SzeleSTIM beat off 50 startup challengers to emerge as the winner of the coveted Pioneers Challenge Award at Pioneers’18 today. Having developed a wearable earpiece designed to deliver customizable chronic pain treatment, they’ve won a networking trip to Silicon Valley, plus a trip to South East Asia to pitch at the Techsauce Global Summit.
Our flagship event, which ran over the last two days in Vienna’s Hofburg Imperial Palace, saw over 2,500 tech innovators, 550 startups and a host of top speakers come together to tackle key global issues and showcase high-impact innovation under the ‘Blurred Frontiers’ theme. Pioneers’18 also showcased the pioneering work of Pierre Barreau in its official theme tune.
The event featured top international speakers such as Amazon CTO Werner Vögels, Google Arts & Culture Program Manager Suhair Kahn, Electronic Arts Co-Founder Jeff Burton,former President of Sony Pictures Entertainment and MGM Entertainment David Bishop, the co-creator of the Lilium Jet Vertical Take Off and Landing craft Patrick Nathen, and video game entrepreneurs and investors Emmett Shear (Twitch) and Alexis Bonte (Atomico).
Pioneers’18 began with a bang as Aaron VanDevender kicked off proceedings on the new-look Arena Stage with his opening keynote about the intersection of humanity and technology. He’s Chief Scientist and a Principal at Founders Fund, which believes in investing in entrepreneurs pursuing the most ambitious technical challenges.
Amazon’s Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels, the man responsible for driving the company’s customer-centric technology vision, outlined the growing power of voice systems such as Alexa to reach the greatest numbers of people, irrespective of literacy or language. And he urged those founders in attendance to consider this in their strategies.
“I believe that the first steps we’re taking now with voice interfaces will be the next major disruption in computing,” he said. “We need to leave behind our addiction to machine based interfaces – variations on the keyboard, screen and mouse. Rather we need to communicate the way humans actually want to, which is by talking.
“If you’re a startup, don’t feed the old addiction to screens and keyboards. Whatever you’re building, think about using voice first.”
“Ever given an iPad to your grandmother? All she’s ever going to do is hit the Skype button – talking is what she grew up with. And if you want her to use all the functionality, you have to make it so that she can talk to the device.”
We also welcomed Google Arts & Culture Program Manager Suhair Khan, who on Friday walked the audience through some of the technologies she and her team are bringing to cultural institutions as they help make art accessible to a wider audience. Examples included the 3D digital preservation of temples just before they were recently destroyed by war, exploring the Palace of Versailles’ interior using Google Street View and the high-resolution capture of the intricate and inaccessible ceiling of Vienna’s nearby Burgtheater.
Further speakers who embodied the Blurred Frontiers theme in real style were futurist Jonathan Knowles, social entrepreneur and explorer Guillermo Söhnlein and marine scientist Gaelin Rosenwaks, who joined an ‘Exploration of New Spaces’ panel discussion drawing on their expertise in deep-sea and space exploration.
“Coming from the startup world to the exploration world, it’s amazing how many skill sets carried over,” said serial entrepreneur Söhnlein. “Every expedition has felt like a startup. You make decisions based on limited data – and those decisions can be make or break. So there are a lot of parallels.”
“When we look around the world, it’s almost all plastic,” added Knowles in response to an audience question on pollution. “The good news is a lot more people are thinking about it, and that’s another big opportunities for all entrepreneurs – how do we deal with all the plastic?”
Environmental challenges were also on the agenda in the Friday morning panel on Impact Through Technology, which featured social impact investors Timo Schmitt-Lord and Marc Buckley, of Bayer Foundations and ANJA-ALOHAS ECO-Center respectively.
“Agriculture is broken,” said Buckley. “It’s 12,000 years old but it does more damage than the coal, oil and gas industries. I would like to see more innovation around food production.”
More than a few startups at the Hofburg, of course, seek to rise to exactly those sorts of challenges. ThinAir, for example, is already providing an agricultural solution for Red Dane Farming, Zimbabwe’s biggest dairy farming company, which like all farm operations has to improve its water efficiency. ThinAir’s concept is to draw water out of the atmosphere at a viable level of efficiency, and its co-founder Jonathan Risley introduced the technology on the Arena Stage today.
Just as air can be turned to water, so water can be transformed into light. This was demonstrated on the Arena Stage by Filipino startup SALt, whose lantern powered by salt water is already starting to have an impact for off-grid rural communities in Asia.
Mobility also has the potential for great impact, and with this in mind we also welcomed Patrick Nathen, Co-Founder and Head of Calculation & Design at Lilium, the German startup behind the world’s first electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet.
“VTOL will make us rethink where we live and work, which we hope will lead to a rebalance of rental and property prices,” said Nathen, who brought the Lilium Jet to life with three big-thinking flatmates. “Right now ten kilometres seems painful in any big city. We want people to think 150 kilometres is nothing. There will be a new transport ecosystem and people will profit from that. It sounds crazy and unrealistic now, but I promise it will come.”
While at first glance technologies like virtual reality don’t have obvious social impact, speakers such as Electronic Arts co-founder Jeff Burton (who also co-founded HolodeckVR, which gave more than 1000 Pioneers’18 attendees a taste of multi-player VR gaming on each day of the event) challenged any such assumptions.
