Those Who Connect The Dots — A conversation with Kasper Birkeholm


This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews exploring the notion of Nordic creativity and innovation. To find out more about the project, please click here

Since 2009, Kasper Birkeholm has been with the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), in charge of developing and running the publicly funded Inventor Advisory Service (IAS). Each year, the Inventor Advisory Service helps thousands of Danes explore their ideas with the aim of turning these ideas into validated, commercializable inventions, products and services. Building on +40 years of experience with idea creation, validation and commercialization, the IAS consults more than 5000 inventors, screens over 1000 unique inventions and mediates 10-15 license agreements every year.

I sat down for a chat with Kasper in his office at the Danish Technological Institute, 15 km west of Copenhagen, to hear more about how Denmark is harnessing the creative potential of its citizens. What you’ll find below is an excerpt of our conversation, lightly edited for lenght and clarity. I hope you enjoy it.

HRH: Hi Kasper, what is this place?

KASPER: This is the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), a poly-technical, non-profit research and technology organization that is more than a hundred years old. Basically, we do technological consultancy and R&D projects through government funding and we also do classic, commercial business consultancy.

There are eight divisions and underneath those eight divisions, we have approximately forty subdivisions or Centers of Excellence that specialize in different things, including Materials and Surface Technology, AgroTech, and Life Science. We are around eleven hundred employees in Aarhus and in Taastrup, and the way we work is that we take bleeding edge technology from the university sector and develop projects involving mostly small and medium-sized Danish companies, but as soon as the technology reaches a maturity level that makes it applicable to the industry and private companies take up this technology and start pushing it into the market, we pull back and then we find the next additive manufacturing technology.

That’s the sort of cyclical domain we are in. We work in between the non-validated, high-end bleeding edge technology and the mass market introduction of it, so in a way, I guess you could say we play an important role in the technology infrastructure in Denmark and function as a driver for converting the newest knowledge and technology into value.

HRM: What about the Inventor Advisory Service? Can you tell me more about it?

KASPER: Now you are talking about the operation that I run. The Inventor Advisory Service (IAS) is an innovation scheme that was established in 1972 and since then, the aim has been to help Danish citizens with good ideas, validate those ideas and bring them to the market. The IAS is supported by the Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education and it’s free of charge. That means that anyone living in Denmark — whether they are native Danish citizens or not — can have free access to our consultancy services and our expertise on how to develop an idea and license it to existing companies.

Every year, we are approached by thousands of private citizens; from hairdressers to nurses to engineers to the unemployed, they are all over Denmark, coming up with ideas and thinking of ways of solving all kinds of problems through creativity and innovation. Part of our role is helping them establish if they are indeed solving a valid problem, and whether their solution is solving the problem in a way that attracts the market — is their invention cheaper, better, faster, or more healthy than existing technology and can it be done at a price that is interesting in the market? — but we also help them sell their technology based on a license agreement to an existing company, by which they earn a royalty every time a product is sold.

HRM: How did you first get involved with the Inventor Advisory Service?

KASPER: I have been an entrepreneur myself so I have been through all those early-stage entrepreneurial processes and also earned some pretty harsh learnings in that domain, developing technology that unfortunately did not resonate with the market. At some point, after making my biggest failure, someone called me and said there was a position at DTI where I could actually use my experience to counsel, spar, and give advice to people with great ideas, and I thought that it actually sounded like a great job.

To me, it was like an epiphany. I have a business major so I thought I knew everything there was to know about how to get an idea, validate it, and bring it to the market, that was my background… but I was so wrong. And if I was wrong, then I knew there would be thousands of people that would be wrong as well so I decided to apply for the job, hoping I could share my experiences and learnings, and distribute them to other people so that they can move forward with their inventions.

That was nine years ago and here I am, still in this mothership. It’s an old company and there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved, but I have managed to carve out a place for myself here. I have my little, autonomous laboratory that I share with my colleagues and although sometimes I run into stuff, I just push through to get it done and then focus on the inspirational part of it, which is making a change in people’s lives by offering advice that is transformative.

HRM: On average, how many ideas a year do you review?

KASPER: Each year, we talk to around five thousand people all over Denmark and from those five thousand, we narrow it down to a thousand unique ideas/inventions, all of which are submitted to us digitally.

