A First-Timer At SXSW: Putting my Toe in the Fast-Flowing Waters of South By South West

Roopa Unnikrishnan at SXWS

Must read

Austin – For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phrase “Drinking from a fire hose,” it means being overwhelmed by the influx of loads of information. A clear illustration – attending the South by Southwest conference (SXSW, or just “South By” to those in the know). Thanks to having time between projects, I took the chance to spend two days at SXSW, and it was a brief but effective visit.

I’d decided earlier in the year that I would make sure to do a few things each month that will challenge me and push my thinking. SXSW hit the spot, providing insights on new behaviors, key trends, and startups that take insights to innovation. While there weren’t many transformative moments, just getting outside my usual head-space helped me hugely.

Reflecting on the activities and insights from my first SXSW, I was struck by how much of the activity was driven by youthful thinking, cloud computing, and the interest in getting the “word’ out there on issues like the environment and immigration, freedom and access.

One surprising and positive thread of many discussions was geography, or the end of geography, of sorts. One element was the number of startups from surprising places, i.e., not California! Another was the focus on immigration reform, with the continued bleed-out of graduate students taking with them potential for innovation. While good for the global economy, there is undoubtedly huge potential for reform to improve innovation in the US.

There were three elements that recommend the SXSW experience – four, if you include the parties, but I didn’t get past midnight, unlike the folks who kept going through the night.

You get a chance to sit in on innumerable panels of experts and hour-long conversations with eminent personalities. The venues are such that you can sit at the front row, and walk up to them to discuss thoughts and connect. I did that in a few cases, and will be following up for meetings.

The panel on the Death of Demographics posited that demographics are not as powerful as culture in understanding customers and using data and social media to engage them.  I think we knew this inherently, but it was good to hear it stated so well. It’s so much nicer for me to think of myself not as a middle-aged Indian mom and to be thought of as the social, innovation-oriented consultant who loves soccer and art. The hugely smart Bonin Bough(@boughb) reminded us, though, that there are segments like the new millenial mom which is more mobile and under-appreciated. Joe Magnacca, the new CEO of RadioShack, was candid enough to say that he felt that the company had not been savvy about technology and connecting with local populations. Changes at store-levels are coming in the next six weeks – watch this space! Overall, this was a panel on customer-centricity, for the core statistic that struck a cord was that in a study of 10 major brands, 62 percent of marketing spend was focused on audiences of whom only two percent have been shown to make a purchase. This is even more of a reason to understand and embrace online engagement platforms.

Three of my favorite fireside chats were the sessions with Steve Case, Esther Dyson and Don Tapscott.

Esther Dyson (@edyson) explained how her sprit of adventure came from parents who would react to any of her new ideas with, “Whatever makes you happy, dear.”  I’m taking that to heart! She also highlighted a series of startups she has invested in, her thumb-rules being that they need to make sure not to be redundant, and need to address a need that hasn’t been addressed before. This is not to say they need to be absolutely new; she has been a significant player in Russia in supporting unique startups there that have redefined customer experiences radically.

Don Tapscott (@dtapscott) was inspiring as he considered how the Internet and social platforms may have unleashed a whole new era of goodness. “The killer app of the digital revolution may be a better world,” he says. He bases his thesis on the fact that in essence a whole new series of institutions are supplanting the governing model of the past – the ones that came from post-WWII Bretton Woods conventions, based on nation states and global UN-like institutions. The principles of the new, emerging institutions are Collaboration, Openness, Sharing, Interdependence, and Integrity.

Steve Case (@SteveCase) reminded us that he was born in Hawaii, not quite the hot-bed of entrepreneurship. He continues to focus on immigration reform, since he sees immigrants taking on entrepreneurial roles, and that has always been the basic fabric of the country. Forty percent of US businesses, Case said, are founded by first and second generation immigrants, and it was 52 percent a decade ago.

I spent the second day in Accelerator sessions, where pitches are made by startups to expert panels. It was interesting that the “paycheck” for the accelerators was so small – $4,000 – surprising, given the caliber of judges, the number of sponsors, and the work these entrepreneurs put in. Amazing. In some of these cases there were already significant investors in these systems. I liked that there were a ton of foreign investors in the audience. I plan to keep an eye on the following:

Health: In this category, there were the usual EMR and care management suspects, but I liked the small and beautiful Alzheimer’s startup Neurotrack (@Neurotrack) that uses online testing to identify the right patients for clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease. As it stands, clinical tests recruit patients who are too far along to benefit, and hence prove the efficacy of such drugs, or do not discriminate, so those not at risk are part of the tested groups. A better selection of those at risk, which Neurotrack ensures, will result in much better studies, and hopefully more efficacious medications.

News: From an odd selection of participants (infographics, lobbying and news) the one news startup that showed real insight on the news habits of the current, highly wired world, was Watchup (@watchup). While they didn’t win in their category, I plan to be looking to see how they evolve.

Web Technologies: There were some very interesting startups integrating social, media and logistic systems – yabblywatchup and plotter being people to watch. Potter won this category. It is an app that plots all your favorite locations, gets recommendations from friends, and helps discover maps that are popular or featured in the map room. Unlike google maps, it makes these maps available on smart phones, which is a big next step.

Walking around the exhibits, the health geek in me liked Higi, though I would have wanted the technology to have gone further (when can I get my DNA mapped in my pharmacy, guys?)

Others techs to follow:

Of course, who can resist the nifty Beam from Suitable Technologies, which redefines virtual meetings.

Making health accessible was the Higi machine that simply sets up a composite score that allows individuals to track their health. I could see it being in companies and a way to get employees to engage with their fitness in a fun way.

Two environmental startups that seem to have legs are CarbonStory, with 19 projects that you can use to mitigate your carbon footprint, and Geostellar, the sustainable energy network that aims to make alternate energy accessible to all.

And finally, while I came for the tech, I did stay for the music! It was fun to just sit back and let the innovative and heartfelt music wash over me.
About SXSW: The South by Southwest® (SXSW®) Conferences and Festivals (March 8-17, 2013 in Austin, Texas) offered the unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies.

More articles

Latest article