From Iceland — Embracing Innovation, Finding Inspiration

Embracing Innovation, Finding Inspiration

Published May 22, 2023

Embracing Innovation, Finding Inspiration
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Iceland Innovation Week/Supplied Photo

Iceland Innovation Week returns to showcase the big ideas of Icelandic and international startups

Iceland has a shockingly flourishing start-up scene for such a small country. Or maybe it’s not surprising at all and the island’s small size necessitates the individual creation of new creative and business ventures to avoid stagnation. Whatever the reason, the entrepreneurial landscape appears to be in constant bloom.

Enter Iceland Innovation Week, an annual festival celebrating and showcasing innovation while promising “insights into the dynamic world of Icelandic venture capital and funding trends from top industry experts.” Founded in 2019, the IIW is happening again May 22 to 26, promising opportunities for start ups to connect with potential investors and solution-minded entrepreneurs to rub shoulders with policy makers and other agents of change.

“All the other Nordic countries have huge festivals aiming to showcase their innovation scene,” says festival director Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir. “Iceland didn’t have anything like that, so that’s kind of how it all started.”

Business, but make it quirky

Melkorka wasn’t interested in founding an event that would usher hundreds of delegates into a stuffy room for long days of talks and presentations. Instead, IIW is decentralized, with happenings unfolding in various locations around Reykjavík, giving companies the opportunity to play host and attendees a chance to see more than an auditorium.

“We have everything from karaoke parties in a startups headquarters to panel discussions about innovation in the public sector,” Melkorka says of the agenda. “We have a failure night, where people from different companies talk about their failures and fuck up stories, and we have nights dedicated to climate talks and so on.”

“We wanted to create something that’s like going to the theater. So we created a concept for the year and then we create a script around all our speakers who are coming and all the topics that they’re addressing.”

As Melkorka explains it, the vibe the IIW team is aiming to capture is akin to the sense of discovery one would get in the early days of the Iceland Airwaves festival, when you could stumble into a bar or storefront and happen upon a performance from what could be the next big musical superstar. “We want you to be able to almost randomly pop into an office for a happy hour and see the CEO of the next big unicorn company talking in a more intimate setting,” Melkorka elaborates. “I think that’s what Iceland and the festivals we hold here offer: this cool and quirky atmosphere where everything can happen serendipitously.”

Five themes and a stage production

All the talks, events, happy hours and other happenings throughout IIW fall into one (or more) of the festivals five themes: Fun & Games, highlighting startups in the gaming and entertainment sector; Greener Than Green, which includes innovations tackling the climate crisis; Everybody Loves Everybody, dedicated to discussions of diversity; Techno – Tech Yes!, which (you guessed is) is all about the wonders of technology; and Food Mood, focussing on innovation in food and drink production. Also wrapped into the week’s agenda are the Nordic Startup Awards.

Then there’s the climate conference within the festival

Ok, Bye is where Melkorka’s background in choreography and performance really come into play. Named for Ok, the most recent ice cap in Iceland to melt to the point of losing its glacial status, Ok, Bye intertwines serious discussion about the climate crisis and the role of innovators in alleviating environmental stressors, with thematic artistic, visual and musical performances.

“We wanted to create something that’s like going to the theater. So we created a concept for the year and then we create a script around all our speakers who are coming and all the topics that they’re addressing,” Melkorka says of the performative approach to a climate conference. “So last year, we welcomed everybody to an Icelandic campsite recreated on stage and this year we’re welcoming everybody to an Icelandic oceanfront, where we were going on a boat trip to learn about the ocean and the problems and challenges we are facing.”

“I think Iceland is a perfect place to discuss these things because this is literally where we can see the glaciers melting in front of our eyes and the sea levels rising.”

Ready to be inspired

Melkorka is expecting 700 attendees at this year’s festival – half of them coming from abroad – including founders, investors and policy makers. But it’s not strictly an event for those with an established business on an upward trajectory or with big money to throw around. It’s an equally good opportunity to learn, network and maybe dust off that startup idea you’ve had kicking around the back of your mind.

As Melkorka says, “it’s a place for everybody to get inspired.”

Iceland Innovation Week takes place May 22 – 26, at Gróska and several other locations in and around Reykjavík. Check out the full schedule and buy festival passes at Many of the week’s happenings are open to the public, too.

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