🇮🇸 Arctic Profiles: Dr. Thor Sigfússon, Iceland Ocean Cluster

By Elías Thorsson - June 13, 2023
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Dr. Thor Sigfusson, Founder of Iceland Ocean Cluster. Photo: Iceland Ocean Cluster

By Elías Thorsson

Dr. Thor Sigfússon is an Icelandic entrepreneur and writer who for the past 13 years has been overseeing the startup and innovation hub, The Iceland Ocean Cluster (Sjávarklasinn in Icelandic). Following an illustrious career in the business community, he set out to fish for innovation within Iceland’s most traditional of industries – fishing.

“I have been founding businesses since I was a kid in Vestmannaeyjar. For instance, I started a book publishing house at 18. It has always been something that has been with me, but my career ended up being a lot more traditional,” says Sigfússon.

The 2008 financial crisis hit Iceland especially hard and it caused much turmoil for Sigfússon personally. He left his position as the managing director of one of the country’s biggest insurers Sjóvá and admits he felt stranded. A few years earlier, he had started a PhD at the University of Iceland and decided to take a break from the corporate world and focus on his studies.

His doctoral thesis was entitled “The Strength and Empowerment of Weak Ties in International New Ventures” and sought to explore how startup companies from small countries formed networks and connections abroad. The focus was especially on software and tech companies that service the fishing industry. It was from this thesis that the idea for the Iceland Ocean Cluster (IOC) was born.

“What I found in my research was that companies from the natural resources industries tend to shy from networking, preferring to close off the market and keep others out. This is not the case with most industries in which networking is encouraged and seen as beneficial and I found it obvious we needed a platform to foster a cultural change,” says Sigfússon.

The IOC opened its doors in 2010 and has since become a global leader in startup incubation within the fisheries industry. It hosts seminars, networking events, and consultations, and its offices, fittingly located in the heart of Reykjavík’s old harbor, house dozens of up-and-coming startups. The IOC has also set sail and settled five Ocean Clusters in the US with another in the Faroe Islands.

The Ocean Cluster House houses over 70 different companies, of which 70% have collaborated with another company in the facility. Photo: Iceland Ocean Cluster

Before 2008, the real economy and the fishing industry were seen as almost tacky, explains
Sigfússon. Finance and banking were in vogue and the traditional industries, which had for centuries kept the country afloat, had all the glamor of a sun-cracked and salt-smelling sailor. But the financial crash started to change that perception and people rediscovered the value of the foundation industry. It was, however, at the intersection of the banking fallout and Iceland’s fertile fishing grounds that Sigfússon spotted an opportunity.

“The boom years preceding the crash had created a lot of quality tech and software companies that were servicing the financial industries, which now needed work and this was fertile ground for innovation,” says Sigfússon. “I don’t think people realize that the value in tech and byproducts exceeds what we get from the fish itself. In the past decades fishing and fish processing jobs have been decreasing, while at the same time the number of exciting jobs connected to innovation keeps growing.”

For 13 years, Sigfússon has been steering the country’s most traditional industry towards
innovation and now he has his sights set on making it navigate towards environmental concerns and zero waste.

“Today, the world is looking for solutions to food supply issues and Iceland has one of the most remarkable food economies in the world per capita,” says Sigfússon. “But we need to utilize our produce better and more efficiently. My next book is entitled 100% Fish and is set for publishing in 2024, it will list out what exemplary companies are doing to combat waste, while also being a to-do guide for the industry.”

“The Mission of the 100% Fish Project at the Iceland Ocean Cluster is to inspire the seafood industry and seafood communities to utilize more of each fish, increase the value of each fish landed, support new business opportunities, increase employment and decrease waste.” Photo: Iceland Ocean Cluster

In a sense, the quest for zero waste is a logical next step for Dr. Sigfússon. Over a decade ago he sought to open the floodgates of the fisheries industry, which had hitherto shrouded itself in fog, discouraging networking and dialog. Back then the goal was to stop wasted potential, today it’s wasted fish guts.


Career Overview:
● Born in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland in 1964.
● BA and MS in economics from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte 1989-1993.
● PhD in business administration at the University of Iceland 2002 – 2011.
● Deputy manager Nordic Investment Bank 1998 – 2003.
● Managing director at the Iceland Chamber of Commerce 2003 – 2005.
● Managing director of Sjóvá insurance 2005 -2009.
● Director of SA Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise 2008 – 2010.
● Founder and chairman of Iceland Ocean Cluster 2010 to present.
● Author of The New Fish Wave: How to Ignite the Seafood Industry, 2020.


FURTHER READING


Elías Thorsson is a journalist, writer, and marketing specialist with extensive experience covering business and technology affairs in Iceland.