Back in the day, you could call us up and you could tell us you had an idea and you could talk to people on the telephone. Imagine that. Obviously, we didn’t know if the person at the other end of the line was somebody with a very early-stage idea or if the person was serious about it, so we had trouble investing our time properly because the very immature, very early-stage ideas were getting access to the same sparring as those with a great, more developed ideas so, at some point, we decided to lift the bar a bit and make the application process more thorough; now, if you want our sparring and our advice, then you need to do some homework and tell us about your idea, about your motivation, about the work you’ve put into it, show us any drawings or sketches… and all of that is now done online.

HRM: Developing a thousand ideas a year must demand a decent amount of work. How many people are involved in this process?

KASPER: We are only five full-time employees working with the commercialization of a thousand unique inventions in parallel, which means we need to activate the owners and make them care for their inventions, otherwise it simply can’t be done. If you have an idea, the idea is yours. It’s not mine. I might be very interested in sharing with you all my experience and advice the best I can, and I want you to succeed, but you need to realize that if you want to achieve something with an invention, you need to work for it. That’s Danish culture.

Occasionally, we are approached by people who have an idea but we know immediately they want us to sort everything out for them, fix what needs to be fixed, and then call them to collect the money. We have that kind of people but luckily they don’t come in large numbers. Most of the times, the lovely citizens that come to us do so because they are interested in solving a real problem and wish to see their idea come to fruition in the market so we do our best to keep them motivated, to keep them on their toes and help them break down the process into manageable and understandable steps, because then they can become a really important resource in the process of developing their ideas and overcoming the challenges that arise along the way.

In that sense, I guess you could say we are five full-time employees and a thousand owners that work hard to make those ideas happen.

HRM: These inventors that reach out to you, are they very protective of their ideas?

KASPER: Yes, they are. Many of them are afraid that if they share their ideas with us then we will steal them. That’s funny, I think, considering here in Denmark we generally have high levels of trust between public and private sector, and also between citizens, but still, people can be afraid.

The truth, however, is that we have been running this operation since 1972 and since then, we haven’t had one single case of plagiarism or anything like it. We run on government funding so we don’t invest in the ideas nor we take any margins, so the IAS is completely independent and people can really trust us and count on our advice.

Trust, that’s the only thing we have and if we can’t manage that, we wouldn’t be here.

HRM: I’m curious, what’s the ratio between male and female inventors?

KASPER: I’d say is about 25% women and 75% men but we also run a Fablab that is part of the service, and there I’d say the ratio is fifty-fifty.

HRM: Why do you think there is such a gap between male and female inventors?

KASPER: There’s been a lot of discussion on this issue and one argument is that women, obviously, are a very important part of building a family and during the period where they have kids, they can end up being less willing to take risks than men so maybe that’s a factor, I don’t know.

Other than that, of course, I see absolutely no difference in the capabilities of men versus women.

HRM: What has your time at the Inventor Advisory Service taught you about the creative process?

KASPER: I think it’s taught me that it can be full of surprises and therefore, you need to be really, really careful when judging the potential of ideas. Likewise, when facing very simple ideas one must be aware that the creative process behind a simple idea sometimes have been even more complex than for more composite ideas.

Sometimes, we have seen ideas and when we have discussed them, without the inventor there, we have been like, “what’s this? This is insane! This is going nowhere!” but it’s not our judgment that determines if an idea is good or bad, it’s the market and sometimes the market works in mysterious ways. That’s our strategy. We cannot judge anything, we need to involve stakeholders from the value chain and start that sort of anthropological journey; asking questions, understanding the problem, doing customer development, getting the insights, looking at the purchasing behavior… that’s what it’s all about.

We try to help inventors hone into the problem they think they are solving and sometimes we see ideas, services, or products take off against all odds.

HRM: Off the top of your head, can you think of any examples in particular?

KASPER: Oh, that’s a tough one. Our portfolio of ideas is very, very dispersed so I don’t know… OK, people with dogs. They come up with ideas for toys and feeding stations, crazy stuff. I have a dog and I’m like, “there’s a dog, there’s a food tray… what else do you need?” But there are so many people who just love buying things for their pets so, in that area, there are lots of seemingly absurd inventions showing huge sales.

Then there are inventors with contextual experience — people that work in the domain where their idea originates from, and know a lot about the stuff they are doing and do it every day — trying to solve problems that I can understand and relate to; really skilled professionals with an idea that we all think is fantastic but that nobody wants to pay for.

For example, we had a carpenter with an idea for a tool that could help position windows correctly when building houses. In his opinion, that was a tedious and problematic job because it required you to level the window and make sure it was aligned, so he came up with an idea for this tool that would allow you to secure the position of the window both horizontally and vertically. We thought it was great so we built a prototype and then we decided to interview other carpenters to see what they thought about it.

