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Viva Tech 2017

Greenstage, who I’ve done some work with in the past on Solar Network, were attending Viva Tech in Paris by invitation through the French embassy in New Zealand and Vinci Energies and, had a spare pass to share.

I hadn’t heard of Viva Tech before, this is only it’s second year, but it was a really impressive event. It’s main aim seemed to be to connect startups with large French companies but it wasn’t just about networking or excessively focussed on France.

The floor space was huge and mainly split up by established companies who were hosting about forty or fifty startups related to their area of business, giving them coaching and a chance to pitch their product ideas. There were all sorts of things on show, the most eye catching when walking around being all the AR/VR, drones and robots. The variety of ideas and concepts on show was impressive, far too many to take in frankly.

There were also six stages for talks around the venue and that’s where I spent most of my time. There was a huge range of talks over the two days covering all the areas you’d expect: IoT, Block Chain, VR//AR, AI//ML, health, fintech, energy, autonomous cars as well as focussing on startups and their journeys. The formats were very much podcast like, ranging in length from 15 to 30 minutes. I’ll summarise some of the ones that made more of an impression on me.

Energy

As I was attending via Greenstage I made sure to attend some of the IoT and Energy related talks.

Scott Kessler from LO3 Energy did a couple of talks that at a high level gave a very similar message to what Greenstage has. The first was about their blockchain enabled experiment in Brooklyn, with 50 houses providing energy and another 300 signed up to buy it. This was only a fifteen minute chat and light on technical details but he was a convincing speaker and sold the message well. From what he said they started off with “Environment Tokens” before moving to more of a retail model. He described this as all very much an experiment, one of a few they have going, and that they don’t see their future as being retail. To be honest it wasn’t clear exactly what their future might be. He did mention their office in Australia and that they have an upcoming project in Europe but couldn’t give any details on that yet. He made a big point that using block chain meant that their system was entirely decentralised and how important that was. I wasn’t left entirely convinced on that point.

This was followed by a talk with Dr Graham Oakes from Upside Energy Ltd in the UK about “Smart Grids getting Smarter”. It sounded like Upside Energy was very much focussed on using AI/ML to improve efficiency and described what they’re doing as complimentary to what LO3 offer. It could be worth checking them out if they’re not already on your radar.

There were also a couple of panels with bigger players, one which involved EDF and the other Engie. These where specifically about how home owners will be generating energy and it’s impact on the grid. General discussions around the changes required and some of the problems it will generate. The problem that stuck with me most was that the price of running and supplying the grid would rise dramatically but that it’ll still need to be able to provide enough energy when sources such as solar and wind can’t and storage has been exhausted. As the edge generation grows that problem gets bigger, potentially outweighing at least some of the benefits. For me it was eye opening to hear how aware they are of these concepts and how much is going on in the area.

Talks

Daniel Zhang from Alibaba gave a talk describing what they’ve created as a platform and that they don’t consider themselves the Asian version of Amazon. There was an image of “The Alibaba Economy” which showed how they cover every part of the commerce stack and more. It’ll be interesting when they venture further outside of Asia and what impact that might have on the traditional eCommerce model we’re used to. More generally the impression from this and some other talks was that a number of Chinese companies are moving at a pace that the Western world isn’t, trying and discarding ideas that don’t work very quickly.

John Chambers, the ex CEO of Cisco did a really interesting chat with the CEOs of three different but successful startups and the lessons each had learnt. Some of the insights from that talk and others were really interesting and I’ve heard similar messages in a number of podcasts. It all depends on what you’re doing of course but they include:

  • Don’t plan on an exit, be in it for the long term
  • You need to be passionate about you’re doing
  • Sales is important, really important. You need to invest in great people to sell what you have otherwise even if your product is great you won’t succeed
  • Focus, don’t get distracted with unnecessary features. Don’t be sucked into taking too much funding, you’ll loose focus on your core product
  • It’s easier to disrupt from within than without

One talk was given by the creator of freightos which is a web site that allows the shipments of containers to be managed in the much the same way as courier companies do packages. He came from outside the industry to do this, found someone from the industry who believed in the vision and championed it and essentially disrupted it from within by getting shipping companies to use the product internally then making the platform accessible to consumers on the outside.

There was a lot of talk about blockchain and a number of people using it, or at least trying to. The impression here was that the technology itself is still in it’s infancy and being developed. While there are all kinds of diverse uses it’s being put to, many of these have encountered short comings that they have to work around. For example, typically as a blockchain grows in size it becomes more secure but less performant. But then there a people working on implementations to get around this. Overall it sounded like most of them were working on their own customisations to a certain degree to solve their own individual problems. Use cases included using it in IoT as a method for devices to communicate without a centralised server, not just as a way of recording transactions. Also talk about building in wallets to support micro transactions and get around credit card transaction fees.

Security was a big talking point of course. Nothing too unusual there but a big focus on security, or rather the leak of it in many cases, in the IoT.

I ended up in the auditorium for Macron’s speech at the end of the first day which hadn’t been on my radar. They handed out headsets so you could hear the English translation. The guy sure can talk but not the most exciting content if you’re not French :)

All in all it was a very stimulating event, so much going on out there. I’d certainly recommend it as something worth attending in the future.