• Friday, April 19, 2024
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Silicon Spring break


THE queue to meet Grumpy Cat stretched round the block. The frowning feline (pictured) is an online sensation, with over 1.5m unique visitors a month to her website. She has a “meme agent”, of course, which she shares with Scumbag Steve, a young man who can’t put his cap on straight. Such are the delights of South By South West (SXSW), an annual festival in Austin, Texas.

Among the visitors was Dennis Crowley, who four years ago stole the show with his new geo-locational start-up, Foursquare, which now has over 30m members. Two years earlier Twitter made its first headlines at SXSW, a gathering that has become as important to tech start-ups as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is to gizmo-makers. For a few days Austin welcomes a throng of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley and, increasingly, other tech hubs around the world. Is it a triumph or a tragedy, some wondered, to go from Twitter to kitty litter in just six years?

Investors, start-ups, ad agencies and media firms battled for attention with free booze and barbecue. Path, a social network, co-hosted a bash with Ashton Kutcher, an actor. Sean Parker, a sociable billionaire tech investor, was heard complaining that bouncers had turned him away from his own party.

But no tech start-up out-hyped the cat. Did that reflect a lack of quality among the hundreds of firms that turned up hoping to score some fame and capital? Old hands grumbled that the newcomers this year included too many amateur “wantrapreneurs” and too few real ones. Lots of dumb money in the market this year, they agreed.

Still, there were bright spots. Leap Motion, a start-up from San Francisco, touted an $80 motion sensor that, when plugged into a computer, allows users to manipulate items on a screen just by waving their hands. First Warning Systems of Reno, Nevada, displayed a “smart bra” that detects breast cancer.

And start-ups found new opportunities to strike deals with big firms. From Unilever to General Electric, multinationals turned up in record numbers. They sought bright ideas with open cheque books, putting smiles on the faces of several entrepreneurs, if not on that of a certain household pet.