“Stockholm is the second-biggest unicorn factory after Silicon Valley”

The growth expert

Cecilia Öberg Leiram


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

After Cecilia Öberg Leiram started her career as a trainee at the Swedish telecom giant Ericsson, she came to Tokyo with the Swedish Science & Technology Office. There, she covered technical developments and advances in Japan’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector on behalf of Swedish industry and the government. Following another stint at Ericsson, where she worked on product management and corporate strategy, Leiram returned to Japan in 2012 to take up her current role as the Swedish Trade Commissioner in Japan.

Could you tell me about Business Sweden?

We’re the Swedish Trade & Invest Council, commissioned by the government to help Swedish companies grow their global sales and to assist international companies with investing and expanding in Sweden.

Business Sweden is jointly owned by the Swedish government and Swedish industry. This puts us in a unique position, where we have access to networks on all levels of government and private business. We operate in more than 50 markets globally and have more than 50 years of experience.

Japan is an important market for Swedish companies. We help firms — at different stages of growth — succeed here by, for example, providing hands-on operational support related to establishing an office in Japan, conducting market research, giving strategic advice on how to accelerate sales, and assisting them as they expand through M&A.

What are some events you put on last year?

For us, the big event of 2018 — when we celebrated the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Sweden — was the delegation in April. King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia came for an official visit and were accompanied by close to 150 delegates from government and business. It was the biggest delegation we’ve ever had to Japan. The business delegation consisted of both CEOs and chairmen from large industrial companies, but also entrepreneurs and representatives from high-tech startups.

Over three days, our programme focused on areas — such as the future of transport and new trends in healthcare — where Japan and Sweden have joint interests, common challenges and complementing capabilities. We also arranged a day-long business summit where we aimed to create a dialogue between the Swedish and Japanese business communities on the themes of people, innovation and partnerships. The programme was very well received, by both sides.


Are you seeing an increase in the number of companies coming to Japan?

When I came in 2012, maybe two or three new companies a year were being established through us. But over the last few years, we’re seeing about six or seven new entrants a year. So, there’s renewed interest in Japan by Swedish companies.

There are more than 150 Swedish subsidiaries here, but there are more than 1,500 doing some sort of business with Japan — working through distributors or partners.

Sweden is a small country, and the Swedish economy is extremely export dependent — 45% of our GDP comes from exports. We need to support exporting companies and help them continue to grow because that’s the basis of our economy.

Which industries do you most often deal with?

Swedish industry is diverse. It’s everything from pharma to cars, from wood to high-tech products. Pharma and medtech continue to be focus areas for us because they account for the largest percentage of our exports to Japan, and also because of the challenges Japan is facing with its ageing population.

The whole area of connected industry is something we’re continuing to run with because it’s merging two of Sweden’s strongholds: the industrial, manufacturing base and our high-tech ICT companies. Also, it ties well into many other industries such as the transport sector and connected vehicles, which is something we’ll also continue to work on in Japan.

Sweden is famous for its innovation and start-up climate, and Stockholm is the second-biggest unicorn factory after Silicon Valley. Swedish industry is also recognised for being collaborative, with very strong ties between the government, research organisations and companies — and now between big, established companies and startups, as well. This will also continue to be a focus area for us.

What is one of your accomplishments?

It’s very rewarding for me to help Swedish companies, entering Japan, to grow. And it is especially interesting to see some of these companies, with a unique technology or solution, attract a lot of attention in this market.

It’s difficult to single one company out, but since Spotify, one of Sweden’s unicorns, was the first customer that we helped enter Japan after I arrived in 2012, I have to mention them.

What are some Swedish products that are popular here?

You can’t pass over IKEA or H&M just because of their size. But there are many other smaller consumer product companies that are popular in Japan.

With design, I think Sweden and Japan have a mutual respect and liking. There’s also the mutual appreciation of quality. Not only do products have to look good, they need to be good. When it comes to products — not only design-related ones, but also industrial ones — there’s a good fit between Sweden and Japan.

I’m very lucky because Sweden is a good brand. 

“Sweden and Japan have a … mutual appreciation of quality”