​Montreal Startupfest 2017 Recap

By Barnaby Marshall ● July 25, 2017 10:40

Luck was the theme at this year’s Startupfest – how to find, generate and keep it. An oversize stepladder stood near the entrance, daring attendees to walk under it, while on the keynote stage, speakers incorporated the theme into their presentations.

Oversized step up ladder outside the event main hall

Journalist David McRaney spoke about the psychology of luck in his keynote, “Missing What Is Missing.” Our perception typically favours survivors, McRaney said, adding that failure often holds important information that can help others succeed. He showed a slide of the bullet-ridden underside of a World War II aircraft and pointed out that reinforcing areas that were not shot up proved to be the most effective strategy, since all the planes that didn’t come back must have been fatally damaged in those regions.

Journalist Dave McRaney on stage

This counter-intuitive approach suggests that tech entrepreneurs should study the great flameouts and failures, like Pets.com or Webvan, as much as the successes. In McRaney’s mind, failures are often too goal-focused, too fixated on routine and too prone to avoiding the periphery, where chance opportunities typically lie – but only if one embraces risk.

Tech Star founder Dan Brown in front of maple leaf mosaic

Next, Tech Stars founder and Montreal native Dave Brown stood before a huge maple leaf mosaic and told the audience that his accelerator is “long on Canada,” including a new Toronto program he launched in March. Luck, in Brown’s estimation, is not only “recognizing that you are in the right place at the right time,” but also possessing the necessary humility, patience and clarity to persevere through the hurdles that founders face on their journey to success. Arguing for the necessity of taking time out for strategic thinking (“too often we get mired in the tactical”), Brown urged us to “beat back the arrogance beast” without foregoing self-confidence.

Angel investor and startup advisor Jesse Hertzberg struck a similar note, delineating the difference between fostering a culture of candor inside a company and merely being blunt. “Every startup inherits the dysfunction of its founder,” Hertzberg maintained, and testing for a leader’s self-awareness is a critical part of predicting future success. Simply walling off the negatives limits the potential for growth, so entrepreneurs need to recognize their mistakes and negotiate the “journey from IQ to EQ” to reach their company’s goals.

Viral video whiz Karen X. Cheng suggested three tips for maximizing reach and impact, based on the massive traction she achieved with her “donut selfie” campaign: one, write a catchy headline that reporters will gobble up; two, “fake it until you make it” (i.e., only three people had actually done a donut selfie when Cheng emailed over 300 media outlets about this new “craze”); and three, make other people look good wherever possible (i.e., don’t make it all about yourself).

More than one guest speaker made the connection between luck and living in Canada, well-positioned to escape the turbulence buffeting other areas of the globe. Shopify COO and CBC Dragon Harley Finkelstein spoke about his company’s steadfast commitment to Canada, citing the educational system, the loyalty of employees, and the benefits of a multicultural workforce in tackling the demands of a “geographically agnostic” global business. Two years ago, Finkelstein gave a Startup Festival talk in which he bemoaned the number of Canadian companies that had sold out early to big international firms. By 2017, his thinking had evolved. He now sees the 183 Canadian tech acquisitions that occurred over the past five years as a boon to the startup ecosystem. Those founders provide capital and mentorship for the next generation of homegrown entrepreneurs.

A highlight of the festival came on Friday morning, when festival organizer Alistair Croll spoke with the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, to discuss the Trudeau government’s plans to keep Canada competitive in what he termed “a global innovation race.” Referencing the Liberals’ March budget and its $1.26B Innovation Fund (See highlights for entrepreneurs here), Bains described how the federal procurement process is being radically redefined for the twenty-first century, largely through the elimination of bureaucracy and red tape. Rethinking the usual model, whereby those applying need to tender proposals carefully structured to match how the government imagines problems should be tackled, Bains described a new approach in which Ottawa will instead share the challenges they face and seek creative and innovative solutions from the private sector.

Other announcements from the Minister included a streamlining of the approval process for companies seeking to bring top international talent into Canada (formerly a months-long process now reduced to two weeks) and some specific numbers on the Innovation Fund’s structure – up to $150K for a prototype and up to $1 million to bring a product or service to market.) After citing the SIBR Program in the US as a model, Bains promised that more information on the Fund would soon be forthcoming on the government’s website.

