"To be part of starting something from nothing, to create the culture from scratch, that's what I want," asserts Heidi Frost Eriksen, the leader of Simli.
Simli is the third company she has helped build, but before Heidi Frost Eriksen was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, she wasn't clear about what she wanted in life.
Photo: Sigurd Reistad Klæva
"I don't know if you can talk about a midlife crisis when it comes to work, but that's how it felt. I had worked in B2B sales for several big companies when I started wondering if this was really it, if there wasn't something more."
Giving up all the perks
Once the questions started arising, there was no turning back. Eriksen had to make a change in her life; she wanted to do something different.
Through Rolf Assev, a partner at Startuplab, she was familiar with Oslo Science Park and its innovation environment. It was Assev who introduced her to Huddly, a technology company that develops AI cameras—or rather, introduced Huddly to her.
"In my first meeting with Huddly, it was as if the interview process was turned upside down. Instead of me having to court them, they courted me. After the first meeting, I knew that's where I wanted to work," she shares.
She quit her job, took a significant pay cut, and gave up all the perks to join the adventure of the newborn company, Huddly.
An extreme learning journey
The process moved quickly, as is often the case with startups. Eriksen became Huddly's first employee on the commercial side and was given significant responsibilities.
"The company already had contacts in the USA, and I met with American investors and dealt with terms and expressions I had never heard before. I got a crash course in startups, made many mistakes, and wasted a lot of time. It was an extreme learning journey and a lot of fun."
With a crash course in startups: "I made many mistakes and wasted a lot of time," says Simli founder Heidi Frost Eriksen about the beginning of her entrepreneurial life.
By the spring of 2018, Huddly was well established, and Eriksen started looking for a new company she could help build. She soon joined Greps, a technology company that measures programming skills among developers.
"I'm not a developer, I'm not a researcher. I work with people who are much better than me in many areas, but I'm good at understanding advanced technology enough to be able to talk about it in a way that anyone can understand."
Searching for a good idea
Translating technology into customer needs is a sought-after skill. When Eriksen left Greps, she received job offers from various companies. However, she didn't want to join a large established company again.
"I've been bitten by the bug. Being part of starting something from nothing, creating the culture from scratch, that's what I want. At the beginning, you have nothing, maybe just an idea or some great people, and that's it."
She turned down the job offers and went hunting for talented individuals with great ideas in the startup program at Antler. There she met neuroscientist Annelene Gulden Dahl and technology developer Lars Traaholt Vågnes, both of whom had impressive backgrounds.
Vågnes had previously started two AI startups in China and one in Norway. Dahl had a master's degree from the University of Oxford and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Kavli Institute, led by Nobel Prize-winning couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser. In addition, she had a newly founded company and, most importantly, an idea that she needed people to help develop further. Vågnes and Eriksen didn't need much convincing.
Simli is the third company Heidi Frost Eriksen has helped build: "To make it happen, you need strong motivation. For me, it's about helping people."
"We have different skills and different backgrounds, but we share the same mindset: we all want to spend our time on something that truly matters," says Eriksen.
A new VR tool for psychologists
In close collaboration with psychologists, Simli is developing a VR-based training program as a tool for therapists.
Using VR, individuals can practice social situations they find uncomfortable, in collaboration with a psychologist, whether it's related to work, school, or other social situations.
"We rely on established research in the field," says Eriksen. Research shows that exposure training through VR provides the same level of effectiveness as real-life exposure.
Simli now has sixteen employees, some full-time, others part-time, and some are interns. They come from Norway, Scotland, Portugal, Italy, Egypt, Pakistan, and India. The oldest is 70, the youngest is 20. They all have different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
Having a globally diverse team is a deliberate strategy. Eriksen believes that diverse reference points are crucial for developing the product.
"We're building a product to solve a global problem, not just a Norwegian one. It's important that we have a team with different reference points."
The decisive motivation
Simli is part of two incubators. One is Aleap, the health incubator, and the other is StartupLab, the technology incubator—both located in Oslo Science Park.
"Being surrounded by people who are doing similar things is very rewarding. There are a thousand things founders have to deal with all the time, and in Oslo Science Park, we get free advice over coffee."
With a foot in two incubators: As a health technology company, Simli is based in both StartupLab and Aleap.
But even though the environment in Oslo Science Park is rewarding, it's not always sunshine in the entrepreneurial mindset.
"There are more rainy days," Eriksen admits before adding that it's still worth it.
"To make it happen, you need strong motivation. For me, it's about helping people. The VR technology we're developing at Simli will eventually assist people who aren't fully living their lives, who are hindered in their daily lives. That motivates me," she concludes.