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What Brought Norwegian Royalty to Silicon Valley

Norway's Crown Prince Haakon tests the Oculus Rift along with Crown Princess Mette-Marit; Jeanette Iren Moen, Deputy Minister Trade & Industry; and Soby Vindfallet, CEO of Making View AS. Photograph: Mikkel Aaland/Innovation Norway

With Norway finally starting to feel the pain from Europe’s debt crisis, the oil-dependent country is looking for ways to diversify its economy, and -- surprise -- tech has emerged as a promising area of development.

That's a big reason for a visit by the crown prince and princess of Norway to Silicon Valley last week. They arrived at a small loft space called Innovation House, where Norwegian technology entrepreneurs gave them demos of some of the gadgets being worked on there.

Princess Mette-Marit waved her hand in front of a tablet computer to test an ultrasound-powered control device, and then Prince Haakon put on a pair of Oculus Rift 3-D glasses to take a virtual skydive.

Novel consumer electronics aren’t the typical Norwegian invention. The country is Western Europe’s largest oil exporter, and its economy is heavily dependent on energy production. Innovation is more focused on offshore-drilling techniques than on building the next iPhone.

“A lot of the tech jobs are actually in that (oil) industry,” Prince Haakon said in an interview. “That's a challenge to find different industries and to develop different parts of our economy.”

The Norwegian government is working with venture capitalists on creating seed funds geared toward technology investments, said Jeanette Moen, the deputy minister of trade and industry. During the royal visit, the prince and princess also touted Norwegian tech to investors based in the U.S. and elsewhere, she said.

Innovation Norway, a government-backed group promoting new business ventures in the country, provides grants for Norwegian entrepreneurs and leases discounted office space for them to relocate to Silicon Valley. About 20 people at a time work out of the Innovation House office in downtown Palo Alto, California, and more than 1,000 companies come in each year, said Mark Robinson, a senior adviser for the group.

Elliptic Labs, which makes the gesture-control technology that the princess played with, began operating in Silicon Valley in 2011 and receives $200,000 to $300,000 a year from Innovation Norway, said Haakon Bryhni, the company’s chief operating officer. Research into the project, which uses microphones to capture hand movement via ultrasound, began in 2008, and Elliptic Labs now has 10 employees based in Silicon Valley along with 15 in Oslo, Bryhni said. The dominance of the oil industry in Norway makes hiring designers and engineers there difficult, he said.

Most of Norway’s resources still seem to go toward oil and gas, said Are Vindfallet, the chief executive officer of Making View. The company develops flexible cameras that can be mounted on helmets to capture 3-D views of the wearer’s surroundings. It has a deal with Red Bull to target a market similar to the one dominated by Woodman Labs, which makes GoPro cameras. Impressed by Making View’s work recording car races and skydiving stunts, the makers of the Oculus Rift, a popular 3-D goggles device in development, contacted the Norwegian company in November and sent prototype units.

While there are some seeds of tech sprouting in Norway, they won’t come close to rivaling the nation’s energy industry anytime soon. And as Princess Mette-Marit told me, it would "be hard to recreate what you have here in California."

Still, the royal family was impressed by the technology on display last week. The crown prince described Making View’s 3-D video demo as “pretty awesome.”

This story was first published in Bloomberg's Global Tech Today newsletter. To get an early jump on the top tech news from around the world, sign up for the free weekday report.

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