Elsewhere at the conference, many other thought-provoking discussions occurred for budding entrepreneurs to digest. As in years past, the subjects of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) dominated the conversation. American blogger and tech evangelist Robert Scoble gave an enthusiastic presentation called “The Next Seven Quarters,” in which he opined that an unprecedented wave of change is about to hit us, beginning with the September rollout of iOS 11 and Apple’s much-hyped AR Kit. That software and other emerging “foundational technologies” will define much human-computer interaction in the years to come, he predicted.

Ever the techno-optimist, Scoble shared video demos he had shot and collected of some of these technologies in action. These included Microsoft’s HoloLens and mixed-reality filmmaking app, Actiongram, and Google’s advances through their acquisition of eye-tracking startup, Eyefluence, and depth-sensing 3D sensors and motion tracking technology, By employing terms like “light field camera” and “foveated rendering” in his talk, Scoble illustrated a world where a trip to the hardware store for a screwdriver would involve an AR wayfinding overlay to lead you right to the product, or a world in which spectators at a PGA golf tournament could remain at a single hole, but tap into an information-dense graphical presentation of what was going on elsewhere on the course.

Kharis O'Connell on stage

Many of these advances are made possible by so-called “SLAM” (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) sensors and the race by major tech players to create what is effect a polygonal mesh map of the entire world (think all the data that self-driving cars collect as they navigate through the built environment). Kharis O’Connell, Senior Director of UX at AR startup, Meta, raised a host of questions about how this technology might be negatively assimilated into our lives, providing a more pessimistic counterpoint to Scoble’s AR utopia.

Arguing that the future of AR is more a design challenge than technological one, O’Connell played back part of Keiichi Matsuda’s recent Hyper Reality video, a remarkable glimpse of the over-mediated hell of unchecked AR. Citing the visually noisy early days of the web before established UX practices emerged and the so-called dark-patterns of current mobile web design, he stressed the need for a “calm tech” approach to AR, where users can post a virtual “do not disturb” sign and only have AR appear when they need it. Equally important are questions around regulation and ownership in the virtual world, the kinds of “permission settings” required to avoid excessive “emotional coercion” by those who would manipulatively wield control of these new tools and objects.

In the recent history of technological innovation, engineers often failed to consider the future moral and ethical impact of their inventions; for example, did the founders of the free and open Internet in the sixties consider how it might allow for the massive economic displacements and disruptions seen in that decade? O’Connell’s voice was a refreshing one; his recognition that Meta is “not just selling headsets” and needs to “own the future” stood out as a sensible warning of the double-edged sword that always accompanies technical progress. O’Connell has written a free eBook called Designing for Mixed Realityavailable here.

Another speaker who spoke out against unrestrained technological and business domination by any means was Pando Daily’s editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy. In a series of slides, she walked the audience through a presentation called “Silicon Valley’s Morality Collapse,” describing some of the high-profile sexual assault and discrimination cases that have rocked the tech sector in recent months.

Singling out the corporate culture at Uber, where bragging about law-breaking and continually needing to prove how “baller” one is have sent the ride-sharing company into severe damage-control mode, Lacy made the point that “maximizing for the biggest valuation” and “toxic masculinity” often go hand in hand. Had the 2008 economic crash affected the Valley as it did the rest of the country, such excesses “would have been driven out of the system,” she argued. After talking about the “slow disenfranchisement of white men in America” and showing a slide that compared the bro-like tendencies of “Travis and Trump,” her case was crystal clear.

In the final presentation of festival, organizer and visiting lecturer at Harvard Business School Alistair Croll stepped in for the Department of Homeland Security’s Molly Cain, who was unable to make it. Taking as his theme “the future of the future,” Croll suggested that it was time to retire the idea of celebrating disruption as a force for change (as that’s “when people get hurt”), and instead focus on learning to identify “discontinuities,” those sudden changes that blindside establishment thinking again and again. Human history is rife with examples where what’s right around the corner seems to hardest to see, with us temperamentally unable or unwilling to see them. The audience was left pondering a future in which we might be living in converted mall colonies and subsisting on a universal basic income, growing our own vegetables via indoor vertical farming pods and eating cultivated meat grown in vats. After what festival attendees absorbed over the previous three days, this scenario sounded less far-fetched than it might have on day one.

Startupfest is an annual event in Montreal that brings together aspiring founders, groundbreaking innovators and veteran entrepreneurs from around the world.