Topline observations from SXSW 2014

by Kristin Milburn

Topline observations from SXSW 2014
Topline observations from SXSW 2014

SXSW 2014 was jam-packed with plenty of informative sessions, as in year's past. As I write this I am en route home, with a head that is exploding with information and ideas. What I will attempt to do here, is capture my top line thoughts, before delving into my notes and writing up a full conference report and presentation for our clients on our findings, as well as share out with our internal teams.

There were several themes that emerged in my view overall. These included health, privacy/security, social good, wearables, art + science, innovation, and predictive analytics.


It is clear that the convergence between healthcare and technology is at a fever pitch. The digital disruption that transformed other industries is about to do the same to healthcare. There were numerous sessions around digital health, health IT, genetics and the like. In fact, one of the keynote presentations was around personal genomics given by Anne Wojcicki the CEO of 23 and Me. And even when "health" wasn't overtly mentioned as the topic, it inevitably found its way into numerous discussions. Because without good health, nothing else really matters. There were a number of VCs on panels introducing digi-health start-ups they are incubating, supported by talks surrounding the flow of money in and out of the space. There were doctors, researchers, academics, entrepreneurs, marketers and business owners all discussing the impact we could have on healthcare. And considering health care represents 18% of our GDP, the opportunities are enormous. We'll expand on what we found most interesting in the coming report.

Privacy & Security

First off, it felt like a historic moment when Edward Snowden beamed in from Russia thru 7 proxy servers via Google hang-out for his first live interview since he leaked the files that sent the world into a tailspin. Christopher Soghoian from the ACLU stressed that whether you #StandWithSnowden or not, his actions did result in an extraordinary global debate and ultimately resulted in the increased security of our private data. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple among others all tightened up their data encryption algorithms once his discoveries were made known. So while we can debate how he went about it, the facts are clear, security was tightened as a result. Privacy and security themed sessions debated these issues and solutions, and certainly made me think differently about the whole concept as well as the trade-offs for each, particularly as they relate to advertising platforms. Other notable sessions included a virtual interview with Julian Assange the founder of Wikileaks, and a special key note by Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) touched on those aspects as well. More detailed insights on these issues to follow!

Social Good

Sessions related to social good were abundant this year, including heavy-hitters like TOMS and the Clinton foundation. Social entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie the founder of TOMS gave a really inspiring talk about the history of TOMS and 7 key decisions that brought him to the successful company he now runs. His "one for one" model of buy one pair of shoes and provide one to someone in need was a truly innovative idea, especially for a "for profit" company. He also shared unique marketing ideas, by fully leveraging social media and not spending a dollar on advertising. I'll expand more on that in the upcoming conference report. Chelsea Clinton discussed various projects she is working on thru the Clinton Foundation. She raised an innovative suggestion that the collective "we" create a sort of consolidated platform for all non-profits so that technology-related learning’s regarding what works and what doesn't can be saved and shared among the social good organizations that can benefit the most. There was also an entire track from the IEEE called the Technology for Humanity Series. The IEEE is the largest professional association aimed at advancing technology for humanity. Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway) shared some of the exciting progress his organization called FIRST® has been making by inspiring the next generation of science and technology leaders.


If I had to guess what the hottest topic at SXSW was this year, I'd probably have to say "wearables". There were many, many sessions related to wearables and their future in our lives. By 2020 there will be 50 billion connected devices! SXSW was of course ahead of the game here and probably hosted the largest concentration of Google Glass wearers at any one time since their introduction (other than at Google HQ). I was interviewed by a French radio station about Glass and its potential applications for the healthcare space. At the event, there were speakers from FitBit, Jawbone and Google among others, all discussing the evolution of product lines and how they see wearable computing fitting into consumers' everyday lives. And what will consumers do with all the data they are capturing? How do physicians react when consumers walk in with all of their quantified data? And can wearables - in and of themselves - affect behavioral change? Much more on this topic to summarize, when we dig deeper into the discussions.

Art + Science

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was probably the most moving speaker I heard over the entire length of the conference. When the moderator asked for Dr. Tyson's perspective on science literacy and the results of a recent survey showing that 1 in 4 Americans didn't know whether the Earth revolved around the Sun or vice versa (again, 1 in 4!!), Dr. Tyson's response surprised me. He said he wasn't so much concerned about rote memorization of facts, but rather about how much people still wonder about the world around them. He asked, "Do you pause and reflect when you discover something new?" You need curiosity in life. This theme was also echoed in Adam Savage's (the host of Myth Buster's) keynote. He spoke about the parallels between art and science, and described "culture" as a conversation, and art and science being how we have that conversation. And curiosity being what fuels both industries, art and science, in very similar ways. Crowd-Science, formerly called "citizen scientists" was also covered, and how its movement will enable us as a society to become better at solving humanity's problems and how its forces will likely change the entire paradigm of "traditional" clinical studies.


The word "innovation" is almost a cliché at this point, so over-used that it has almost lost it's meaning. But at SXSW the spirit behind the word is not lost, with speakers that help reinvigorate that special force within that drives ideation, creativity and science alike. Many a session was focused around innovation: from how to create a culture of innovation in a larger organization that has been around for many years, to learning how to maintain a spirit of innovation as a start-up growing up fast. As one of the speakers stated, "when you stop thinking about tomorrow, you stop innovating". Keeping an eye on what's next, where the market is going and how your company needs to keep pace, was widely covered. Not only in sessions, but in many of the books that were available. We'll also be providing an overview of the various book readings that took place and categorizing the topics covered.

Predictive Analytics

It is clear there is an insatiable appetite for knowledge around how to leverage big data. Every session around the topic had lines around the conference hall, turning lots of people away at every talk because the rooms were filled to capacity. Predictive analytics is almost the culmination of all the other topics I listed above. It combines the endless data streams we are collecting thru wearables and the internet of things with the art and science of algorithmic math to provide meaningful insights to change behaviors, to target customers better, to test the success of programs and mine ideas for future enhancements or product ideas, among many other things. It seems clear that ensuring companies are leveraging predictive analytics in order to grow their businesses forward is critical to success in the future.

I look forward to delving deeper into all of these topics and sharing more about our experience at SXSW this year very soon! Stay tuned.

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