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Real reality

TechFestNW is back in a new April slot, focusing on VR, AR, and real face time.


COURTESEY TECHFESTNW - Aubrey Thelen of Nest will talk about the connected home that cares.

One reliable way for media companies, (formerly known as newspapers) to make money is by hosting events: conferences, awards dinners, TED knock-offs… As white collar/creative work time today means staying jacked into the matrix of instructions, attractions and distractions 18 hours a day, meeting face-to-face has taken on a heightened value. People crave human interaction after marathon session in Slack. If you and a venture capitalist can bond over the soy milk in the breakfast line, that trumps two tweets and an email right there.

TechFestNW is the Willamette Week’s showcase of its new economy connections, heavy on the locals but with enough out-of-town sparkle to make it worth a visit. And cheap too: $119 for two days including grub.

The Business Tribune talked to the General Manager MusicFestNW and TechFestNW, Jane Smith, who is also the Associate Publisher of Willamette Week.

“North By” is not a noun yet like South By, but it does attract some must-see speakers.

“We try to make it a non-fluffy event, you should come away with some new information” says Smith. “We focus on actual talks rather than panels.” The talk doesn’t have to be written especially for TechFestNW.

“We don’t want panels where people show up unprepared.” She says when they do have them they try to focus on what the businesses do and why - their passion. “We use moderators who ask tough questions.”

Smith adds the conference always has a focus on journalism, and this year there’s a theme of virtual reality and augmented/mixed reality, as well as IOT (internet of things).

Sports lovers are going to love virtual reality for the way it allows you identify with stars with almost stalker-like intensity. If you want to feel courtside at a game, talk to Lucas Foster (Monday 9.30am), who will explain its potential. Could it be bigger than adult entertainment?

Aubrey Thelen of Nest Labs (Monday 10am) is a big draw. She oversees product management for developer experience and tools for development on the Nest API (application programming interface), wrangling third-party developers to produce more than a thermostat for Google and Apple fanbois. Her push is to get more women involved in technology, as both engineers and in positions of power. Here she’ll be talking about the connected home that actually cares about you.

Chip Conley (Monday 11.30am) is the Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy at Airbnb. He’ll be talking about his experience running real hotels in the pre-mobile app era. It’s the ‘old guy suddenly in tech’ talk that comes as light entertainment but will have a sting in the tail.

Anthony Batt (Tuesday 3 pm) is also a virtual reality storyteller. Who knows, maybe the next Cheap Eats guide will be out in Cardboard?

Steve Nadig and Al Pearson (Tuesday 11.30am) of Daimler will talk about the self-driving semi truck that their company is working on.

Now in its 5th year, Smith says having TechFestNW and MusicFestNW at the same time was a waste, since there wasn’t much crossover in ticket buyers. Now in its own April slot in the Gerding Theater at the Armory, the show should be better focused and able to serve the 700 expected attendees.

Full schedule: techfestnw.com/schedule/

TechFestNW also includes Pitchfest, where 50 startups have been selected from the 100 who applied to pitch their business for five minutes in front of angel investors and venture capitalists. (As WW would normally point out, 11 of the 18 are white males.) Attendees can see the best five pitch again in a final round. The winner gets consultation with AKQA, IBM cloud credits, a stay in a nice Vacasa rental home, and an unspecified amount of cash.

Will Clausen, Founder & CEO of Cartogram (indoormaps.com) will be pitching his Seattle company with the best of them. His company provides indoor location services for businesses such as indoor maps, it enables new channels for shopping, and provides new customer experiences.

It uses GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacons. For example, you could search for an a jacket by size and color at the mall and turn by turn directions on a mobile app would lead you to one that is in stock. Or, if you are preoccupied (on the treadmill, in a sports stadium, looking after grandma) you can still make purchase and have it delivered to you without moving.

The company also offers Nearview, which he likens to the ads in Minority Report, ones that sense who you are by your phone and digitally change to cater to your personal data.

Clausen, however, has a separate idea. Instead of these pitch competitions where they give $50,000 in prize money, why not give each company $1,000 to defray the cost of attending?

“Time is the greatest cost to startups, we’re thinking how much runway do we have left?” he told the Business Tribune. In the rush to get product to market and raise money, flying down to Portland for the day to pitch is more about meeting potential funders – angels and VCs – than winning the competition.

“My batting average is one in three. If I sit down for an hour face to face with an investor, one out of three times they will write us a check for at least $25,000.”

He’s been at pitch competitions where well-funded companies have won.

“One had already raised $1 million – this was supposed to be a pre-revenue startup pitch! Of course investors are going to put money into them because they already have money. ”

At another people voted by dropping tickets in a jar, and even though the Cartogram jar was overflowing, they still didn’t win. At another, one of the judges was already a Cartogram investor so he couldn’t vote for Cartogram, reducing their chances of winning.

“We’re good at raising money, this is not sour grapes. I just want to put message out that maybe there’s a better way to do these competitions.”

He adds, “The main reason for coming to Portland is to be introduced to VCs and be able to tell our story face-to-face.”

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