“This is not a conference. This is a festival!” the main stage emcee Daniel Cronin, co-founder of AustrianStartups, told the packed “Arena” audience during the opening ceremony of the Pioneers Festival – one of Europe’s top expos for innovative technology. Throughout the two days of keynote speeches, workshops and discussions, Cronin implored the “boys and girls” in attendance to energetically cheer on the dozens of presenters, each of whom high-fived Cronin and each other as they took the stage – a gesture celebrating the festival’s fifth anniversary.
The annual event takes place at Vienna’s Hofburg imperial palace and provides a platform for select global entrepreneurs; a veritable candy store for tech investors; a networking venue for meeting, pitching and schmoozing; and, yes, pure entertainment.
This year, a customized event app allowed the some 2,500 registered attendees to navigate their way through the festival’s offerings, interact with the speakers and moderators on stage, create a personalized agenda, and schedule meetings via an A.I.-enhanced matchmaking and intro service.
The festival’s ground plan and thematic content was split into seven “innovation ecosystems”: business & productivity; financial services; lifestyle & entertainment; materials & manufacturing; mobility & transportation; energy & utilities; and life sciences & agriculture. The 500 startups originally selected for the “Pioneers Challenge” were narrowed down to 70 semi-finalists during the lead-up to the event (among them Austrian startups Deepsearch GmbH and Playbrush) and the seven finalists (one for each ecosystem, unfortunately no Austrians) were announced on the opening day.
For the locals, perhaps the biggest highlight was the appearance of the new Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, on stage with Festival founder Andreas Tschas (yes, they high-fived, too). Kern is the first Chancellor to show up at Pioneers, and his show of support (along with that of the State Secretary Harald Mahrer) sent a strong signal that Austria wants to elevate its stauts as an innovation-leader.
“I believe that the digitalization and globalization challenges we are going to face can’t be encountered with the patterns of the last century,” said Kern, whose top priority in this regard will be “to create an environment where we can facilitate private investments, where we can secure that founders found their companies in our country and can finance it here also.”
Changing the world
Day one’s opening keynote speaker was the billionaire energy-drink-mogul-turned-philanthropist Manoj Bhargava, who took a stance on innovation that was seemingly at odds with the pervasive Silicon Valley spirit of technological entrepreneurship. If the future goal of tech innovation is indeed to “change the world as we know it,” he asserts that one must distinguish between the worlds of the rich and the poor. For the former, he believes the only useful innovations concern healthcare – the rest is merely entertainment or convenience. But for the world’s poor to survive, they need essential solutions for energy and water, as well.
Bhargava advocated for simple common-sense business basics: “Business is really simple. You buy low, and you sell high. In Silicon Valley, on the other hand, you buy high, sell low, and you make money from investors… It’s an awesome new game. Investors have become the customers!”
Just talking the talk won’t do, believes Bhargava: “in Silicon Valley, every third sentence has to include the word ‘ecosystem.’ If they don’t use that word, they don’t know what they’re doing. This jargon actually stops your brain from functioning, you don’t have to think but just use the jargon. ‘I’m a risk-taker’ is another one. Get away from me! I tell risk-takers to go to Vegas, but don’t go into business.”
Despite Bhargava’s incessant finger-wagging, the audience applauded his dedication to socially useful innovation, but they quickly turned their attention to the very types of “entertaining or useless” enterprises he’d just been dissing – “cool” technologies that solve the first world’s biggest problems, such as:
“why can’t I feel without actually touching”
“why can’t Siri predict what I really want before I’ve finished asking it?”
“why can’t I travel by land as fast as I can by air?”
“why can’t I ride a motorcycle without knowing how to?”
“why do I have to carry my keys and wallet wherever I go?”
“why does my dishwasher have to have moving parts?”
“why can’t my smartphone keyboard switch between apps?”
“why can’t I get a workout while playing VR video games?”
Eyeballs that matter
While many attendees dreamt about developing the next world-changing idea, the real deal took the Arena stage on the second festival day: Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, who, it turns out, got the original inspiration for the decentralized, open-source encyclopedia from Austrian political philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”
Wales talked at length about Wikipedia’s commercial offspring Wikia, now known as Fandom – a platform for popular-culture subjects that don’t have quite the academic gravitas of Wikipedia, but still attract a huge amount of user-generated content – a gold mine for marketers and advertisers in this “golden age of media.”
“There’s the eyeball of someone who simply goes and reads something but doesn’t communicate it or contribute to the content, dialogue or discussion any further,” Wales said, “but the real people advertisers want to reach are the core influencers, the people who are driving those conversations online, generating authentic deep content. Who is the real expert on, say Game of Thrones? Not the New York Times journalist writing a review, but rather those obsessed fans who know everything about the show and … create content about it for others. Those are the eyeballs that matter – they aren’t just eyeballs, they’re participants.”
Learning by interacting
Away from the Arena, it’s all about participating. At the more intimate “Academy” stage it’s all about coaching, learning and interacting. With titles like “Build a workplace to succeed,” “7 deadly product Demo Sins,” or “Founder issues” the sessions are like mini seminars with better slide decks. This year there were also sessions about how to sell to corporates and how to pitch to the media. Startup coaching tends to focus on winning over investors and less on sales and getting the word out. Apparently there’s a need. The room was packed.
In the coaching sessions like “Convince the Media,” startups can get feedback in the form of a roast or constructive criticism. The audience also voted on the story pitches, with choices ranging from “They should make a movie out of this” to “My grandma tells better stories.” Some of it was just good clean fun, but it was also the only room where most of the audience was taking notes.
And the winner was…
By the end of the second day, all eyeballs turned to what for many is the highlight of the festival: the selection of the winning startup for the Pioneers Challenge. The seven finalists each pitched their product to the crowd and, more importantly, the panel of investor judges, including Speedinvest’s Oliver Holle.
Though the crowd seemed underwhelmed (though perhaps this was just festival fatigue) by its pitch, London-based Pleo – a financial services product giving employees greater ease and autonomy with their company purchases and corporate managers control over and reporting on employee expenditures – was clearly a favorite of the investor panel, which awarded them the half-million euros grand prize. Cue: oversized check and Formula One style champagne showers, curtain, and everyone’s off to the after-party, and back to the present.