I’m a startup guy, which means I thrive on everything outside the box. I seek out and devour everything innovation. But what is “innovation”? It’s such a 21st Century buzz word that everyone who wants to be cool uses to describe themselves and what they do. After a while, some of us learn to decipher what’s real and what’s fake. Some of us do it better than others.
Still, no matter how much innovation spam there is out there, I remain an optimist and open myself to just about any first look at things deemed innovative. So, when I received in invitation to Innovate Celebrate, I took the bait. I loved the convergence of celebrating innovation, because who doesn’t like a party? In addition, the event was being put on by newcomer Established and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), a nearly 100 year old organization that has been advocating tech and innovation since its inception and putting on the world-renown Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for over 50 years.
When I looked at the agenda, I became immediately confused. There was almost no agenda. What was the event all about? Was it an unconference? It seemed like one of the main goals was to create an environment where big companies and startups could interact, play and find potential partnerships. I like this mission a lot.
Sunday night, I perused the agenda a few times to try to figure out my strategy, and I decided the best way to absorb the most would be to get there early and spend the day talking to people and hearing their stories. After all, it’s the stories that really matter. That’s where we learn the most about things. Here’s some of the reality of Day 1.
Corporate & Bigger Company Innovation
Stepping into the “big company” breakfast lounge, I roamed with my coffee and overheard a conversation about EdTech, which I’m interested in because of my last startup, 30hands Learning. I joined the conversation and talked to Gregg Stein from Kano about how they are tackling STEM education by engaging kids in fun storybook-led assembly of computer devices. Once the device is assembled, the kids can use the scratch-like drag-and-drop coding app to create code for the device. The learning materials looked easy to use, and the Raspberry Pi-based computer or Harry Potter Magic Wand looked fun to work with. Kano’s approach is not new, but they seem to have implemented it in a fun and engaging way for kids that looked promising. Kano is an 85 person scale-up company, which is why Gregg was not in the startup room.
From there, I began talking with Mohammed from SiriusXM and a CTA colleague who were discussing autonomous vehicles and whether they would eliminate truck driver jobs or not. The consensus from our small group was that driver jobs are going to go away, partly from automation and partly from the challenge of finding people who want to become drivers. There’s still a lot of work to do on the tech side to get there.
One company helping automate driving is Boston-based dreyev (pronounced “drive”), started by Maggie Stys and Roberto Sicconi. I’ve known them for about a year and was happy to see them later at the Startup Showcase. They use dashboard cameras and AI to watch the driver and create an alert if he or she appears to be distracted or falling asleep.
At this point, Mara Lewis from CTA began an intro guide for corporate attendees on how to get the most out of the event. Her advice included getting focused and not wasting time on safaris that don’t go anywhere, while still considering near-term, mid-term and long-term innovation goals. It sounded a bit like running through an obstacle course on a balance beam that weaves around corners and goes up and down hills, which is what entrepreneurship is all about. If the corporate guys and gals can do it, they will probably have more insight into what startups are all about and perhaps have the needed empathy to make deals with them. My message to them is to stay the course and take some chances, because great decisions come from making lots of decisions and learning from them. Too often, I have seen corporate people be so risk averse that they remain perpetually stuck in the mode of indecision. It may be best for their job security, but it’s not what’s best for the business, which needs to change and adapt, sometimes at lightspeed.
At this point, I went up to the 6th floor to mingle with the entrepreneurs, where I caught the tail end of Established co-founder Rich Maloy’s pep talk for startups. His parting advice was from his 98-year-old grandmother who always told him, “You’ll never know unless you ask”. Then, he sent them all off to mentor match-up meetings and roundtable discussions. I had a brief conversation with Sophie Kwok from Love Intently who is trying to help strengthen relationships after people are matched up with Tinder, Match.com or Coffee Meets Bagel. It seems we too often only focus on step #1 or the first mile and not what comes next. Perhaps, this could be helpful in partnerships between big companies and startups. I hope Mara and Sophie meet up and work out the details.
Thinking I might do some work at this point was futile, as I joined a conversation with Christine Pelletier from Stefanka in Montreal and Brett Crockett from Dolby Laboratories in California. We talked about 3D sound and 3D visualization. Stefanka started as a made-to-order bra company using 3D scanning technologies and is now moving into full 3D body scanning for more precise clothing fits. Dolby is that company that everyone from my generation knows of as the sound guys, because their labels and stereo-enhancement buttons have appeared on just about every quality sound device created. It was interesting to hear how Dolby is looking at 3D scanning of the head to improve how sound waves are delivered to our ears, while Stefanka is using similar tech to improve how people fit into clothing. Pattern match-ups are not always intuitive.
The rest of the day was spent listening to talks by explorers within larger organizations (NASA, Canon and Maxwell Health) and talking to numerous people involved in cool startups – like Ovie (smart fridge through smart buttons), Valisure (online purchasing of validated, safe drugs), bitsbox (STEM games as seen on Shark Tank), Lazarus 3D (body part printing), and that guy from Bartesian with the Keurig-like device for making automated cocktails. The startup showcase was like a mini CES conference, but talking to 100 startups in 3 hours made it seem just as huge.
I believe Innovate Celebrate 2018 is a successful venture bringing together innovators from ground level startups to large corporate towers on an even playing fields. The mission is strong and the execution seems to be working. The next day and half should prove to be just as interesting, and I hope to see CTA and Established bring the conference back to Boston next year, perhaps with a bit more fanfare and visibility to the local startup and business community.