Much to our surprise, nobody else had that problem. I think we talked to twenty carpenters with the same kind of job, same experience, and they had no interest in a tool like that. Nothing. All of them had found ways of dealing with that situation, they had their own hacks based on the tools they already had so they really didn’t want another tool. If anything, they needed fewer tools.

I really had my hopes up for him because he was so convinced when he presented the idea, it was so real, that we all thought it had potential. We really thought this could go somewhere. But in the end, the idea died because this tool turned out to be a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, or you could say that the problem at hand had already been solved by another invention, which was using existing tools in a cheaper process that was maybe even faster.

HRM: That’s interesting. Do you often see a disconnect between the problem inventors want to solve and the problem they should actually be solving?

KASPER: Yes, a big disconnect. Absolutely.

If you look at the data from, let’s say, CB Insights every year they make this post-mortem data analysis on why startups fail and that disconnect between problem and solution is the biggest reason for failure.

HRM: How do you help these inventors, who are possibly obsessed about their ideas, to hone on the real problem? How do you approach that process?

KASPER: Since you work in the creative business, you might have heard about design thinking and all those anthropological approaches and creative strategies to understanding and solving problems, that’s what we are trying to do.

If you are very infatuated with your idea but you are stuck with it, we will expect you to do some customer discovery. Actually, we will help you map the value chain, identify who are the relevant stakeholders for an idea like that, and then we will try to hold your hand and get you going out there. Just like you are doing with your project now, traveling around Scandinavia to get insights into a domain you want to know, we try to help people overcome the barrier of just wanting to sit in their office with the blinds down and push them out into the real world.

It’s a difficult process but most people buy into it because they know that if they start asking questions and they start listening to what people have to say about their invention, they will learn from that process and it will actually make their idea better. As soon as they do that, they start having valuable conversations about the real problem they should be solving. Many realize they were so obsessed with their idea that they couldn’t see they were trying to impose on people a solution they didn’t want or need, so they pivot and change their approach.

That’s our hack. We want our advice and our approach not only to improve a particular idea but to fundamentally change the way people think about ideas because to us, it’s the human potential that matters the most. Look at it this way: we interact with a thousand inventors a year, right? That’s only a thousand ideas but those thousand owners have a massive potential so if I can teach them, train them, or give them the insight, the experience, and courage to act and operate in new ways that are more open and more involving and more empathetic, then those thousand inventors have a huge potential of coming up not only with a thousand ideas but five thousand ideas, faster, and hopefully more bullet-proof ideas.

For that to happen, however, you need to have a specific mindset. How can you gain that mindset? Only by doing. We offer a methodology and all sorts of tools, and when you use them, you train your mindset. That’s what happens. When you go out and face the fear of talking to other people about your idea, you grow. You get the hang of it. And it changes the way you think about yourself, which means you will become even better at applying those methods so, for me, it’s about getting that ball rolling.

That’s the bloody brilliant thing about it… humans, they have ideas. We just need to help them get into action and believe in themselves as creative individuals. After this meeting today, for example, we have thirty students from a school in Jutland coming in and we will give them a talk about how to work with ideas and help them connect with themselves because that’s part of it, right? There’s a lot of people that aren’t knowledgeable about their own capabilities and they are much more creative and insightful than they think they are.

HRM: You just talked about how important it is to ask questions. When you were a kid, were you encouraged by your family and teachers to ask questions, even if that made them uncomfortable?

KASPER: No. No, I wasn’t. My parents are teachers so when I entered school, I was way ahead of the other kids because I could already write and read, so I was just sitting around. I was also very, very shy. At that time, the teacher planned what we were supposed to learn and there was just one answer, that was my schooling. And I remember it puzzled me, it actually did. Because I was so shy and I couldn’t interact with that many people, I was often wondering, “What is this? What is this for?” But I never got the courage to ask questions, ever.

I do a lot of reflection, a lot of observation. I think that’s a muscle that I have trained. Sitting there in silence as a shy kid, I just observed people. I have always been observing; facial expressions, language, movement. I never asked the questions but I observed so I have a huge databank and now, as an adult, realizing how important it is to ask questions, I love having that databank and that I have developed a strong ability to sense people’s feelings, thoughts, aspirations. That’s who I am.

Sometimes, though, it’s overwhelming. It’s like I’m listening to all radio stations at the same time, and that’s a distraction.

