A (few) of the things I learned at SXSW this year

This week I had the chance to visit SXSW for the first time, for what felt like the world’s largest meetup. A team from Ann Arbor SPARK partnered with the Michigan House, which transforms a gymnasium into a visually interesting and compelling spot at SXSW. While there, we participated in series of panels about Ann ArborMobility in Michigan, and scaling startups here (click the links to check them out if you’re interested). It also gave us a chance to meet new people, learn from the huge range of talks, check out the Capital Factoryin Austin, and see what others are doing in mobility, blockchain, AI and any other buzzword you could imagine. Here are some of my key takeaways:

The range of topics being discussed at SXSW is huge. There were panels on cyborg identity, storytelling (of any type), mindfulness meditation, corporate venture capital, Reddit, truck technology, the list goes on. Overlay that with the variety of sponsored “experiences” at every nook and cranny of town, and you’ve got quite an event. It was incredibly easy to find interesting things to learn, people to meet and things to see.

I spent some time listening to the mobility and blockchain sessions – it’s clear that people are starting to “get” autonomous technology (including its limitations), but the technology is still riding the hype curve. The opportunities for blockchain are huge, but still more people need to “get” what it is. I appreciate how policymakers, industry, and associations are grappling with the implications of how autonomous vehicles will actually work, and what policies should (or should not) be implemented.

Cities across the world are definitely “bought-in” on the importance of startups, and the value of they bring to their communities. The key piece is that cities need to deliver those messages to startups, investors, others – not just each other. As someone in the audience for some of these chats, I would have liked more storytelling about people in their cities, and some interesting ways that outsiders can access their startup ecosystem. Good reminder for the future.

We heard a bit about ways to find value, talent and ideas in unexpected places, like rural parts of the U.S. Some of it was reminiscent of Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest, and fits into a growing narrative that tech (and business community at large) need to leverage places/people/ideas outside of the usual suspects, and must do so to continue growing.

I enjoyed hearing about ways larger companies are engaging with startups and some of the best practices about those relationships. Some companies are using accelerator/incubator programs to build communities of startups, and creating events and ways to engage that seem beneficial for the startups and corporate sponsors. Other companies are continuing to work on their corporate venture funds and I learned more about the nuances and approach that make those funds a unique part of the investment scene for startups. I also appreciated learning more about how private equity can (should?) fit into the early stage investment community.

Special thanks to Duo SecurityMavenTechArbCahootsMay Mobility, University of Michigan, and all of the UM, MSU, GVSU and other alumni that were part of SXSW. And a very special thanks to the Violin Monster for letting me take this awkward photo.

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