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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Looking abroad for Business Investment

Frank Lavin, under secretary for international trade at the US Department of Commerce, knows as well as anyone how difficult it is for tech entrepreneurs to market their wares internationally. Dubbed 'America's salesman-in-chief', part of his job is to help US businesses partner and collaborate abroad.

Speaking at a briefing this week focused on clean technology opportunities in the Nordic region, Lavin pointed out that many businesses with disruptive technologies don't have the scope to handle international opportunities. For one thing, it's not part of their corporate culture - and for another, they tend not to be structured in a way that lets them market systematically around the world. It's down to his International Trade Administration team, with 2200 people around the world, to help US companies take advantage of those opportunities.

The breakfast briefing - hosted in San Francisco by law firm Heller Ehrman and, unusually, featuring three US ambassadors on a roadshow in their home country - was designed to focus attention on clean tech opportunities in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and oil-rich Norway. There's no shortage of entrepreneurs in the region and no shortage of technology - in fact, James Cain, US ambassador to Denmark, described it as the most wired market in the world, the most tech savvy of its size anywhere, and highly innovative in alternative energy. But what many entrepreneurs in the region lack, according to participants at the event, is both the capital and marketing expertise to turn great ideas into great businesses.

That, in theory, presents a big opportunity for foreign investors and tech companies looking to partner and collaborate. And while the whole focus of the briefing was on the Nordic region's relationship with the US, the opportunities aren't purely transatlantic. Just as Germany is a global leader in the adoption of solar energy, so the Nordic regions are making great strides in areas such as wave and wind power, biofuels and carbon sequestration - and that's got to present opportunities for London clean tech entrepreneurs as well.

In fact, proximity may even give UK entrepreneurs an advantage over their US counterparts, particularly in their awareness of the cultural differences between the four Scandinavian countries. Although the ambassadors urged attendees to consider the four countries as one region, they acknowledged local cultural rivalries. Benson Whitney, US ambassador to Norway, couldn't resist telling how he'd been approached by a Swedish woman asking him what Norway had that Sweden didn't. 'I was thinking oil', he mused, to laughter. 'Then she said: 'Good neighbours.''

By Keith Rodgers, Webster Buchanan Research