Sandbox for adults
How often is it that one can step into a building in an area that once was referred to as the “Funk Zone” and now is a “Tech Frontier” in beautiful, coastal Santa Barbara and spend a three-day weekend—54 hours—in a stylized space where 70 entrepreneurs come together to share ideas destined to make a city and perhaps the world a better place?
For me of Nordic heritage, the creative and exciting weekend revealed unexpected connections to Norway and inspired me to consider a change in my career path.
It happened during a “StartupWeekendSB” with the promotional tag “Pitch…Build…Launch…Network…Learn.” The place was the “Sandbox,” a unique co-working center for innovation where all the supportive resources for an office are provided to members. An added benefit is the lively group interactions with other entrepreneurs or organizations that co-work at the Sandbox.
Such weekends are promoted worldwide by TechStars, a Boulder, Colo.-based accelerator organization that has sponsored such weekends in 1,000 cities in 150 countries around the globe. On Dec. 5 this year, Techstars Energy Accelerator in partnership with Equinor (formerly Statoil) concludes three months of bringing together 10 innovative companies from around the world for co-working in Equinor’s office in Oslo, Norway.
I attended the Santa Barbara weekend with the intention of pitching an idea for a veterans’ project with a non-profit organization supporting families facing health traumas or natural disasters. The initiative was labeled “Wellness Warriors.” I was No. 17 of 27 individuals lined up for a 60-second pitch in a contest format for the top five awards. After hearing 16 excellent ideas, I decided, when it was my turn with the microphone, to defer my pitch and instead listen to the flood of fresh ideas by table hopping as participants defended their innovations—and to write about the experience.
The diversity in ages and perspectives was amazing: college exchange students, an emergency room physician, several new immigrants, a couple of college professors, and successful business mentors as coaches. The large space of the facility was filled with energy and buzz. Catered food lined a large counter of a kitchen area. The drone of conversations in clusters of participants only heightened the excitement. Open invitations at the tables encouraged anyone to join in and participate.
This stream of energy, coupled with serious planning for outcomes, sustained high productivity over hours as ideas were refined into action plans and some groups merged for collaborative co-working on a single goal. The third day, the interactions went from 9 a.m. until midnight, when the five winners were announced by a panel of judges.
At the end, I felt exhausted physically but energized to put the value of the experience to work. For me, what was especially interesting was how many attendees with whom I crossed paths had roots in Norway or Scandinavia.
First, I met a Swedish exchange student, Dennis Eriksson, who eventually won the prize in the category of Best Platform, with his project entitled We Connect. His presentation inspired me to envision a technological means to better interface with my Nordic family genealogy. Secondly, his mentor for the event, Dillon Kearns, is a trainer and teacher whose mother was born and grew up in Oslo.
Then, the keynote speaker at the closing session was Andreas Forsland, Founder and CEO of Cognixion, a company whose initial product, SmartStones, was created at Startup Weekend Santa Barbara in 2014. He is a Santa Barbara resident with a subsidiary company in Toronto. He has won awards for designing mechanisms that allow people without ability to speak to communicate by translating a person’s actual brain waves into digital conversations. Later in the evening, he told me that he had traveled last year to Norway to explore his heritage. His father has Norwegian roots with a grandmother from Nesna. I reminisced about studying at the University of Oslo and marrying a Norwegian from Voss. The climate of the conference encouraged these kind of conversations so that the participants got to know each other better.
I left the weekend feeling inspired and mobilized with the lingering feeling of pride in my heritage, a great respect for the digital generation, and refreshed personal opportunities to be creative and make a difference, if one is open for learning.
Two important features were compounded from the weekend experience at the Sandbox. First, I could apply some of the software in arrangements with the young tech-minded entrepreneurs that improved my social connectivity among non-profits and likewise was beneficial to their business growth. Secondly, I could re-tool a distance-learning platform that I’ve been affiliated with for years on the University of North Dakota’s Aerospace platform (called eZ Learning Management System) that enables me, in a new way via technology, to interact with mobility and to interface remotely with two brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, and other kin in Norway.
It’s no wonder why they call the start-up method an “accelerator.” It’s a win-win experience for enterprise where everyone learns co-working and collaboration and ideas take flight, even for an 88-year-old retired colonel, professor, and feature editor who is always looking for a meaningful story.
When I reflected on the weekend experience, I made a shift in my career path as a social entrepreneur in non-profit organizations. I dusted off a dormant R&D LLC that was shelved three years ago after two surgeries, created a mobile film “studio” in a backpack with digital film equipment, lights, tripods, and reflectors, attached it to my 4-wheel medical walker as a film dolly, and began a plan, as I originally intended to pitch during the start-up weekend, to produce short documentaries of veterans supporting families facing health traumas or recovering in shelters from natural disasters.
This article originally appeared in the December 28, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.