Blog Critical Developments

Slush 2017 – All To Play For

Photo of Tim Mulligan
by Tim Mulligan

In case you haven’t heard, this week, mainland Europe’s northernmost capital Helsinki is ground zero for tech and media. It all kicked off on Tuesday November 28 with the two-day Slush Music 2017; the main Slush event, which opened yesterday, concludes today. 20,000 people with a mutual interest in tech, media and innovation have converged at the Messukeskus to share insight, learn, promote and do deals, with over $500 million worth of investments brokered at the previous Slush event in 2016.

Now in its 10th year, Slush has become the Davos of the tech world as chartered jets conveyed Silicon Valley-based investors and billionaire founders to Helsinki, to partake in the high-octane event, complete with a laser and audio visual backdrop. Slush founder Miki Kuusi opened Slush 2017 stating that they had tapped out the entire European supply for Pink LED lights; he also reiterated the key theme of Slush 2017: Nothing normal ever changed a damn thing.

The world is facing a sustainability crisis

 Amid all the special effects, billion-dollar road maps and founder ‘journey’  key notes, the sobering rejoinder of Al Gore’s opening address ran like a meta narrative throughout the whole event. Al Gore, chairman of Generation Investment Management, has spent the last 15 years running a venture capital firm which places the environmental and the societal impact of its investments on an equal footing with the financial performance of its equity positions. A man now known primarily for his advocacy work around confronting the challenge of climate change, Al Gore was part of the Clinton administration which put tech at the heart of its two terms, balancing the US national debt and providing the low interest, stable macro framework and policy incentive that ignited the first tech boom of the 1990s.

Today, the key points of similarity with the final days of Al Gore’s vice presidency are low interest rates channelling cheap capital into an inflating tech scene. This time however, the stakes are much higher, and the consequences of getting it wrong are much greater, as Gore starkly reminded Slush attendees. Every country in the world has now ratified the 2016 Paris climate accord even – Gore was quick to point out – the US. However, a global pledge by governments to commit to significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions is in itself insufficient. Gore described a sustainability revolution being unleashed across the world on a par with the industrial revolution, but one which this time is happening everywhere at once, rather than spreading out slowly from a single territory.

However, the race is on to reach that sustainability destination ahead of what Al Gore defined as a threat to human civilisation itself. The key differentiators between the tech bubble years of the 1990s and the tech hubris of the current decade are the consumers and the people joining the tech scene. If the 90s boom was primarily about material greed, today the tech zeitgeist is about consciousness and autonomy, albeit fuelled by VC money rather than IPO money. Self-interest remains the key driver, but an increasing percentage of participants are now expecting the fruit of their labour to be something bigger than material gain and self-aggrandisement.

Climate change and extreme poverty are the biggest challenges of our time

Tech is renowned for self-regard and self-promotion so it was refreshing to hear nuance, introspection and a drive to make meaningful change in our increasingly stressed globalised world. Alongside Gore’s welcome address reminder of the need for us all to prioritise sustainability, Slush organisers clearly favoured presentations and conversations with founders that used tech and the tools of venture capital, to build enterprises that are having a meaningful impact on the wider world.

Two stories shared by two separate founders, a matter of hours after Al Gore’s call to action, help to illustrate the changing tides among the current wave of VC-backed entrepreneurs. The first was Leila Janah’s journey from data cruncher at the World Bank, to founder and CEO of Sama, an outsourcing company that hires people living below the two-dollar poverty line across East Africa. Janah described eloquently how employment enabled both a four-fold increase in income over two years and a career trajectory in tech for workers from backgrounds where they were struggling to survive in refugee camps. Janah closed an investment round from VCs only after she had proved that she could make the business model work. Sama investors inject capital into the business with the clear understanding that they are providing social capital, resulting in reduced financial returns, yet significantly increased social outcomes. Sama produces quarterly learnings calls, rather than earnings calls for investors, underlining the commitment to redressing global inequality. For Janah, the moral imperative was clear:

“The biggest challenge, other than climate change, is extreme poverty and it shouldn’t be happening on our watch.”

The second entrepreneurial story was about tackling the first challenge confronting the world: how to make the world sustainable on an energy production basis. Inna Braverman was born in a Ukrainian town 200 kilometres from Chernobyl, only two weeks after the nuclear power plant disaster. Fast forward to 2011, she and her partner founded Eco Wave Power – an Israeli start-up which, this year, just secured its second round of funding. Eco Wave Power is building power plants in Gibraltar and Mexico, which utilise the power of coastal waves to generate electricity. Inna’s story is compelling because, among other things, her sheer determination made her the first-ever Israeli female entrepreneur to successfully close a VC funding round, after deciding to set up the business without any technical training or background. Nonetheless, her vision was clear: to utilise a readily available renewable energy source which has the capacity to provide twice our current global energy consumption demands.

Slush 2017 arguably represents the point in human history when the beneficiaries of VC cash rose to meet the two existential challenges that confront humanity. As we close out the second decade of the 21st century, it seems we’re starting to embrace the truly transformative power of human ingenuity which is being unleashed through access to cheap capital. And in the month when Finland celebrates  its 100th year of independence, a small country which punches way above is weight globally seems like the perfect venue for heralding this new era.

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