The Importance of Warm Technology
Founder of No Isolation
Karen Dolva is on a mission to combat loneliness with an approach she calls ‘warm technology’. Although she's not 100% sure if she was the first to use the term, this approach was at the heart of No Isolation from its founding, is used often internally, and makes its way into the pitches. "We were talking a lot about the fact that technology can be as warm as it can be cold," she says. "Technology does what you intend it to do. It's neither cold nor warm by itself; you give it whatever features it has. Warm technology has been a core part of No Isolation since day one, and now we can actually prove that technology can do something good, and hence warm."
No Isolation wasn't Karen's first venture into the startup scene. At 23 years old, along with four fellow students at University of Oslo, she founded UX Lab, a user-interaction consultancy with an emphasis on evidence-based research from the fields of cognitive psychology and human-computer interaction. "We were working at the Startuplab Tech Incubator and seeing that a lot of startups didn't have the funding to actually hire UX resources,” she says. “There was also a lot of sloppy UX work, where people would simply ask the opinion of the person sitting next to them instead of doing a full testing process. We thought, we can do this a lot better, and we ended up selling our services to corporations and startups."
However, the challenges of building UX Lab were different to building a tech startup, and Karen was interested in the details of the latter. She quit UX Lab and returned to Startuplab. "Through Startuplab, it became clear to me that I love the startup world. To me, it's fascinating to be able to build something myself, to create products and companies that offer value. I knew I was going to start a new company, and it was a journey to find out what it would be."
In 2015, No Isolation started at Startuplab, where she also met her cofounders Marius Aabel, Matias Doyle, Marius Vabo and Anna Holm Heide. (Karen, Matias and Anna still work at the startup). In 2016, the company introduced its inaugural product: AV1, a telepresence robot for children with long-term illness. Since then, it has benefited more than 4,000 children and young adults throughout Europe. Following this success, their second product, KOMP, the one-button screen for seniors, debuted in 2017, with over 11,000 units sold to date.
Since I entered the startup scene twelve years ago, there's been an interesting development. Today, the level of diversity is incredible compared to what it was. Now we actually have founders who don't all look and talk the same.
"Warm technology means to be a counterpart to the technology trend for efficiency and entertainment only,” says Karen. “Technology can do so much good.” For example, with KOMP, seniors don't have to be digitally savvy to establish connections with their family and loved ones through video calls and photo sharing. All they have to do is press the only button on the screen. Additionally, healthcare providers can remotely oversee medication reminders and offer social interactions. In the long run, general practitioners, social workers and other essential services could also engage with seniors through the device.
The warm technology premise and delivery of No Isolation has gathered several accolades throughout the years, including the Seal of Excellence by the European Commission in 2016 and esteemed partnerships with the Norwegian Cancer Society, the University of Oslo, the Swedish-Finnish telecom firm Telia and several prestigious Norwegian hospitals. Karen's efforts in bringing attention to the issues of loneliness, social isolation and the positive impact of technology on the public agenda have earned her the 2016 Innovator of the Year award from the E24 Leadership Talents program as well as the 2018 Women Innovators: Rising Innovators prize from the European Commission, which honors outstanding female entrepreneurs under the age of 30. She features in prestigious lists such as Forbes' Top 50 Women in Technology worldwide for 2019 and BBC's 100 Women list. In her TED Talk "All the Lonely People," she shares her own experience with loneliness and the issue of loneliness as a whole, demonstrating that technology can truly enhance people's lives in a meaningful way.
"I think technology is inclined to become dystopian and cold if no one has any intention behind it," she says. "You have to measure what your technology does to the world. You have to purposely adjust it to achieve positive effects." Technologies such as social media platforms, for example, never had bad intentions but didn't proactively work for the good. "The ethical discussion stops at 'you shouldn't do bad.' Right, but what's our responsibility? To actively do good is not necessarily part of an ethical discussion, but if you're going to achieve something that helps society move forward, the good intentions have to be there. With KOMP and AV1, the greatest reward is to see that they work; they do what we hoped they would."