HRM: Have you got better at asking questions?

KASPER: Yeah, I think so. I use that ability to listen to multiple radio stations at the same time, that’s part of my creativity and my ability to understand. I think I have built an engine inside that makes it possible for me to process a lot of info, very quickly. Maybe it’s my intuition, actually. I have developed a processor that gives me an intuitive grasp of things and that intuition, of course, I try to apply in questions to check whether I’m on the right track or the wrong track.

Being 45 years old, that’s a lovely gift and it’s something that I treasure. I’m not bragging about it because my intuition has led me to all sorts of places but being forty-five now, with kids, I have come to a stage where I can now control it and use it for valuable purposes. As a young kid, I wasn’t able to control it and it was crazy. And I try to teach my kids that you should train the muscle but you should still be present and ask the questions, and I think the combination is very strong.

HRM: What are creatives and innovators pushing against in a place as idyllic as Copenhagen? In other words, if creativity thrives under constraints and adversity, what is fueling it here?

KASPER: I don’t know. When you read about it and you look at it, it seems we are a creative nation. We have had a lot of successful creatives do stuff that is manifested all over the world, and yet, I don’t know… there’s a lot of conformity in Denmark, I think.

I’m not sure if that’s what fuels creativity here but at least I know that conformity is what fuels me, as a creative. To a large degree I see myself as a non-conformist and I do like that struggle against the conformity, cynicism and complacency that often reveals it’s ugly head in big organizations and cultures.

HRM: In your opinion, what best captures the spirit of Danish creativity and inventiveness?

KASPER: We have always tried to be those who connect the dots since we couldn’t rely on a specific competitive edge. We are this little country of five and a half million people with no oil, no minerals, a struggling agricultural sector…We have bacon but Danish bacon is not like oil so I think we have always had to look for cooperation and collaboration.

If you look at the cooperative movement, that’s very Danish. This idea that together we are stronger has formed Denmark and it’s part of the Danish soul, so I think that has influenced the way we think. Obviously, the most divergent ideas often come in solitude but the realization of creativity is a convergent process that you do together with other people, and I think that’s something we do in Denmark, maybe better than in some other countries.

HRM: Creativity is not only about coming up with ideas; it also involves making critical judgments about them, often having to reject some ideas to pursue others. How do you think Scandinavians well-known aversion to conflict influences the way they approach creativity?

KASPER: That’s a good question. Working with leadership, that’s one of my personal challenges: Hitting that sweet spot of taking a decision and sticking with it in order to progress because the creative process is only interesting if it progresses, otherwise it just becomes a loop of convergence and divergence and convergence and divergence until nobody knows what’s going on anymore.

We don’t want to confront people, we don’t want to step on people’s toes, we want to avoid coming off as authoritative. We don’t like that. I don’t like that but I know that I need to do it, and I’m still learning how to do it. Sometimes my colleagues say, “Kasper, please, step in and take the decision because otherwise, I’m shooting myself. This can’t go on and on and on,” so yeah, it’s a problem, and it’s something I pay attention to and I reflect upon because I think that if you take our egalitarian and collaborative approach and give it the right sense of direction at the right moment, then I think you have a head start and that’s where ideas really take off.

HRM: Apart from that, what other challenges does Denmark need to overcome if it wants to continue fostering innovative and competitive companies with global influence?

KASPER: We absolutely need to change the educational system and work more with building social-emotional skills. We need to get rid of Jante’s Law, we need to foster human beings that are more self-recognized and that come out of school with a sense of purpose. You can say it’s a modern educational system but students are still knowledge consumers more than they are knowledge producers, and most of them are much brighter than I will ever be so we have to set them free and facilitate their ability to experiment, even if there’s a risk of failure. I think that’s important and it would help us a great deal.

HRM: What are your fears for the creative future of Denmark?

KASPER: I don’t know if I have any fears but I think that we like to collaborate with each other within Denmark and of course, we can collaborate with other nations, but I think Denmark is not as multiculturally-savvy as many other countries.

We are still in a dilemma where we have a lot of foreigners coming in but we don’t really know how to tackle that. You know how it is… if you don’t speak Danish in Denmark, you’re frowned upon. That’s strange. People don’t frown upon people like that in other countries but in Denmark, that’s the rule. We expect people to speak Danish even though we all know it’s a silly language that’s only spoken by five and a half million people and that’s is very difficult to learn.

HRM: Yeah, tell me about it.

