Dublin Web Summit’s wonderful circus of ideas draws to end

Last-minute connections were made as Elon Musk met Enda Kenny on stage

Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe, at the Dublin Web Summit. Photograph: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe, at the Dublin Web Summit. Photograph: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Fri, Nov 1, 2013, 01:00

The second day of the web summit has a significantly different ambience to the first - where on Wednesday the RDS was filled with a sense of giddy anticipation as the event kicked into gear, by yesterday the huge hall was filled with a palpable sense of urgency.

For many exhibitors and attendees, the second day is when all those potential contacts and networking possibilities need to be acted on, and the sheer scale of the event, with 10,000 attendees and hundreds of exhibitors, means that every minute counts. As the window of opportunity closes fast, legions of hopeful entrepreneurs strive to make as many of those connections as possible.

The summit has grown up fast since Paddy Cosgrave hatched the idea with friends David Kelly and Daire Hickey a few years ago. It has barely paused for breath, this year achieving the distinction of being Europe’s largest technology conference.


Oasis of calm
The main stage, a vast auditorium with 2,000 seats, feels like an oasis of calm from the commotion in the central hall. There, attendees can take a few minutes and listen to one of the talks and panel discussions featuring the technology world’s most prestigious and esteemed, such as AOL’s Tim Armstrong or Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior. Many of these discussions are described as “fireside chats”, quite the misnomer given that there isn’t a hearth to be seen. Instead, the headlining acts take their seats in front of what appears to be a giant wall of Rubik’s Cubes, gradually changing colour from session to session.

As the day wears on, it appears bedlam reigns in the central hall, albeit a very smoothly organised bedlam. On the various large pitching stages, ambitious young entrepreneurs go through a well-rehearsed routine, pitching their start-ups to panels of the most important people in the room – the investors. It’s sometimes more X Factor than Dragons’ Den, with certain investors striving for Simon Cowell levels of disdain. But I imagine you can only hear so many ideas involving “social media”, “smart algorithms” and “brand management” before you betray hints of frustration.

Out of it all, the winners announced last night were Placemeter, an urban indexing service, and Importio, which aims to “turn any website into a table of data or an API in minutes without writing any code”.

The scale of it all is bewildering, and nowhere more so than in the Alpha Village in the rear hall, where early-stage start-ups have their exhibition space in tightly packed rows. With so many start-ups and so little time, catching valuable attention is an art form in itself, leading to a dizzying array of costumes and elaborate props and oh so many lollipops. The phrase “chicken coop” was used more than once, and indeed, if you paused for a moment and took it all in, the ambient noise rather resembled the loud cooing of battery hens.

The web summit, or just the summit as it now styles itself, attracts entrepreneurs from all over the world, with exhibitors from the US, Europe, Israel and as far afield as Dubai all gathering alongside an army of Irish entrepreneurs for the chance to impress and network. It’s doubtful if there has ever been as big a collection of incredibly smart people in one space in Irish history – the talent and ambition and energy and sheer good luck required to stand out in this sort of company is just immense.

Underpinning it all is a fervent belief in the exalted status of the successful founder. The final “fireside chat” proved that in spades – broadcaster Mark Little, himself an entrepreneur with Storyful, welcomed to the stage investor Shervin Pishevar, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and one of the most successful, and fascinating, entrepreneurs of all, Elon Musk.

Musk is the PayPal co-founder who went on to found electric car company Tesla and private space exploration firm SpaceX – nobody dreams as big as the South African-born businessman. The main auditorium was heaving for this unlikely meeting of minds.


Mission to Mars
Enda hammed it up for his new best friend Elon, going so far as to suggest Ireland would be a fine base for electric car manufacturing. And when Musk elaborated on his dream of civilian space exploration and missions to Mars, Enda managed to give the impression this is the sort of policy challenge he deals with daily.

When Little asked what advice Musk might have for the Taoiseach, the politician crooked an ear towards the entrepreneur and mockingly produced a pen from his inside pocket. Musk’s advice was straightforward – encourage more people to go into engineering and computer science courses, perhaps by making those subjects’ tuition free in university.

The summit is a bewildering, exhausting, massively impressive two-day festival for those who have the courage to follow their dreams.

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