Irish tech startups craic the code to success at SXSW

From angel investors to blockchain advocates, politics to tech polemicists, Austin played host to them all


The Irish startup presence at SXSW 2019 Interactive appeared low key. In the four years since opening Ireland House - an Irish diplomatic and economic troika comprised of the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and a foreign consulate in Austin, there have been appearances from the former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Galwegian street performers Macnas, and Miss Panti. Last year the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar even attended.

No such Irish celebrity could be seen on the streets of Austin this year. So when The Irish Times learned that Enterprise Ireland were investing more in 2019 than any of the previous nine years Ireland has had an official entrepreneurial presence at the event, one could only wonder what that extra cash was for. “We’ve been coming here for nine years and over that time we’ve learnt visibility is what’s really needed for Irish companies to get the most out of the experience,” said Paul Burfield, senior vice president in the west and southern US area for Enterprise Ireland.

While it doesn’t hurt to have an big name in your entourage, location is what matters on the floor of Austin’s Convention Centre downtown. Thousands of people - representing startups, major corporations and entire nations are vying for your attention with more than just a sales pitch. An AI gamer robot playing classic video games sits just a few yards from a Japanese start up showcasing Sushi Singularity - 3D-printed sushi tailored to the exact dietary needs of each individual.

Enterprise Ireland invested in larger floor space and a location right by the main entrance into the large hall where passing trade was guaranteed. Well, passing window-shopping, at least. “Still it only takes one person to walk by and take an interest in one of our companies for their fortunes to change overnight,” stresses Burfield.

Enterprise Ireland clearly see returns on the sizeable investment needed to bring Irish entrepreneurs to the event each year. The larger floor space and prime location adjacent to the main thoroughfare of the Convention Centre don’t come cheap.

In addition, Ireland signed up for the SXSW Innovation Hour - 60 minutes of access to a stage where startups peddle their techie wares to the entire world.

Irish innovators in attendance included not only startups but companies such as visual content recognition software provider, LogoGrab, employee communication platform, Poppulo, or the world’s first fund compliance solution integrated with blockchain technology, Gecko.

But it is telling that both early stage startups, and more established entities, already scaling internationally, both see the value in coming to Austin for SXSW Interactive.

One theme that was constant this year: blockchain. Its zealots were difficult to avoid. The digital ledger, which underpins all cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, has moved very much into the mainstream meaning startups, social advocates and downright fanatics, could be found on soap boxes outlining how the technology provides solutions to everything from curbing the current opioids epidemic crippling many Americans - rich and poor.

On the political front, New York Times opinion writer Kara Swisher sat down with comedian Kathy Griffin (above) for an interview looking into the last 18 months of the outspoken comic’s career, in which time a photo where she posed holding the severed head of US President Donald Trump lead to death threats and two federal investigations. Despite all the negative press and threats to her safety, Griffin pulled no punches in an interview where her irreverence and animosity towards the Commander In Chief writ large. “I’ve known this moron for 20 years… and honestly back during the NBC days [when both Griffin and President Trump were both on the broadcaster’s roster] … no one in Hollywood took him seriously.

“I am the first person that has had a sitting US President use the full power of the Oval Office, the first family, the dept of justice and the entire right wing media try to ruin a private citizen. And I happen to think, being a 58 year old woman with a big mouth is why he chose me.”

Griffin’s interview served as an unconventional centerpiece for a broader social theme at SXSW Interactive 2019. Coinciding with International Women’s Day the festival put female fortunes, or lack thereof, in business, tech, and media front and center.

A host of socially-conscious talks and panel discussions highlighted the many, and frankly shameful, challenges women still struggle with in a man’s world - salary inequality, venture capital bias, systemic exclusion from certain industries because of the “inconvenient” reality that women may, at some point, need extended time off (aka maternity leave) in order to maintain human life as we know it.

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