Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival recently concluded and North Texas was well-represented. So, we rounded up reactions, takeaways, and snapshots from this year’s event in this week’s special edition ICYMI column.
Hubert Zajicek, CEO of Health Wildcatters, summed up the experience: a great event with, as usual, too much to see.
“SXSW has something for everyone,” Zajicek says. “It feels like there is a lot of foreign interest these days. Investors from all over the world attend and try to find new trends. I meet investors at SXSW that I don’t meet anywhere elsewhere. It’s a unique mix. Makes for a great vibe.”
South by dates back to 1987, and has grown in its 32 years to become a music festival, a destination to debut hot film properties, and a world-class digital and interactive tech expo.
Exactly how big is it, though?
HBO brought its massive “Game of Thrones” final season rollout, complete with an interactive experience and a partnership with the American Red Cross for “Bleed for the Throne” blood donations. Japan set up an embassy, and the city of Fort Worth joined Michigan, Australia, Spain, Brazil, Germany and the city of Hamburg (as well as a Danish princess!) to promote tourism and economic development.
“Most wealthy countries now have a presence there, which is a bit hard to explain,” Zajicek says.
We spoke with attendees from Dallas-Forth Worth to reflect on their favorite insights from the South by Southwest 2019 experience.
North Texas takes on SXSW
Eric Swayne, sr. director of fan engagement at Funimation
“SXSW this year was really driven by experiences—from #BleedForTheThrone with Game of Thrones, to Good Omens, to Cheeselandia, to Sony’s interactive technology space, to the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library from Comedy Central,” Swayne says. “Attendees buzzed from space to space on scooters (an experience on wheels), while the discussions were wrestling with cyberspace: What is Privacy anymore? Is blockchain finally going to be used in real life? How are we going to use these social media after they’ve been weaponized for politics or worse?”
He also highlighted the Netflix activation for “The Highwaymen,” which invited fans into an underground speakeasy—as opposed to the typical event party—where they could connect with actors in character and earn digital points to get actual swag. Swayne said he “made out like a bandit.”
“As usual, SXSW distilled the moment of our technology,” he says, “but this time we seemed to want to distract ourselves from it.”
Surprising to Swayne was what didn’t happen. There wasn’t a lot of buzz around new apps, platforms, or technology. This year, in his opinion, was more about brands. If the future customer is about experience, then SXSW is the new Super Bowl.
“This was my 8th SXSW, and this year I had more moments of cognitive dissonance than ever before,” he says. “Facebook shared incredible case studies of branded content and Messenger bots, but I couldn’t shake the ideas that these have been used for less than humanity’s better purposes. Across the street Vox media took over The Belmont, where Kara Swisher excoriated tech for many failings, including the lacking roles for women. CNN welcomed a score of political candidates to town halls, making me question whether this was a tech conference or the start of a political moment.”
His final thought?
“Almost every activation space had some reason for puppies. Which is always a successful strategy.”
Stephen Ellis, CTO of Plymouth Artificial Intelligence
Ellis’ overall impression was that the conference was well-managed and presented, providing value for the time and money invested in attending the event, but also more subdued than previous years. He joined a number of voices that noted the amount of political activity and space given to speakers and keynotes, and the buzz that element created.
“One of the best sessions was hosted by Lockheed Martin displaying the use of wearable artificial intelligence in the Onyx exoskeleton and how the Onyx exoskeleton is going to be a fundamental part of future space suits for commercial astronauts,” Ellis told Dallas Innovates. “These new space suits and the AI that will run them will be critical for the missions planned in 2026 and 2030.”
To Ellis, SXSW is continuing to migrate toward more established companies and brands, which is making it harder for individual startups to stand out.
“It would appear that going forward,” he says, “companies that would want to make an impact will need to work together in groups to stake out dedicated space to interact with the conference attendees.”
Kelley Hilborn, program director for developer advocacy and community development at IBM
Hilborn—who has attended a large number of SXSWs, including the last 10 consecutively—says SXSW 2019 was “quite a bit better” than last year. There was a higher concentration of good people, content, speakers, and a larger focus on hot topics like gaming and cryptocurrency.
“From my perspective, SXSW ebbs and flows. Last year was really slow, this year was livelier,” he says. “However, while being more lively, the parties seem to get smaller and more manageable, and it is easier to get some good work and networking done while there.”
