Global Tech Internet of Things Opinion

Traversing Europe’s Stellar Tech Firmament

Deutsche Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges (L) interviews John Chambers, Executive Chairman of Cisco, at DT’s    24 Hours event near Munich.

On a recent tech-conference-moderating swing through the major cities of Europe, I came away with my U.S.-centricity dented, and the conviction that real estate in the Hudson Valley was likely to appreciate, among other revelations.

At the Founders Forum’s extraordinary gathering of entrepreneurs and tech luminaries in London, one of the greatest in both categories, Niklas Zennström, answered my question about what he was excited about by mentioning his portfolio company Lilium, a company that just happened to be presenting at FF the following morning. (We were, at the time, standing in the garden of 10 Downing Street for a very high-end opening cocktail with the British government’s Minister of State for Digital. Unlike us, they have one.) Lilium, based in Munich, is building flying cars—or rather manned drones. Sounded dangerous, I said, but Zennström parried by noting that Lilium’s plane, which has already flown in prototype, uses 36 engines, creating far more redundancy than a scary helicopter. (Wired covered its maiden flight, including a video.) Once  companies like this begin operating, not to mention, self-driving cars on the ground, I’m convinced remote real estate around our cities will become far more desirable. Distances of under 200 miles will become relatively traversable, something like a distance of 20 miles is today. Good for the Hudson Valley.

Founders Forum’s very existence puts the lie to any notion that the U.S. has fundamental tech superiority. London has become a major hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, aided tremendously by its extraordinary global-mindedness. FF has clearly been a major factor in giving London a sense of its own weightiness. And as 10 Downing Street suggests, the government has gotten behind the effort.

FF started with a wonderful afternoon conference entitled Accelerate-Her, which I had the privilege of helping moderate. Marissa Mayer and Richard Branson, along with cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry, brought some serious glitz to the affair. Mayer’s honest thoughts about her personal and business history were touching, impressive, and inspiring to the audience mostly comprised of women entrepreneurs. But a parade of those spoke too, including the impressive Kathleen Breitman, the mid-20s American CEO of cryptocurrency startup Tezos. It is raising an “initial coin offering” starting on July 1. Some suggest the offering may raise as much as $500 million for its alternative to Bitcoin and Ethereum.

From London I had the rough duty of zipping over to Paris for another very different but equally impressive event, VivaTechnology (VivaTech), spearheaded by Publicis Groupe and its longtime patriarch Maurice Levy. As a jaded tech-event-goer, I was amazed at VivaTech’s energy. Aside from the incredible parade of plenary speakers Levy gathered, his brilliant insight was to organize the accompanying trade show around specific industries, with each industry cluster anchored by a specific company (mostly French ones). Here I separately interviewed onstage two amazing industry titans–investor Yuri Milner and David Kenny of IBM Watson. Emmanuel Macron even gave a keynote. He is a big believer in the role of tech as an economic driver, so much so that many believe his presidency will have global ramifications for the sector and its relation to government.

LVMH had a “luxury tech” cluster, Air France had a travel one, Energie had one devoted to energy innovation, SNCF Logistics one on transportation tech, etc. The quality of the diverse startups was amazing, and almost all were European, many of them French. The continental entrepreneurial energy was tangible. I spoke at length, for example, to Norwegian company Kitemill, which uses big plane-like kites to create electricity. The tension on the tether generates energy on the ground.

Kitemill’s booth at VIVAtech in Paris. This is the current version of its energy-producing kite.

Then it was on to Munich for the great, small, 24 Hours conference hosted by Deutsche Telekom and its very thoughtful and strategically-minded CEO Timotheus Höttges. Most noteworthy about 24 Hours is the very fact of its existence. I know of no major American company, aside from one or two of the biggest tech ones, that gathers people under the CEO’s aegis to debate big questions about how tech is changing the world.

24 Hours opened with a top brain-tech interface academic blowing the minds (so to speak) of everyone in the room, as he reviewed the rapid progress science is making connecting minds to machines. Another speaker spoke about the centrality of China’s WeChat in the global tech firmament. It is approaching one billion users and over 90% of them use it daily (way more than for users of Facebook’s services). WeChat users typically don’t even carry a wallet, he said, since they can do so much with the service.

The Economist‘s Kenneth Cukier reviewed the state of AI, the topic of his next book. While he showed many reasons it is growing in importance, he also noted that the “hype cycle” is at a peak, and is likely destined to crash within two years. I moderated a bracing session about the state of the electorate in developed countries and how much tech is altering their lives. It was not reassuring.

The great John Chambers closed the event with his typically big-picture insight. He said, “Modi is the leader to watch”, as the global digital economy gets ever more central. In an unintended reference to the troubles of Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who was teetering as the event unfolded, Chambers observed that for all leaders, “when you think you’re invincible, you’re already in trouble.” He also repeated a valuable concept he heard from his longtime friend, the late lamented Shimon Peres—always “think like a teenager” if you want to understand this new world. Chambers, ever the optimist, also said that after Macron’s victories, France and Germany should be able to lead Europe back towards unity.

He even thinks they’ll bring the UK back in, eventually. And he handed out snacks created by one of the startups he’s mentoring—Austin-based Aketta, which grows crickets for climate-friendly animal protein. Not bad, the audience of investors and techies said.

It only reinforced my certainty about the importance of getting out of our bubbles and mixing it up with others. That of course is what we at Techonomy help leaders do. So I was especially pleased when Chambers agreed to join our already stellar line-up of speakers for Techonomy 2017 in Half Moon Bay on November 5th through 7th.  A trip worth taking, no doubt.

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