Tokyo — our mission is the same: to scale up the best of the Nordics.

In Japan, we partner with Japanese innovation ecosystems and build connections with those from Nordic countries. On the board of the Nordic Innovation House in Tokyo are representatives of the Nordic trade promotion organisations in Japan.

The governments of the Nordics share a mission to become the most sustainable and integrated region in the world, and the Nordic Innovation House project is one way to foster greater cooperation among our nations.

How does the Nordic Innovation House support Nordic businesses?

We offer memberships, hold events, and conduct industry-specific programmes. For our member companies that are looking into expanding to, or within, Japan, we offer access to networks and joint Nordic programmes, as well as visibility at relevant events and gatherings. Our members can also connect with mentors from their industry, as well as exchange information and experiences among the larger Nordic community in Japan.

Why was a Nordic Innovation House established in Tokyo?

Japan is the world’s third-largest country by GDP and ranks high on innovation and research activities. Every year we see Nordic startups entering the Japanese market, and we want to be part of those stories — and create more of them. We have also seen an increasing number of Japanese investments into the Nordic startup scene.

The five Nordic countries have a strong presence in Japan, which allows us to cooperate smoothly. They all enjoy a very strong and very positive image here, something that helps business negotiations. While the size of the Japanese startup landscape — measured by the amount of investment in startups, or by the number of unicorn companies — is still small compared with the size of the economy, we have seen an upward trend and believe that Japan’s startup ecosystem has huge potential for growth. In 2021, Tokyo was ranked ninth in the world as a startup ecosystem by research firm Startup Genome.

We have received an overwhelmingly positive response from our Japanese partners, who see us as a one-stop centre for the whole Nordic innovation ecosystem.

“Every year we see Nordic startups entering the Japanese market, and we want to be part of those stories”

What will be the focus of the Nordic Innovation House over the coming years?

We welcome Japan’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and believe that Nordic knowhow in clean energy technologies can help to achieve it. In the field of cleantech, our focus will be on the maritime, the ocean economy, and decarbonised energy (including carbon capture, storage, and utilisation solutions, as well as energy storage). Our Japanese partners have shown great interest in innovations related to the UN’s Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) and clean technologies.

Digital health is our second focus area. In the Nordics, we also share challenges similar to those of Japan when it comes to increased healthcare costs and a shrinking and ageing population, so we have a lot to offer in this field.

Our third area of focus is digital transformation, where we expect to see acceleration in Japan due to new government initiatives. The Nordic countries rank high in areas such as e-government and we look forward to continued dialogue on that front.

We hope that we can soon welcome Nordic startups, other companies, and investors for physical visits to Japan, and that we can take Japanese delegations to visit the Nordic startup ecosystems, as well as to some of the flagship startup events in Nordic countries, such as SLUSH and TechBBQ.

Which industries are showing the most interest in breaking into the Japan market right now?

We have received enquiries from firms in a variety of fields, but particularly from those in the health, smart cities, and entertainment sectors, as well as the clean technology field across different industries.

One of our missions is to increase the awareness of Nordic firms about opportunities in Japan. There is plenty of interest in Japan, but up-to-date market information from Japan is still lacking. So, we have been trying to change this by actively sharing information from Japan as well as creating our own content.

Could you share a couple of success stories of businesses you have helped become established in Japan?

Since we started our operations last year, the Nordic Innovation House Tokyo has supported member companies to get accepted into some of Japan’s prestigious acceleration programmes, meet with relevant business partners, and participate in matchmaking events.

I’m particularly proud of a Norwegian member company, Bergen Carbon Solutions, which was selected to participate in Plug and Play Japan’s Smart Cities Accelerator Program. Also, with two of our Finnish companies — Revieve in beautytech and ZOAN in VR — we hosted a talk at CEATEC 2021, Japan’s largest IT and electronics trade show, with more than 600 Japanese stakeholders in the audience.

What are the Nordic Talks and how do attendees benefit from them?

Nordic Talks Japan is a hybrid event series focusing on the SDGs and how we can take action on them. The series is supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers, and our team here consists of the five Nordic embassies, the Nordic Innovation House, and the Finnish Institute in Japan. This year, we have focused on a just green energy transition, as well as the circular economy in the textile industry.

We already have two events planned for 2022, one focusing on e-government and the other on gender equality. Each Nordic Talk has a diverse panel of experts from around the world and the focus is on dialogue — we do not have keynotes or presentations. At the end of the day, the attendees should come away with ideas for concrete actions they can take to achieve the SDGs.