According to Odd Skarheim, the key to sustaining the growth of Norwegian startups and entrepreneurial businesses lies in the "simple" step of achieving success stories. The serial entrepreneur's main motivation is the desire to create something of top-notch quality.
Photo: Angelique Culvin Riccot
Odd Skarheim knows what it takes to create a success story. Attensi, the company he founded in 2009, surpassed 100 million NOK in revenue from their technology licenses last year.
The company specializes in learning technology and develops realistic 3D simulations used for training and skills development in the business sector. In addition to an impressive performance in 2021, the company strengthened its international presence: major American investors became shareholders, and Attensi entered into a strategic partnership with one of the world's largest cloud-based HR solutions providers.
With a valuation of over one billion NOK and customers such as Circle K and Starbucks, it is safe to say that Attensi is an international success.
And ultimately, that is the reason Skarheim does what he does.
Ten years ago, Attensi was "four desks in the StartupLab basement," as Skarheim describes it. Now they have exceeded 100 million NOK in licensing revenue and have customers like Circle K and Starbucks.
"My motivation is to create something of international top quality. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me going; I never want to give up," he says.
Skarheim is also deeply involved in his newest venture. The company Be Your Best brings 3D simulation technology to the world of sports and develops cognitive training tools for football players. Be Your Best is well on its way to becoming a leading player in its field.
"If I can contribute something that is of international top quality and is based in Oslo and Norway, it's even better."
Recruitment was decisive
Skarheim, often referred to as a "serial entrepreneur," has been involved in learning technology for over 20 years and has started four companies. In addition, he built up Comfort Hotel within Choice Hotels to include 25 hotels at a young age and served as chairman of Vålerenga Fotball for a period.
In his pursuit of becoming the best in the world, Skarheim's most important weapon is collaboration.
"If I am to create something great, I have to be part of a team of extremely talented individuals," he explains.
He quickly highlights two crucial individuals at Attensi after the merger with Norsim in 2012: co-founder and CEO Trond Aas and CTO/COO Anne Lise Waal.
"They have taken the company from being 'four desks in the StartupLab basement' to becoming an internationally leading player," Skarheim says.
Not to mention Krister Kristiansen, who is building the company's significant international presence from London.
Success stories about Attensi have been crucial in attracting investors and highly skilled professionals from other industries to the Norwegian startup community, according to Skarheim.
"An important part of the company's success is their exceptional talent recruitment. During a critical growth phase for Attensi, they spent half their time recruiting even more talented people. They had many other things to do, but they prioritized finding skilled individuals. That was incredibly important!"
Since then, Attensi has moved out of StartupLab but still operates in its own premises in Oslo Science Park. Today, they need more than the four desks they started with when moving into StartupLab in 2012—they now have over 200 employees. Anne Lise Waal has previously stated that having a place in the Science Park has been invaluable for the company.
"Here, we are fortunate to be close to clusters like Norway Health Tech and the incubator StartupLab. For example, the first health project we did came about because we had become well acquainted with the Norway Health Tech cluster. Many of our other successful projects have also emerged through networks or events associated with Oslo Science Park," Waal said when we spoke to her last year.
Skarheim agrees that StartupLab and the Science Park have been significant contributors to the Norwegian entrepreneurial ecosystem.
"For us, it has been especially important to have the flexibility to grow. One challenge for new businesses is that they can quickly outgrow their initial premises, while at other times, it is necessary to downsize the operations. In this regard, the Science Park has been excellent," says Skarheim.
Success breeds success
Over the past two decades, the seasoned entrepreneur has witnessed a significant evolution in the startup scene.
"A lot has happened in Norway, especially over the last ten years. Around the turn of the millennium, I started an edtech company with some Swedish investors. At the time, I thought that Stockholm and Sweden had ten times the level of activity compared to here at home. That's no longer the case—we have narrowed the gap significantly," Skarheim explains.
Skarheim believes that the reason for this development is complex yet simple.
"We have had some success stories, companies that have succeeded globally," he explains.
A crucial component is that people are now more willing than before to invest in startups. The logic is straightforward: investors who took the risk with successful companies have made money, which has been reinvested in new startups. The successes have also attracted valuable expertise.
"The environment has increasingly managed to attract highly skilled individuals who would otherwise have gone to large companies in established industries. The expertise they bring is invaluable."
A new company close to heart
We don't need to delve deep into Skarheim's background to understand the motivation behind his latest venture.
In 2016, he founded the company Be Your Best, which develops technology for cognitive training using 3D simulation for VR, this time targeting football players and athletes. The technology was officially launched earlier this year. Skarheim explains that the motivation for starting the company was twofold:
"I saw it as a smart business move because it's technology that currently has limited availability but can make a big difference on the football field. And as a former chairman of Vålerenga Fotball, it's no secret that I have a strong affinity for the sport," he says.
Skarheim's new company, Be Your Best, creates 3D technology that helps football players make better decisions faster. They already have clubs from top European leagues on their client list.
The core of Be Your Best's technology is 3D simulation, placing you on the field in a first-person perspective, often in real-life situations from actual matches. The technology is based on research into what the world's best football players do to excel.
One of the most important skills is called "scanning": the ability to quickly shift your gaze away from the ball and gather information about the surroundings. The very best players keep their eyes fixed on the ball when someone touches it but move their gaze when the ball is in motion—after a pass or between ball touches. It may sound simple, but it must happen incredibly quickly and at the right moment.
"The best in the world make it look like they have eyes in the back of their heads, but in reality, they have very rapid head movements and make lightning-fast decisions. They decide much earlier than others and stay one small but crucial step ahead," says Skarheim.
During an injury break in 2018, Martin Ødegaard tried the technology for training mental football skills. Real Madrid Academy, Hoffenheim, Levante, F.C. Copenhagen, as well as Molde, Odd, and the Norwegian top league, are among the clubs and teams that have adopted the technology.
"Be Your Best is already at the forefront on a global basis. They recently conducted a research study with a German U16 national team, which showed a significant improvement in scanning," says Skarheim.
"The goal is for Be Your Best to be a world leader in its field. That's our goal, and that's my driving force."