He agreed the event buzz was primarily on politics, and this year had the largest political presence he’d ever seen.
On why it’s important for people to attend SXSW, Hilborn says: “For me, SXSW will always be a great event for startups, developers, and for anyone in tech really. Innovation is key, and along with some other events in the world is a great place to meet people in the business and network with people from all over the world. Not to mention being incredibly fun.”
Bri Crow, entrepreneur and Fuel & Scale podcast host at BriCrow.co
“As an original Austinite who used to enjoy a much, much smaller (and cheaper) SXSW when it was mainly about music and artist discovery, I’m in awe of everything it has become and the people it’s able to attract from across the globe,” Crow told Dallas Innovates. “This is now a 10-day impressive experience that is the combination of humans there to have a good time, and those there to drive their business forward. It is a destination where you never know who you’re sitting by, standing next to, walking alongside or in the room with so there is huge potential to meet someone who can drastically change the trajectory of your business just by striking up a conversation.”
She highlighted a few standout events during her personal SXSW experience:
- Cindy Eckert, founder of The Pink Ceiling, which invests in companies founded by, or delivering products for, women. Previously Eckert sold two pharmaceutical companies, including Sprout Pharmaceuticals, which created the female Viagra. Crow saw her speak at the Inc. Founders House, and the experience stood out because of Eckert’s candor and tactical advice for navigating the direction of a business and evaluating VCs as an entrepreneur.
- #WeDC house focused on inclusive innovation with its standalone SXSW website that made it easy to see the team’s intentions, programming, and RSVP sign-ups with calendar invites ensuring guests they were at the right place at the right time. “A great user experience before I even arrived in Austin,” Crow says. “Then, to hold true to inclusivity, they were the only place I noticed American Sign Language translators for each talk. I attended for the National Air and Space Museum’s podcast recording and space tourism topics.”
- GovCity is a new initiative launched by former Dallasite Molly Cain. GovCity launched its first event at SXSW as part of a movement to bring government and corporate innovators out of everyday workplaces and into a 2-day cross-industry mastermind experience.
Crow said she attended SXSW without a badge and still extracted a high amount of value, and she already plans to return next year because the minimal financial investment offered a huge return by meeting potential partners or clients.
“There are still a surprising amount of people who don’t fully understand everything SXSW is—understandably so,” she says. “Is it a music festival? Is it a tech conference? It is a film festival? Yes, yes and yes. Is it all in one central location? No, it’s located throughout downtown Austin in every bar, restaurant, and business office that can house a brand takeover. Every year they add additional tracks, and there are almost as many unofficial events as there are official badge-only events that are happening over the course of 10 days.”
Other observations from Crow include “genuine safety concerns” about electric scooters, talk around space travel and tourism, AR/VR marketing activations, the Good Omens garden hosted by Amazon Prime that included dressed up dogs, and the Game of Thrones experience and its consistent five-hour line.
Adam “Jax” Lotia, CTO at Freelance Jax
Lotia said after a few years of attending, SXSW has become bigger, but is still one of the best places to connect that he’s ever been. Between the mix of startups and enterprise, people can truly connect with the right individuals one-on-one.
The event buzz per Lotia was VR, blockchain, and AI, and he seconded Crow that a standout was Molly Cain’s new government series.
“SXSW is my true barometer of where technology will actually make an impact after CES. I think this is finally when we see VR go from early adopters to the masses and start to make that two-year transition,” he says. “I also think using the Gartner model we are starting to see that roller coaster of the hype cycle tick towards the top of the hill and start to get to productive uses of VR. I also think people are finally having the right conversations around hardware. Though I am biased in this since those are my two focus areas.”
Josh Rabinowitz, co-founder and CEO of Articulate Labs
“Oddly enough, the event seemed calmer than in years past,” Rabinowitz says. “There isn’t the same frenetic, panicked, this-event-changes-everything sort of energy that seemed to radiate from every other badge holder or display in past years.”
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He added that what stood out was the growing dominance of large companies in the prime convention center area that rented out storefronts.
“As SXSW grows, it seems like higher-risk, higher-dollar challenges like transforming medicine or transportation or infrastructure become more viable to discuss seriously. It’s not just apps anymore,” Rabinowitz says.
