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Gloucester’s ‘Innovation House’ aims to book bold ideas in a tranquil setting

The Inn Magnolia is now the Innovation House, a meeting place for entrepreneurs.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Inn Magnolia is now the Innovation House, a meeting place for entrepreneurs.

With its gilt-framed paintings, floral wallpaper, and delicately carved mantels, the Innovation House hardly looks the part of a modern high-tech hub. But that is the future that software entrepreneur Jon von Tetzchner has planned for a renovated bed-and-breakfast in the Gloucester village of Magnolia.

The former inn will be part incubator, part retreat space. It will play host to a revolving cast of young international and local companies that want to network and collaborate with others in the tech space, or get away from their home offices to recharge in a peaceful rural setting. The space, formerly the Inn Magnolia, made its official debut with an open house reception last weekend.

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The project is based on the Innovation House that von Tetzchner — cofounder of Norway-based Opera Software — opened in his native Iceland last year with the goal of boosting the country’s economy, which was hit particularly hard by the global financial crisis.

“He wanted to help give back something he felt he owed,” said Anne Stavnes, head of human resources and culture for the two innovation houses.

When von Tetzchner moved to Gloucester last year, he discovered his adopted hometown could also use a boost. With the decline of the fishing industry, long the heart of the seaside city’s economy, Gloucester has been rethinking its future. Encouraging the growth of the tech sector is a significant component of the emerging strategy.

“When you’re a coastal city like Gloucester, trying to redefine yourself, the easy way is to become a tacky tourist destination,” Mayor Carolyn Kirk said during the reception.

“We want high-paying jobs, we want intellectual capital, we want to build on our tradition of innovation,” she said.

Von Tetzchner, who is personally financing the Iceland and Gloucester houses, bought the local property for $1.07 million in November, according to deeds filed with the county. Renovations have been underway for four months.

For the first several months of operation, Gloucester’s Innovation House will open its doors mostly to tenants from its Icelandic counterpart and other members of von Tetzchner’s global network. The staff of von Tetzchner’s new company, Reykjavik-based Vivaldi, will spend the month of June in Gloucester.

Such visitors will be able to work, relax, and use the facility as a home base for making American business connections, generally at no cost.

“There’s no profit in this,” Stavnes said.

Connections formed through the Innovation House could help Icelandic companies grow on a global scale, said Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir, Iceland’s minister of industry and commerce.

“There comes a time when you need a bigger market,” she said. “Then it is very good to have friends and facilities like you have here.”

Currently, one local company — a hyperlocal social-media startup called The Bridge — works out of the house, but the space will eventually be open to other North Shore startups.

The Bridge’s cofounder Kory Cucuru, who grew up in Magnolia, met von Tetzchner last year at a meeting Cucuru had organized — at the Inn Magnolia — to get residents talking about ways to revitalize their rundown neighborhood. Cucuru and his partner stayed in touch with von Tetzchner, who has been helping them revamp their business plan and letting them work out of the Innovation House.

“Thanks to the Innovation House, we’re rebranding and relaunching,” Cucuru said.

The house has 19 bedrooms — each with an office desk — and several large common spaces, including a kitchen, conference room, and sun porch. Stavnes said she chose open areas over segregated office spaces to promote collaboration.

“There’s places to sit everywhere,” she said. “If you make it possible and natural to [network], they will.”

The concept already is showing promise in Iceland, creating a new sense of excitement and confidence among the country’s entrepreneurs, Árnadóttir said. Currently, 13 companies work out of the space there.

“We rented out very quickly,” Stavnes said.

In Gloucester, business and political leaders have high hopes that the US version will spark a similar enthusiasm and ripple effect.

“It’s a sign that our economic development strategy is paying off for the city,” said Kirk, the mayor. “This is one example of the pieces we’re putting together.”

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.
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