From idea to growth at the Simula Garage

This article was originally published in "This is Simula 2016".

Three years have passed since the Simula Garage came to life in the old terminal building at Fornebu, and more than 80 startup projects have now been given valuable support in their early stages. 

A free co-working space may sound alluring to most freshly-minted startups, but the Simula Garage offers much more than free space.

The goal is to support startups with conception, IPR issues, proposals for soft funding, and offer social events for entrepreneurs.

The companies in the garage are all tech-oriented and consist of smaller teams of 1–4 people.

 Inside Simula's modern headquarters is the Simula Garage - a free offering for ambitious IT entrepreneurs.

Inside Simula's modern headquarters is the Simula Garage - a free offering for ambitious IT entrepreneurs.

One of the entrepreneurs who has benefited greatly from these offerings is Frederico Valente of Imerso, a young high-tech company that works with virtual reality technology for businesses.

“Simula and the Simula Garage have been incredibly important to us. Here you get so much more than a desk to work at, you also get access to an invaluable network. If you're smart, you realize that this is a research institution, and start knocking on doors. This place is home to people with a unique and complex skill set.”

Valuable support

Imerso is now growing rapidly, and is one of the companies that has been at the Garage for longer than the usual one-year period, due to the fact that Simula Innovation has made an investment in the company.

Now Frederico and his colleagues have moved from the open startup landscape into a separate office in the same building, but he admits feeling a mix of joy and fear when he thinks about leaving the Garage:

“One day when we move out of here, it will be because we've grown enough to stand on our own, which of course is a positive. On the other hand, we wish we could stay here even if we get more funding - this has practically become our home, this is where we live,” he smiles.

 From left: Frederico Valente Almeida, Simen Andresen, Magnus Elden and Sarah Muller of Imerso.

From left: Frederico Valente Almeida, Simen Andresen, Magnus Elden and Sarah Muller of Imerso.

The time that the company has spent at the Garage has given them valuable support. “We have received help in preparing and designing applications, and help with our website, and we have gotten good advice on both legal issues in general and with IPR (intellectual property rights, such as patents and trademark registration) in particular. When it comes to obtaining ongoing funding, Simula’s network has been crucial."

Now Imerso has received high-profile support from the European Union funds, and Simula has also entered as an investment partner. In addition, Imerso has been selected as one of nine Norwegian startups to receive support from 500 Nordics. 500 Nordics is the Nordic subsidiary of startup investor 500 Startups, where Silicon Valley investor Sean Percival is partner.

Increased innovation as a goal

The Simula Garage is also a strategic initiative to increase the pace of internal innovation.

“Simula has three legs to stand on: research, education and innovation. We are well-positioned in terms of the first two, but we have been less satisfied with our innovation activities,” says Simula’s Managing Director Aslak Tveito.

He stresses that this is an issue Simula shares with many educational institutions. It is not always clear how to successfully bring research into the market.

Thus arose the discussion of how Simula could succeed in attracting more entrepreneurs into the research community, and the idea of he Simula Garage was born.

“Part of the motivation behind it is to invite people with different ideas and styles of thinking onto our home territory. Another driving force behind the Garage is that I think the conditions for innovators and founders in Norway should be better,” says Tveito.

The way forward

“We created a free service for founders, and we were aware that we had to keep costs down. So we spent nothing on marketing, and this meant that we got a rather slow start. But after a while, it caught on among entrepreneurs, and last year we were able to access new projects,” Tveito says.

What experiences has Simula gained so far?

“Early on, our projects were more divergent, so we eventually tried to focus more on IT projects. They fit well with the knowledge and expertise of those who work at Simula,” says Tveito, adding:

“Since we started the Garage, the focus on creating business out of our own research has increased substantially. Simula now co-owns 13 companies with over 80 employees. Several of these pay dividends to Simula. This activity is growing and some of the companies are promising. The Garage is one of the reasons we have gained more momentum on this.”

What have you done well, and what could be better?

“We have put in place mechanisms to assist startups with legal affairs, patenting, funding and more, and we can see who we should invest in further. I think we can become quite good at this, since we are so close to the founders. We would have liked to have more money to invest in multiple companies, and funds to help them technologically, and we would also like to be able to follow up with them better. However, we have to make sure to keep costs down to keep this as a free service, so we can’t build up too many services related to the Garage,” says Tveito.

He stresses that the offer will remain:

“We are going to continue with the Simula Garage and we will continue to invest in projects that we really believe in. The offering will be free of charge as long as we can afford it. Our ambition is to become even better at making profitable businesses and earning money that we can reinvest in research, education and innovation.”

Main caption: Inside Simula’s modern headquarters is the Simula Garage – a free offering for ambitious IT entrepreneurs.

A unique offering

The founders of the company Gallereel call the Simula Garage “a hidden gem”.

Stig Zerener Haugnæss, August André Kvernmo, Tor Egil Fusdahl and Ståle Zerener Haugnæss have no doubt in their minds—the Garage helps make the startup life easier.

When the boys decided to start Gallereel, a social platform for sharing private photo albums, the search for suitable office space began.

With their studies, and a month at "start-up summer camp", behind them, it was time to take things a step further.

“We stumbled across the Simula Garage and thought it sounded like a nice place. It was a great contrast from our cramped group study room at the University of Oslo, where we were worried that our Macs might be stolen when we went for lunch,” says Ståle.

“We also checked out StartupLab and MESH, but at such an early stage we weren’t interested in spending so much on office rent. Besides, the Simula Garage seemed quieter, and we got the impression that it was a place with the right environment to work and get a lot done.”

Nice people, a gym and discounted lunch were other advantages that tempted the young entrepreneurs.

 From left: August André Kvernmo, Ståle Zerener Haugnæss, Stig Zerener Haugnæss and Tor Egil Fusdahl of Gallereel.

From left: August André Kvernmo, Ståle Zerener Haugnæss, Stig Zerener Haugnæss and Tor Egil Fusdahl of Gallereel.

After a few months in the Garage they are still satisfied with their choice:

“We are very satisfied! Probably not very many people are aware of the Garage. A whole year without paying for office space is rather unique. It is a hidden gem,” concludes Ståle.

Help with financing

“If we had never come here, we would probably not have received research grants,” says Peder Songedal of the company Se og Lær.

The founder of Se og Lær, a marketplace for online courses, is glad to have found the Simula Garage.

Here, he and his collaborator Balsharan Kaur are developing a company that offers a wide selection of online courses in everything from wood carving to Excel.

“A buddy of mine had good things to say about them. We also considered StartupLab but dropped it because of rent. It usually takes three times longer than you expect to earn money with your operations, and with a rent on top of it all, we wouldn’t have made it.”

The two founders discovered very quickly that there were also benefits other than free office space awaiting them at the Garage.

The guidance they received inspired their search for funding—which they were awarded.

“The atmosphere at the Garage is another great advantage,” says Peder Sognedal.

“It’s a positive that you can link networks with the in-house researchers. Plus, it’s always nice to have a good social environment. We eat lunch together, and in a way, it’s like having colleagues.

 Peder Songedal of Se & Lær

Peder Songedal of Se & Lær