Jory Hatton, co-founder and CEO of ClaraPrice
Healthcare and film drew the most traffic according to Hatton.
SXSW continues to be a great networking opportunity and place to absorb information from a “vast array of channels.” He added that it maintains its stance as a culture and innovation hub for entrepreneurs, investors, filmmakers, and artists.
“SXSW sustains momentum in 2019, and the Health and Medtech Track events were better than years prior,” Hatton says. “There was a concentration of energy at the Energizing Health House with topics ranging from academia and biotech to startups and consumer health and government regulation. We also had a great opportunity to meet investors and network at the Health Wildcatters meetup which was sponsored by Spectrum Reach.”
Humza Shazad, chief operating officer of Tarski Technologies, LLC
“The entire SXSW experience was phenomenal,” Shazad says. “There were so many powerful session/keynotes that I was genuinely impressed with. This was my first SXSW, and I was primarily there for emerging technologies, a section of SXSW that’s seen rapid growth this year. The quality of the events, networking opportunities, and unlimited opportunities to enjoy (concerts, films, and parties) was a powerful combination.”
Some of the standouts for Shazad included Mark Cuban (“Shark Tank” and the Dallas Mavericks), Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom (co-founders of Instagram), and Joseph Lubin (co-founder of Consensys). But, what really made an impression, was Arlan Hamilton’s presentation about Backstage Capital—something Bri Crow also pointed to as buzz-worthy—and its fund backing underrepresented communities in the traditional investment space.
“She went through her inspiring journey and mission statement to supporting women, people of color, LGBTQ and minorities groups with the opportunities to raise capital. I found this session extremely inspirational,” Shazad says.
He also emphasized the event and its audience was so diverse that any individual experience was entirely dependent on the industry and sector.
“The biggest positive for SXSW was the networking opportunities and the relationships that I formed. I met some of the brightest like-minded individuals from this conference,” Shazad says. “Having the ability to have unplanned impromptu meetings, building relationships through concerts and food, and simply having candid conversations about different topics was so powerful. Everyone was so kind and passionate, and I’m honored to have formed relationships that I plan to keep with for the rest of my life.”
Rob Sanchez, COO of OTEN Medical
OTEN Medical went to SXSW with a purpose.
The company’s team had a focus on finding seed funding and setting up meetings in advance for demos of its Diabetic Foot Management Telehealth System. Sanchez said he received a lot of positive feedback, advice, and follow-up action items.
“SXSW was very effective for us this year,” he says. “We went with a mission to demo our latest prototype to potential investors and seek clinical collaborations with mission driven organizations. We met several angel investors and VCs that showed interest and have follow up meetings in place. We also made connections with the American Diabetes Association and health insurance plans that saw how we can help people with Diabetes manage their daily foot care using our device.”
Bryan Chambers, VP of Accelerator and Investment Fund, Capital Factory
“SXSW is a fantastic event,” Chambers says. “This was the first year I stayed for the duration of the Interactive portion of the event and attended a variety of events, although mostly through Capital Factory, which is virtually ground zero at SXSW. The planned meetings I had were powerful, but the unplanned networking was most impressive. Given the frequency of how much it happened, it was the most powerful networking and relationship building I have ever done.”
He viewed the brand activations as event standouts, along with the unique after-hours and private parties. Among his dozens of notable experiences, Chambers highlighted the Falcon II showcase by Icon 3D, the unveiling of Lift Aircraft, and hanging out at Japan House with the Japanese Delegation, which included billionaires and country leaders.
He also said this year’s event was different for him because of more personal investment in working the event, rather than going in and out for a specific purpose. Now, he understands what the hype is all about.
Chambers spoke on a panel representing VC activity in Dallas along with Cindy Revol from Perot Jain. “SXSW fuels Austin, and Austin will continue to be named a dominant force in technology and business. If a city can figure out how to create a not just an event, but a movement that incorporates the arts, technology, and education like SXSW does, significant economic development will follow,” he says.
What we’re reading
Beyond the wall: Why fewer foreign students are coming to Texas
Applications to graduate programs at Texas universities from international students have declined by 9 percent over the last two years, consistent with a national trend that some are calling “the Trump effect.” The declines align with the government crackdown on illegal immigration and efforts to make more restrictions on legal immigration, The Dallas Morning News reported.
