Staffan Hillberg: The different experiences of employees are a strength to be used

It's all about people, having the right kind of staff with the right skills – and making sure people are feeling good and are involved, and getting them to work together.

“I've been involved in technology, electronics, and computers for as long as I can remember,” he said when we met via Zoom for this interview.

Already from school age, he was exposed to an international context, learning a new language and encountering new cultures when his family moved to the US and lived there during his secondary school years.

He also belongs to a generation that grew up alongside the emerging computer age. His father worked in the computer industry and as a child he was exposed to the large rooms required for the technology of the time in the 1970s.

“As well as learning the language, we got to work with computers at school. And I got my first computer in the late 70s,” he said.

The culture at school in the US was different from that at home in Sweden. You had to perform in a different way there, and the extroverts were highlighted.

“I'm not really an extrovert. I like being on my own, but you had to learn how to talk to people, how to present, and how to argue your point. And to do it well, you have to know your stuff. You can't pretend your way through things. If you know your stuff, you are more confident in your role,” he said.

An interest in business aroused

After three years, the family returned to Sweden and Gothenburg, where Staffan started upper secondary school and studied engineering and technology. This was followed by studies in electrical engineering at Chalmers in 1983. This is also where the journey in the business world began.

“In 1984, I and some friends, including Staffan Truvé, started a consulting company that worked on real estate management. It went well and we spent a lot of time on it. Then I started another company in 1988 which was in multimedia technology, we made CD-ROMs which we sold around the world. There was simply more time for work and less for study,” he recalled.

He had developed a taste for entrepreneurship and doing business. Instead of completing his studies at Chalmers, he applied to the prestigious INSEAD business school in France and completed a Master's degree in Business Administration.

“It's one of the best business schools in the world and opens the door to jobs anywhere, such as in banking and business,” he said.

We are now in the early 1990s. After completing his studies, Staffan HIllberg joined Apple's European office in Paris, where he was given the title “Multimedia Evangelist.”

“It's probably the best title I've ever had,” he said, laughing. The job involved visiting customers to explain the company's new technology and giving presentations at trade fairs.

In the mid-1990s, he was invited to join Apple's headquarters in California as a product manager for the QuickTime software, the foundation of Apple's multimedia technology.

“I worked with an amazing team of tech nerds, musicians, and artists. My role was to be the bridge to the market,” he recalled.

Left Apple for Bonnier

During his years in the US, he and his wife had their first child and there was a lot of commuting between the office in the US and Europe; the family decided to move back to Sweden.

“I had a good boss, and even back then it was not strange to work remotely.”

At the same time, he was offered a job at the media company Bonnier in Stockholm. Bonnier was losing sales of magazines and comics, young people were playing computer games instead, and now they wanted to start something called Bonnier MediaLab. Staffan's job was to find out how the market worked and help the company understand how to act.

“Among other things, we launched Sweden's first online bookshop, Sweden's first recruitment website and various subject-oriented websites and simple games for children.”

Ended up in the computer security industry

But revenues were quite small at the beginning and Bonnier wanted to wait to invest fully. At the same time, his friend Staffan Truvé contacted him again.

“He had a consulting company together with the Bure Group and they had developed a computer security product for the defence sector together with Ericsson Microwave. He asked if I could take a look and see what could be done with it. I made a business plan and raised venture capital, we opened offices in the UK and the US, and we got customers, including NASA. The product was also very suitable for businesses. The company that was later sold was called AppGate,” said Staffan.

As a result, after a few years with AppGate, he received an offer from Bure to start a venture capital company in the technology sector. When he felt done with that, he sold off that company.

Helping technology companies interested in sustainable development

His business journey then continued with colleague Martin Skoglund. Together, they invested in various technology companies with their own time and money. One such company was Heliospectra, founded by Sylvain Dubé, a professor of plant engineering, which went public in 2014. The company developed smart lighting for greenhouses and has enjoyed great international success since its inception.

“I joined as CEO and we sold to greenhouse growers all over the world. The most unusual deal was with a cannabis grower – growing for medical use. 'It was approved by all the authorities, but it was still controversial and made some headlines,” Staffan recalled.

Staffan left Heliospectra in 2017 and was already working on a new project, building a real estate company together with Martin Skoglund. They brought in several large partners and the company has built 1,300 homes to date.

“It is fantastic to have partners such as the Weland Group, which is prepared to invest in new companies in Sweden, whether they are technology companies or not, and which contributes to development in Sweden,” he said.

But Staffan has not been able to avoid getting involved in other technology companies, including Millow. Millow is just starting out and Staffan, as a partner and board member, is contributing on the business development side. The company's niche is producing various mushroom-based food products with as little climate impact as possible. Millow recently received an EU grant to build a factory to start production.

What is the most important thing to consider as a business owner and entrepreneur? Staffan gives advice based on his many years of experience:

“It's about people, having the right kind of staff with the right skills – and making sure people are feeling good and are involved, and getting them to work together. I realised quite quickly the importance of having people with different backgrounds: they have different things to contribute. It develops the company, but it also develops the individual. That's what's most fun.”

Honorary doctorate 2024 – Staffan Hillberg

“Staffan Hillberg is a successful entrepreneur with extensive experience in building and developing companies. He has a strong interest and commitment to technologies that contribute to sustainable development. Thanks to a combination of Staffan Hillberg's deep understanding of ongoing research in the field of Resource Recovery and his technical knowledge and skills as an entrepreneur and investor, the Swedish Centre for Resource Recovery research environment has gained valuable international contacts and moved from theory to successful practice. One example is the development of Millow AB, which Staffan Hillberg co-founded and where he is currently Chair of the board. The company produces plant-based foods using filamentous fungi in a process that produces very low carbon dioxide emissions as well as having low water and energy consumption in comparison to similar products. It builds on the research of the Swedish Centre for Resource Recovery and has won the Sustainable Food Solutions Challenge 2023 in Switzerland."

Staffan Hillberg will be appointed honorary doctorate in Resource Recovery. 

On 2 May, Staffan Hillberg will give a lecture at the University of Borås: ”Sustainability Innovations from the University of Borås”.
Time and place: at 10:15 in Sparbankssalen