Bernt Inge Øhrn (center) has been part of numerous projects at Mechatronics Innovation Lab. Left: Finn Oscar Karlsen (CEO, Pioneer Robotics). Right: Erlend Knutsen (CEO, Applica Robot Integration).

“It is definitely not a lab anymore, I guess it hasn’t been a lab for quite some time. It is so much more. An arena for innovation. That's what it is. An arena for innovation.”

On his first day as former CEO of Mechatronics Innovation Lab (Svein Inge Ringstad was appointed interim CEO as of March 1), Bernt Inge Øhrn reflects on the evolution of the facility that opened only three and a half years ago, but still seems to have been with us much longer.

When it opened in 2017, MIL was a long-awaited lab facility specializing in mechatronics. The major companies in the Agder region had committed to using the lab, but following the 2014 crash in oil prices, uncertainty was part of the climate in which MIL was introduced to the market.

Raising NOK 143 million in private capital, mainly from companies within GCE NODE – MHWirth, Nymo, Cameron Sense (Schlumberger) and also National Oilwell Varco, in addition to Ugland Eiendom – was a great achievement, and necessary to match and release public funding.

“The government provided NOK 106 million, of which NOK 50 million has yet to be spent”, says Øhrn.

“What? You didn’t spend all the money?”

“Well, we did purchase all the equipment that we were given money to purchase. But by teaming up with the supplier industry, we were able to bargain prices down to approximately half of the actual market price. After we opened and people got to know what MIL was all about, we achieved even better prices, as suppliers were keen to have their equipment showcased in our facilities,” says Øhrn.

“MIL’s goal is to never ever again ask for funding. If we remain relevant and attractive, we will be self-sufficient. Going forward, I believe companies will line up to do projects at MIL and to have equipment displayed and in operation at MIL,” says Øhrn.

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Bernt Inge Øhrn presenting Mechatronics Innovation Lab at the GCE NODE Top Leader Forum in April 2017.

MIL is often described as an amusement park for engineers. So far 5,400 people have visited MIL in some capacity, mainly to attend seminars, workshops or to run projects. The number of customer relationships is close to 500, the majority based in the Agder region, but MIL has an increasingly national foothold.

“We have customers from all over Norway. We approach them with what we call inverted innovation, which is us encouraging them to be open to learn about new technology before they form an idea of how to approach a problem. When we opened, we had 50 different technologies represented at MIL, of which 80 per cent had never before been seen in Norway. People should come to MIL with an open and curious mind to look for solutions they never knew existed,” says Øhrn.

The original idea was for MIL to function as a tool for building a stronger offshore supplier industry in Agder. But already on its opening day, MIL was a more generic facility, relevant for various industries.

“MIL is an innovation partner. We soon realized that equipment alone is not enough. Equipment must be coupled with competence. MIL provides both, which is why we should stop referring to MIL as a lab and start talking about MIL as an arena for innovation,” says Øhrn.

It didn’t take long for MIL to show all the signs of a success. Financially, an ambition to be in the black within five years, was achieved in half the time. An annual growth rate of 30 per cent is still the pace that characterizes the development of MIL.

“2020 results are very strong, and we enjoy a 100 per cent increase in order backlog for 2021 compared to 2020,” says Øhrn.

After four years, Øhrn is both saddened and excited to leave MIL. Saddened because he would have liked to continue the journey, but still excited because he found something which, right now, is more appealing.

“MIL is also a strong muscle, a driver for innovation, for value creation, for strengthening the industry in Agder, in Southern Norway and beyond. I would have liked to continue to be part of MIL, but there is a time for everything,” says Øhrn.

And right now, it is time to take over as CEO of Survitec Maritime Protection, a GCE NODE participant with 45 employees in Kristiansand, and a subsidiary of London-based Survitec.

“I am very much looking forward to it. I will make sure to let fellow GCE NODE participants learn more about this exciting company in months to come,” says Øhrn.

Tom Fidjeland, CEO of GCE NODE commends Øhrn for his work at MIL.

“Bernt Inge has done a fantastic job. MIL has developed to become a national center for bringing new technologies to Norwegian companies. Going forward I hope that MIL will build on what has been achieved and further develop this innovation arena. Innovation and research projects involving the University of Agder, MIL and the technology-oriented companies in Norway, will bring new knowledge and competencies which is much needed in years to come,” says Fidjeland.

From the opening ceremony of MIL August 2017: Rector Frank Reichert of the University of Agder, Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland and CEO of GCE NODE Anne-Grete Ellingsen.