“Virtual reality allows for a whole new version of emotional engagement beyond gaming. Gaming and education have taken decades to come together – far longer than they should have – but now they’re finally starting to do so. The best way to learn is through experience, and when you can have a virtual experience that teaches you something, it will stay with you for life.”
Olivier Oullier, President at Emotiv, also showed by technology such as Augmented Reality can be combined with the power of Brain Computer Interfaces to allow surgeons to ‘move’ projected AR elements by thought alone, thus freeing up their hands to operate. In a live stage demonstration he also showcased ‘A Wearable For Your Brain’, which measures key parameters such as engagement, stress and focus in real time.
Staying with new technologies that increase the potential of human biology, biotechnologist Josef Penninger was among the keynote speakers. The internationally renowned geneticist sent attendees home with the very latest from the genetic technology arena, including new possibilities in ‘speed-reading’, editing and stem-cell recreation. Insilico Medicine CEO Dr Alex Zhavoronkov, meanwhile, looked at how deep learning could take down the ‘elephant in the room’ that is ageing – and how the latter doesn’t need to be considered inevitable.
With gaming a bigger industry on the innovation radar than ever before, the Arena Stage audience also heard from e-sports streaming king Emmett Shear, who sold Twitch.tv to Amazon for almost a billion dollars in 2014. He was joined on stage by Alexis Bonte of Atomico, which recently invested in Worlds Adrift creator Bossa Studios.
“Video games are bigger than both movies and books,” said Shear. “They’re the single largest area people spend money on for entertainment. For Amazon, if you want to sell everything, everywhere, then you definitely want to be part of that.”
“When we sold, we got access to the capital we needed to grow and invest in the business. We could not have built Twitch Prime without Amazon.”
Another hot topic was Blockchain, with Lighting Labs Co-Founder and CEO Elizabeth Stark, whose company aims to scale Blockchain by making cryptocurrency transfers faster and easier, an Arena Stage highlight. So too was Glosfer CEO Taewon Kim, whose talk was live-translated from Korean for an audienced intrigued eager to learn more about Nowon Cash,the world’s first local cryptocurrency, which is currently in use in Nowon-gu, South Korea.
Artificial intelligence, of course, was a recurring theme. Attendees learned more about the increasing role it’s playing in automated translation technology, in a panel discussion featuring Unbabel co-founder Vasco Pedro and Waverly Labs CEO Andrew Ochoa.
“Humans and AI will work much more closely together in the future,” said Pedro. “And the interplay between humans and AI is at the core of what we’re doing. But I don’t see a time in the near future when you can take the human out of the equation, however the human’s role is going to change.”
Hermann Hauser, a Partner at Amadeus Capital Partners and serial entrepreneur, provided an apt summary of the bigger picture around artificial intelligence in his Intelligent Machines talk.
“A new species is about to be born, and it’s called artificial intelligence,” he said. “And the biggest challenge for mankind over the next few decades is to agree on the right goals for it.”
The final afternoon peaked with the Pioneers Challenge Top 8 pitches, during which SzeleSTIM convinced the jury to crown them Pioneers of the Year. The top eight were the cream of the crop from the Pioneers Challenge Top 50, the startups which pitched in seven tracks yesterday – one, Pago, advanced to the Top 8 as ‘Community Choice’ voted for by attendees. The Top 50 competing on Thursday were in turn the best of the 500 attending startups selected under our Pioneers500.
SzeleSTIM’s prototype earpiece, which the company is preparing for CEE regulation towards the end of the year, delivers treatment via a steady rhythm of electrical pulses via the ear, designed to stimulate the pain-critical vagus nerve.
“I think we’re addressing a real problem here,” said Stefan Kampusch, co-founder of SzeleSTIM as he reflected on the reasons they struck a chord with the jury. “Everybody has had pain; everybody knows somebody who has had pain or even chronic pain. Everybody has a relation to this topic and knows it is very severe.”
The final evening also saw the audience introduced to the theme tune, which was composed by Aiva Technologies – whose co-founder Barreau was the last speaker on stage before the awards ceremony began.
Our Match & Meet service again provided personalized recommendations that automated the process of getting like-minded startups, corporate executives and investors talking. It worked hand-in-hand with our Piobot chatbot for a smooth schedule and meeting management experience.
Other novelties for Pioneers’18 included a dedicated program aimed at Series A startups, a broadcasting partnership with Red Bull TV Live, an increased presence from our partner PwC, which showcased its Experience Center and eValuation tool, which provides startups with an estimate of their market value. We also teamed up with PwC to publish our Pioneers500 Report, while Raiffeisen Bank International chose Pioneers’18 as the stage to announce the establishment of its Fintech venture capital company, Elevator Ventures.
Another successful edition of our flagship event was the perfect kick-off to a new era for Pioneers, following a change in ownership announced earlier this week. The company has been acquired by Linz-based startup300, a business angel group consisting of 142 angels and investors, although, Pioneers will continue with its brand name and daily operations unchanged.
Browse our gallery of the best photos from the two days at the Hofburg below!