But that doesn't mean that No Isolation's journey hasn't had any challenges. "We've faced a lot of challenges in scaling out," Karen says. "We've been doing market research, but market research doesn't necessarily meet reality. We analyzed our way to the Netherlands as somewhere we should go early in the process. And we did go there. We opened up an office, we did recruitments, everything, and then found that we were struggling with the language. Our team in the Nordics wasn't big enough to support several languages." At the same time, No Isolation was scaling in London, and the reality couldn't be more different in the UK capital. "It was much easier for us to do business in London. Our British colleagues could lean much more on the Oslo office because all of us speak English. If they needed an engineer to pop up in a customer meeting, we could actually assist in ways we couldn't in the Netherlands. We didn't know that language was going to be such a big issue, but it definitely was. We're mostly selling to the public sector and the school system, and it's not always easy for teachers and principals, for example, to hold meetings in English. They're not business people, so it's not necessarily part of their lives. We've learned a lot."
To actively do good is not necessarily part of an ethical discussion, but if you're going to achieve something that helps society move forward, the good intentions have to be there.
Another challenge was keeping the integrity of the product and impact-positive mission while still closing deals and remaining profitable. "We have two different products in two different market segments: we've made life more difficult for ourselves with that," says Karen. To add to the complexity, both KOMP and AV1 are hardware products designed and developed by the startup. The sales of AV1, for example, is targeted at the public sector. "Our first demographic is kids with long term illness, and it was obvious to us that we're never going to target these parents. They're in the worst situation you can possibly imagine. We're not going to ask them for money. But that doesn't mean that their kids don't deserve the best products. So who's going to pay?" she asks. "One of the downsides of doing good is that, very often, you don't want to charge the people you intend to help." However, that lack of profitability results in no product developments for them. "There's something wrong in that," she concludes.
Coming out of Norway, a country with a strong welfare and healthcare system, not to mention free education founded on the principle of equity and adapted education for all pupils, it's no surprise that No Isolation's core intentions are genuine. And in that sense, the collaborative approach of the Oslo ecosystem was crucial to the startup's success. "Oslo Business Region had a couple of desks in London at something called the Trampery, a coworking space,” she says. “We got to borrow them for a couple of months, which was one of the greatest boosts we had because I'm not sure we would have invested in desks at that time. It felt very expensive to be sitting in London and opening up any type of office there. It mattered a lot."
And for founders thinking that No Isolation's positive impact, commercial success and prestigious accolades mean no anxiety, Karen is quick to add that even she felt like a massive fraud for the first four or five years. "It's helped a lot to go through some rough times for the company and to claw our way out of challenges. To be able to stand and be like, okay, we actually survived it. And I was a part of getting us there. That helps with the confidence and the security and sense of self."
Being good at looking after her own mental health is a skill she has developed over the past nine years. "Before No Isolation, I have seen myself not cope. Being aware of your own well-being, knowing that this brain actually needs some love and care as well … that's been a learning experience for me." To recharge, she listens to audiobooks while driving, doing sudoku or knitting. "I have to do something whilst listening to them, otherwise I'll go crazy. But that's how I relax," she says, adding that the positive impact of spending time with loved ones is not overrated. "Even if you have nothing to do, just being with people you care about is crucial. I'm very happy that I have both friends and family that I can spend time with." People, after all, should not only be the focus of technology but also a core pillar in our personal and professional lives. "Along with No Isolation, I came back to Oslo for the man who became my husband," she says. "I love the people here. I love the differences between neighborhoods. I love the fact that we're getting more of a foodie culture. Finally, I'm very happy."
[Flash Q & A]
Do you have a favorite book?
Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir.
Brukbart, a UX podcast in Norwegian.
What is your most used app?
Google Maps and Slack.
At what age did you found your company?
What's your favorite place to get a beer?
That's difficult… Café Sara maybe.
One restaurant recommendation.
Let's go fancy: Arakataka.
What's the one thing the newcomers need to be aware of when moving to Oslo?
It takes time to get to know people. This is how you get to know a Norwegian: you have to meet them many times. There's no getting under our skin in 20 minutes.
What's your favorite weekend activity?
Driving somewhere. I love it if the weekend is one event. Pack up for something on Friday afternoon and you do something throughout the weekend. It doesn't really matter what is.
What's your favorite place to go for creative thinking?
Do you have a favorite landmark in Oslo?
Oslo's oldest church, Gamle Aker, has a great hidden view of the city.
One local delicacy that people must try when they go to Norway.
I'm a sucker for old traditional Norwegian food because it's very salty, which fits my palate extremely well. There's not a single meal I can imagine being better than pinnekjøtt: salted lamb stored forever. You have to soak it for 24 hours minimum before steaming it for 3 to 4 hours. It's incredible.