KASPER: I know, I know! (laughs) That’s something I’m a bit frightened about, that we have become too close. We need to open up. I think that would improve our ability to come up with more ideas, new solutions, and make an impact in the world.

HRM: Speaking of making an impact… I know this is a radical change of subject but I have to ask you about the Euro ’92. Danes seem to be fixated on that particular event. I have heard about it so many times over the last few years, in all sorts of different contexts, that I have always wondered why it’s become such an important aspect of Danish culture. Do you remember when were you where the Danish team won the Euro cup?

KASPER: Yes, that was same summer when I finished high school so that was an awesome summer. We had the best weather and there was so much festivity and partying going on that summer, both because I graduated from high school but also because we won that.

HRM: What does that victory mean to you?

KASPER: That was the apex of nationality in Denmark; we were a small stupid country and we weren’t even preselected, it was only because I don’t know who didn’t show up…

HRM: Yugoslavia

KASPER: Exactly! (laughs) And then, we beat them all! Even the Germans!

In Sweden, no less!

KASPER: Yeah, yeah, that was the pinnacle of Danish egalitarian culture.

HRM: What impact do you think that victory had on Denmark’s collective sense of self-worth?

KASPER: Although people refer to it a lot, it’s not that important to me. Looking back, I think I have always laughed a bit about it because there was luck involved as well, definitely, and that’s OK, but I wonder if we keep churning more out of that story. I have seen it being used in so many cases as a narrative of this country coming together, this bigger than life thing… it’s ridiculous. We won the European Championship and that’s it, it’s not a narrative of Denmark.

HRM: Don’t you think there’s a bit of that?

KASPER: I don’t know but for me, it’s not such a big deal. I have heard people talking about it a ton of times as well but if you hadn’t mentioned, I would have never brought it up because, for me, it’s a single event. It’s not that fantastic. There must be more important stuff to investigate or form a narrative around than eleven people occasionally winning the European Championship; we haven’t won it since and we will probably not win it in the next hundred years.

And it’s not to be negative, I just don’t think it’s that great a story. There are so many other things that we miss out on. Talking about, let’s say, the cooperative movement. It’s something we never talk about but for me, it stands out as something we should really reconnect with because in some sense, I think we have forgotten that what has actually created this country is cooperation, and we don’t do that. Yes, we do cooperate, but it’s not celebrated in the same way despite it being a very a formative period for Denmark.

As Danes, I believe that we should reconnect with it because in there lies a lot of our sense of being.

HRM: Why do you think people don’t talk about it or celebrate it in the same way? Could it be that cooperation and collaboration are values that are so ingrained in Danish culture that people just take it for granted?

KASPER: Maybe, but that’s when I think we lose out on something in history that it’s much more important than eleven guys playing football. It’s a bit annoying to base a narrative around something that it’s not that big, it’s gotten too much attention. Yes, it was a warm summer and it was the perfect excuse for Danes to drink insane amounts of beer and be foolish… but a hot summer, drinking beer as a narrative for the story about Denmark? I just don’t get it!

We have hundreds of years of history forming the country, there are so many great things in Danish culture that we should be talking about and forming our narrative around. I truly think the cooperative movement is where the seeds for our egalitarian culture and our welfare system was planted, which leads to our ability to be creative and innovative. It’s formed on those cultural values of the cooperative movement, at least in my perspective, and it has nothing to do with those eleven guys in shorts winning that stupid game because, in the context of Danish history, it’s a very insignificant event.

You know, I didn’t think that much of the cooperative movement until I started investigating and working with innovation, and getting interested in creativity and our ability to create new products and services. I had an advisor when I did my Masters thesis and he said, “look, Kasper, you should look into the cooperative movement. Try to understand that and you will understand a lot about what Denmark is about and what Denmark could be about.”

I think we have forgotten that.

Want to read another interview discussing creativity and innovation in the Nordics? — Check out my conversation with Susana Tosca, Associate Professor of Digital Media at the Department of Arts and Humanities at Roskilde University, where we talk about how some Danish schools are using technology and design thinking to nurture children’s creative potential.

You can read the interview here.

Hr. Meaner is a Copenhagen-based visual artist from Venezuela, currently on a quest across Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, talking to experts in different fields to get a better understanding of the forces and attitudes that are shaping creative thinking in the region and try finding out if there is indeed a connection between this part of the world and its most innovative ideas.

Follow his visual diary on Instagram or find out more about his work at hrmeaner.com


Leave a comment


Please note, comments must be approved before they are published