Web Summit: For whom the Nasdaq bell tolls in Lisbon

Portugal may not be Silicon Valley, but it’s in full-on wooing mode for tech startups

Perhaps it was the US election results, or maybe it was the after-effects of the second night of celebrations at the Night Summit, but the early attendees at the second day of the Web Summit seemed a little more subdued. Even the weather got in on the act, with the sunshine of the past couple of days replaced with light rain.

But the mood didn’t last. Before long the FIL-MEO arena was heaving with people again, as the second wave of startups got their run in the Alpha and Beta exhibition areas.

Portugal is in full-on wooing mode for tech firms, but on its own terms. It may have been described as Berlin with sun or the next Silicon Valley, but on its own terms and with its own identity. Around the FIL, there were signs proclaiming that this isn't Silicon Valley – this is Portugal. On the way into the venue this morning, attendees were being given information leaflets from a company offering services for those who wanted to move their startup to Portugal.

But the fallout from the US election vote wasn't far from anyone's mind. The day before, Wikileaks defence and Julian Assange's legal representative Juan Branco had defended the organisation's leak of hacked DNC files and the Podesta emails, insisting that it had not been trying to influence the outcome of the US election and was merely providing the information for Americans to digest and form their own opinion.


On day two on the centre stage, Tusk Holdings' Bradley Tusk, the Guardian's Owen Jones and actress and cofounder of Up to Us Shailene Woodley discussed the fallout following Donald Trump's surprise win over Hillary Clinton. The general impression: one of shock. But the politics of fear should give way to hope, attendees heard.

That discussion concluded, it was time to move on.

Dave McClure, founder of global venture fund 500 startups, had a slightly more irate take on the whole thing. “Are you not pissed right now? What the f**k is wrong with you if you’re not f**king pissed right now?” he asked the audience.

Upvoting, the media and why the idea of going to the moon is a good business decision rather than a ludicrous enterprise all took their turn to be heard, with a decent crowd attending.

The election topic was at the fore of people's minds again, however, when Nasdaq vice-chairman Bruce Aust made an appearance on the main stage ahead of the US markets opening at 2.30pm.

“We thought it would be a historic day to ring the Nasdaq bell, but we didn’t realise how historic it would be,” he said. Urging the crowd to make some noise to wake up Times Square, he quipped: “I think the markets are going to need a lot of help today.”

That was the only reference he made to the upset of the previous night.

He was joined on stage by Paddy Cosgrave for the official ringing of the bell, a duty the Web Summit chief executive has been involved in on a few occasions.

This time around, he was keen to share the honour with his staff, dismissing his role as "a ceremonial job" that involves listening to speeches and appearing for 30 seconds on stage to read something from his iPad. The bell rung, they gave way to a creepy looking robot called Sophia, Hanson Robotics' Ben Goertzel and TechCrunch's Mike Butcher to discuss the face of robot revolution.

“I can reprogramme my own mind to make myself smarter and help people even more,” Sophie intoned, before being questioned about whether she’d like to get a job and robot rights.

“It’s important that the super intelligent robots that emerge have love and compassion, and when they smile at you, they mean it,” Goetzel said.

It was an odd spectacle, but one that didn’t seem out of place at the Web Summit. The event has seen coffee-making robots wandering the halls, virtual reality demonstrations taking place at booths, and pitches for almost any product or service you can think of – including a dating service for your pet. A seemingly intelligent robot – if unnerving – was nothing out of the ordinary.

As the second day drew to a close, Cosgrave said the Night Summit, the social side of the Web Summit, would be taking place again that evening. With one final Web Summit day to go, there may be more attendees keen to let their hair down.

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist