I spent the last two days at the World Innovation Summit here in Barcelona. It was relatively high profile, with two A list speakers. The atmosphere was a bit too formal for my taste, but I suppose that innovators in medicine, the automotive industry, etc still need to wear suits. The event was entirely in English, which was a nice change for me.
The first big name was Dennis Crowley, the founder of FourSquare, who told the story about the founding of his company and his experiences as an entrepreneur. What struck me was how his motivation was basically “I wanted to be able to do X, no one else was doing it, so I just did it myself”. No estimates of billion dollar markets, gross margins, user studies, etc. After his talk he got pummeled by a VC (who was nice enough to add a disclaimer that he was an investor in a competitor to FourSquare), with the usual questions about profitability, etc. Same questions that people were asking about Facebook and Google before. Dennis took it all in good humor.
Richard Florida, an expert in the field of regional economic development was the other featured speaker. He is somewhat controversial in the US for his thesis that neighborhoods that attract gays tend to be the more creative and innovative parts of the city. Richard got an incredibly formal introduction, with a table of four introducers giving long-winded speeches (is that a normal thing to do here?). The guy from the Barcelona town hall decided play local politics and give his introduction in Catalan (with no translation provided). Richard was generally very positive about Barcelona’s progress as a center of innovation (one of very few cities where the Olympics actually had a positive impact).
The second day was a bit less crowded and focused more on individual entrepreneurs (each given 3 minutes to do an “elevator pitch”). My personal favorites were the chicken vaccine guy from Mexico and the fully automatic roti machine about to take the market by storm in India.
It was very cool to see the Tesla car parked outside the convention center, and Cristiano Carlutti from TESLA was there to give his pitch during the Electric Vehicle Mobility session.
The round-table on health-care innovation was very interesting. The “virtualization” of biotech, where a startup can outsource pretty much all the capital intensive chemistry, trials, etc and concentrate entirely on proof-of-concept was a very encouraging development. It also seems like the FDA’s risk-aversion is set on completely strangling new product development in the US. Elisabet de los Pinos made some interesting points about how European government grants require you to do the exact opposite (hire lots of post-docs) of what you should really do (prove your hypothesis at the lowest possible cost).
Ken Morse made us all feel like MBA students as he tried to spice up a round table on IT innovation by having participants come up with 3 cosmic ideas on the future of IT. These included the death of IT, the death of Microsoft, the death of Google, the death of humanity (in the form of large asteroids, but apparently virtual idea shaped ones). There was some disagreement about whether CIOs should be fired, turned into sales people or just executed on the spot. The guy from PriceLine seemed to think he’d stumbled into a session on motivational speaking, so he spent all his time blathering on about how every morning he spends some time finding out what is possible today that wasn’t possible yesterday.
Finally a VP from Google came and gave the same talk I’ve seen a dozen times by different Googlers about how innovation happens at Google. He said Google does innovation based on hard data rather than dictatorial CEOs… meow. He did show off his iPad, so it wasn’t all Apple-hating.