UT-Austin business school plants its flag in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood with office lease
UT Austin is coming to Oak Lawn—at least its McCombs School of Business is. The university has signed a lease for 17,000 square feet of space on the first floor of the Centrum building at Oak Lawn Avenue and Cedar Springs Road as the home for its Dallas-Fort Worth Weekend MBA program, The Dallas Morning News reported. Previously, the classes were held on the UT Southwestern Medical Center campus.
To save time and money, companies roll out caregiving benefits
An increasing number of companies are beginning to offer caregiving services to employees, and companies such as Richardson-based Cariloop already have proven to be a valued help to persons seeking advice, information, or other types of assistance. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on a Keller woman who used Cariloop to help her find a rehab center for her father’s surgical recovery. She said Cariloop saved her a lot of time and effort in her search.
Space Matters For the Growing Number of Dallas Law Firms
Law firms in Dallas are putting employees first with the help of the real estate market. Jo Staffelbach Heinz writes company culture and employee well-being outweigh strategy and financial position, so firms are focusing on providing healthy snacks, social spaces, fitness rooms, outdoor areas, and more.
AT&T’s Huge Downtown Video Board Gets a Blessing From the Plan Commission
AT&T had made a pledge to put $100 million into renovations in the Discovery District. Proposed improvements include planting trees, creating a green space, implementing a water feature, and building a six-story video board larger than the one found at Globe Life Park. “This is something that requires cutting edge technology, cutting edge scale,” “Commissioner Paul Ridley told D Magazine.
FOOD + BEV
This New Delivery Service Brings ‘Imperfect’ Produce to Your Door for Cheap
A food delivery service called Imperfect Produce that’s new to Dallas brings produce to your doorstep that once was destined to be thrown away. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t perfect enough to meet grocery store standards. So, if you’re Ok with a carrot, potato, or mushrooms that aren’t “perfect,” but still perfectly edible, check out Imperfect Produce.
Coors Lights Launches Smart Tap as a Counterattack in the Big Beer War
MillerCoors is fighting back against attack ads from Bud Light that accuse the creator of Miller Light and Coors Light of of using corn syrup in production. A new “smart tap handle powered by Bud Light negativity, unveiled earlier this month at a distributors conference in Florida, lights up and offers patrons a free Coors Light every time a negative message from Bud Light is spread on social or broadcast media.
Dallas Transit Chief Calls for Federal Infrastructure Funding
Dallas Area Rapid Transit president Gary Thomas is urging Congress to better fund regional transportation projects with a comprehensive federal infrastructure bill. Thomas pointed to upcoming DART projects including a Cotton Belt commuter rail, platform extensions to two existing lines, a rail replacement, and the pending D2 alignment.
STUDIES & STATS
Texas job growth continues in February, adding more than 17,000 new jobs
Employment in Texas continues to grow. Some 17,700 jobs were added in February, and unemployment held steady at 3.8 percent, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. TWC Commissioner Representing the Public Robert D. Thomas said Texas is “one of the most attractive states in the nation” from an employment viewpoint.
Dallas Startup Hari Mari Launches Closed Toe Shoes
Sneakerheads and shoe aficionados have something to celebrate. Dallas’ Hari Mari footwear company, an until-now maker of flip flops, is stepping up their shoe game with its first line of closed-toe shoes made from materials ranging from organic hemp to treated suede and leather.
Dallas scientist David Hanson has a Kickstarter to make mini versions of his celebrity robot Sophia
A scientist from Dallas has started a Kickstarter campaign to sell his “mini” version the celebrity robot Sophia, which drew national attention for appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, going on a date with actor Will Smith, and gaining a large Twitter following. “Little Sophia” costs $149.
Dallas Innovates most-read stories this week
Things to Do
Events to inspire, connect, educate, and inform innovators
Calendar: The Nest Pitch Competition, Tech Trends in Retail, Product Unconference
From events for leaders in innovation (Dallas Startup Week) to exploring digital experiences (Tech Industry Luncheon), browse our curated selection of events to plan your next week—and beyond.
Quincy Preston, Alex Edwards, and Payton Potter contributed to this report.
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