Last week I attended my first one and the event in Lisbon is as big, bold and overwhelming as I’d been led to believe.
Here are my key takeaways…
Yes the event was buzzing and yes everyone was in hyper-pitch mode, but it felt like the economic situation was the elephant in the room that was only occasionally acknowledged. While most commentators were bullish about pre-seed and early-stage funding, Josh Wolfe of Lux Capital pointed out that VC ‘dry powder’ is a bit of a myth, as most capital is likely be committed in support of preferred mid-stage portfolio companies.
There were some strong pitches and great keynotes, but with a few notable exceptions, most speakers were being circumspect. My sense was that in challenging times, no one is too eager to put their head above the parapet.
Amazon, Meta and Apple were all there talking about AI, the metaverse and health, respectively. Their presentations were super slick and set out a clear direction of travel. However, they neatly sidestepped talk of recent stock price slides and presented little in the way of tangible product updates or news.
The crypto stage was consistently the most packed part of the summit and it seemed like many attendees were working or building something in the space. They listened politely to the few critics and naysayers that had been booked (shout out to the brilliant and brave Molly White), but Cardano founder Charles Hoskinson rallied the troops and really livened things up. On this evidence, crypto is here to stay. (If you watch just one session from this year’s Web Summit, you’d be hard pressed to find one more entertaining than his centre stage debate with Molly White and Ben McKenzie).
Ok, so no one can agree on an actual definition on the metaverse, beyond some vagaries about it being the next iteration of the internet, but that isn’t dissuading talent from working on it or investors from betting on it. 2D, 3D, AR or VR… the VC cash is going to keep coming for the dazzling array of start-ups working in the space.
There were a serious amount of payment fintechs and banking-as-a-service providers on show. So much so, that even fintech founders were joking about the saturation in the space. As our client Prajit Nanu of Nium predicted earlier this year, there is inevitably going to be a serious amount of consolidation in the category over the next 18 months.
While this was my first time at Web Summit, I was surprised at the lack of ‘wow’ technology on display. I was expecting robots, drones and flying taxis. I’m told that these were a staple of previous conferences and it was a shame not to see these glimpses into a future, no matter how ambitious and far off.
The summit ‘headliner’ and most cited intellectual on the planet, Noam Chomsky, did a double act with Gary Marcus to close the event. They excoriated the spurious marketing claims made by companies and investors in the AI space. At 93 and hard of hearing, Chomsky is as cynical, astute and wryly funny as he always has been. While you could pick holes in their critique if you really wanted to, Chomsky and Marcus served to remind to the audience that technology is simply a tool and it is our common humanity that makes life joyful and worth living. An apt way to end.