“Glastonbury for Geeks” as the Guardian referred to it, also known as Web Summit, has drawn to an end for another year. Seemingly now Lisbon’s most important event of the year, the full ecosystem of the European (and increasingly global) tech community descended on the charming European city – investors, vendors, start-ups, scale-ups, academics, students, developers, media and flacks alike.
As ever, when you walk the ever-expanding floor (a new hall was added this year), you can’t help but feel the sheer energy, optimism and excitement. Less a Glastonbury, and more like a pilgrimage for some. Yet, the sheer number of start-ups on display (2000 each day) is overwhelming and you can’t help but feel like it’s all extremely hunger-games, each there on their 2x2 bench to try and quickly catch your eye in the hopes you might invest or be the customer to proof their market fit.
Seemingly Web Summit can feel a bit like Mecca for wannabe millionaire Millennials.
Around the busy trade floor space, and the start-up pitches, there is also a robust agenda of talks – spread across at least 7 stages you can spend your time in constant FOMO, or JOMO if you find yourself in a great talk.
So here are some hot takes from what I heard/saw at the show this year:
Don’t ask to be trusted, show them you’re trusted – so proclaimed Ed Snowden on the opening night, setting out the agenda for the week of talks. Richard Edelman, our CEO, took to the stage a few days later stating that we live in a world with huge trust deficits, that the pyramid of influence has flipped with employees and general public holding much more influence. He made a case that the tech industry, in the spotlight on trust right now, has the power to fix it and needs to step up to the plate to do so.
AI IS JUST A TOOL
Google reminded us all that the human species is a tool-making species, it’s what we do; we have a history of automating processes through tools. AI is just another tool (albeit possibly as big as the wheel or fire) we’ve created – this time it’s really just a tool to automate the writing of software. No longer do we need to write lines and lines of code, we can actually just write a few and then let the software write itself through training (machine learning).
ROBOTS IN DISGUISE
Draper’s CEO (client), Kaigham Gabriel, asked the audience to close their eyes and picture a robot, like most people I bring to mind C3PO or another hominoid designed robot. He reminded us that robots are all around us, they just don’t look like we imagined, from autonomous driving, cancer treatments, to fast-food machines – the robots are already well and truly here and providing returns on investment.
That being said, Mar Rainbert the CEO of Boston Dynamics was in town, and showed off (a real demo) its current shipping robot, Spot. It walks just like a dog, so Spot is an appropriate name. Seeing the thing actually work through the audience, onto the stage and then perform a number of tricky manoeuvres was impressive. The sheer computational power and complexity of a machine moving like this is, for me, still hard to fathom. The company solved something that many in the industry believed may even be impossible. He then showed a video of its “Lamborghini” of a robot, Atlas. Atlas is a bi-pedal robot that can move and balance much like a person. As the CEO said, we’re now trying to solve for Parkour. Impressive stuff.
SPONGE TO THE RESCUE
Science and technology are intrinsically linked. There were many attendees from academia of more R&D focussed science. I was taken by Wendy Queen, professor of Chemistry and EPFL who was talking to us about the almost magic properties in sponges, and how at a molecular level they could be used to help us clear up our world – from oil spillages to carbon capture, one small sponge structure (1cm) has the ability absorb a football pitch worth of material. Mind blown.
There were quite a few discussions around the promise and potential of space – from colonising the moon to mars, and beyond. One company, Astroscale, drew our attention to just how much of a dangerous mess we have up in our orbit already. Evidently, we’re only a few collisions away from some real issues (imagine Google Maps just stops working, we’d all be lost). It’s a big problem that this small company is setting out to solve (read a deeper analysis here)
We heard from Andrew Hopkins, CEO of Exscientia (client). He set out the huge “pharma-nomics problem” – the cost of designing drugs is becoming increasingly high with diminishing returns; and despite over a hundred years of work, we still only have drugs for 1% of the known diseases. This is where AI can help; Exscientia has proven that AI can identify novel target molecules and design elegant compounds for testing. They’ve been able to do this in a twentieth of the time and for 15% of the cost. Expect to see the first human trials of an AI designed drug next year.
UP, UP & WAY CHEAPER
New, electronic and affordable means of travel are coming to city skylines in the next decade. The Summit saw talks from two of the leading companies in this space – both German – Lilium and Volocopter. Lilium’s impressive CEO Daniel Wiegand had a main stage slot and took the audience through the current development, engineering feats already achieved and the fact they are targeting and on-track for availability in 2025. He was also keen to stress this isn’t a new helicopter, but an affordable and democratic means of transport with the promise that fares would be in-line with an Uber (for the same distance). Fly from JFK airport to Downtown Manhattan for the same cost of a taxi, but a fifth of the time. The world is going to get much smaller.
We’ve heard a lot this past year about neuro-controlled technologies, but not necessarily much progress. That changed at Web Summit with one of the best demos coming from the company CTRL-Labs. They’ve been able to codify the neural pathways that go into hand movement; and now through a wrist based device can digitally mimic the exact movement of a hand just by your thoughts. There’s huge potential from VR/AR use-cases (how are we going to control the world when we’re all using AR enabled glasses) to accessibility (those people born without, or who have lost, a hand). Truly exciting stuff. If I was to predict, I’d see these as a future Apple acquisition target… integrate their technology with the Apple Watch plus the Apple glasses that are coming and you might just have the next killer product.
THE POWER OF THE GIF
We heard from the founder of GIPHY, a company I’ve written about before. It was impressive to see just how far this company has come in the last few years. Quietly becoming one of the most important content companies in the world, now integrated into almost all messaging platforms they really are the only way a brand could ever hope to reach all messaging users in one platform. As more and more people use visual vocabulary to communicate, GIPHY remains an undervalued unit for a brand or product. Does your brand have GIPHY on your media strategy?
During the health conference session of the event (and one day conference within the conference) we had some interesting discussions. The highlight was definitely Nevada Sanchez, Co-founder of Butterfly Network who demonstrated on stage their hand-held mobile powered ultrasound. This Means you can now have a handheld, portable, device that plugs into your smartphone, enabling individuals (health care professionals currently) to conduct cardiograms, pregnancy scans, look at the health of lungs etc. It’s a real game changer for the industry but also the developing world where access to this technology is prohibitively expensive and costs many lives each year.