A small village in the middle of nowhere, a game-changing invention, and the epic legal battle that followed

A small village in the middle of nowhere, a game-changing invention, and the epic legal battle that followed

“I remember Ingvar saying, ‘What’s the biggest thing in the warehouse? Air — there’s too much air,” says Synnove Matre, an executive who still works in Nedre Vats for AutoStore, the company that grew out of Hognaland’s idea. She went on maternity leave but, at the Christmas party that year, they talked again. “Late that night in the bar, I said to him, ‘I want to work on your idea, it’s so cool.’” Others thought it would never work, but Matre was right. Hognaland’s idea was to use robots to operate warehouses stacked as tightly as possible. It turned out to be so powerful that AutoStore went public last October with a market capitalisation of $12bn. The growth of ecommerce and the home delivery of goods meant that, when the pandemic broke out, his invention’s time had come.

A white wooden house with a little red barn may be found in the community of Nedre Vats, located on the brink of a 700m-deep fjord in western Norway. The Hattelands, village merchants since the 19th century and builders of an adjacent warehouse, call this place home. Jakob Hatteland, the family’s scion, founded a television repair business in the red barn 40 years ago and then expanded into selling electrical components. It evolved to be Scandinavia’s largest parts supplier, outgrowing its warehouse in the mid-1990s. Hatteland’s first, most innovative, and determined employee, Ingvar Hognaland, had an idea.

If your groceries are supplied by Ocado in the UK (or Kroger in Cincinnati and Atlanta, or Casino in Paris, for which Ocado supplies technology), you have experienced his legacy. The retail industry increasingly relies on automated warehouses, and the approach that Hognaland pioneered and that Ocado built on, is even more advanced than Amazon’s. AutoStore systems are being used in more than 40 countries, with 29,000 robots on wheels.

It would be an inspiring story of inventive genius in logistics, except for one problem: Hognaland’s idea turned out to be so valuable that Ocado adapted it without permission. That set off an ongoing global patent battle between the two companies, with billions at stake. When Ocado won one stage of a US legal case in December, its value rose by more than £1bn that day, while AutoStore’s dropped.

On one side is a quiet, determined Scandinavian company that spent a quarter of a century diligently making its robots work, one step at a time. On the other, an aggressive British disrupter that seized on the idea to turn itself into a juggernaut. And beneath it all, a classic question: does a revolutionary innovation belong to the person who had the idea, or should it belong to the world?

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