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TNW Conference is a really, really big show with big names, big ideas and big connections

Kinga Matula, center, takes the pitching contest

(Editor’s note: This post on TNW Conference 2024 is part of our Tech Tuesday series. Dispatches covers tech because so many of our highly skilled internationals are entrepreneurs and investors.)

We go to lots of regional tech, startup and pitching events, including for Antler in Amsterdam, Extreme Tech Challenge, Draper University, LUMO Labs in Eindhoven and PortXL in Rotterdam. But until Friday, we’d never been to one of the Big Three. TNW is up there with Slush and Viva Tech, and we’d always had this lingering suspicion that the big events were hype machines – not all that relevant to startups, but wildly expensive for teams that have raised just a few thousands euros.

Yes, there are affordable bootstrap and scale-up passes, but our tickets were 600 euros for two. This is definitely a well-oiled, profit-churning machine. What began as The Next Web conference was purchased by London-based Financial Times (which is in turn owned by Nikkei Inc.) in 2023. Now, it’s morphed into TNW, a media company merged into an events operation.

Worth it

To our surprise, TNW turned out to be on some level “worth it,” with top notch speakers and probing interviews. And you could get up close and personal with some of the biggest names in tech and potential investors.

We walked into the main auditorium just as Financial Times reporter Cristina Criddle was grilling Anna Koivuniemi from Google’s DeepMind AI accelerator in “From Algorithms to Impact: Leveraging Technology for Global Good.” At the smaller events we’ve gone to, the panels and interviews on stage are cordial – and let’s just say it, dull – with softball questions. In her time with Koivuniemi, Criddle was unrelenting, asking if stock price and financial pressures were more motivators for Google to keep driving to beat competitors to AGI and artificial super intelligence without knowing the ramifications for humanity. It was an uncomfortable moment for Koivuniemi, who kept hedging, repeating that she was new to her job and wasn’t privy to that sort of internal strategizing.

“Let’s just get to AGI first,” she said, ending the interview.

Now THAT’S interesting, and not your typical tech talk in Podunk.

Scary, yet fascinating

Just as interesting was “Deep Tech Trends: What We Can Expect,” with Criddle interviewing Young Sohn, former president of Samsung, co-founder of Extreme Tech Challenge and Silicon Valley VC Walden Catalyst, and Lars Reger, CTO of Eindhoven-based chip maker NXP. (Full disclosure … both are on the board of our client Extreme Tech Challenge, based on Sand Hill Road in The Valley.)

Their discussion touched on the fragility of the global tech ecosystem, with China’s aggressive moves toward Taiwan, where TSMC makes most of the most advanced memory chips, CPUs and logic chips. Sohn noted that chips are made in Taiwan and Korea, tested in Malaysia, then distributed to customers in the United States and Europe. Twenty-four million jobs in Europe depend on the semiconductor industry, according to Reger. “If our supply in Taiwan or Korea were to get cut off, our society would collapse,” he said.

Sohn and Reger spent quite a bit of time talking about nextgen technologies, particularly AI. Sohn said we’d crossed the Rublicon on AI and there’s no going back … as with the Internet already embedded in our lives. While everyone talks about the increase in data and the strain on data centers AI is causing, it’s not the compute that’s the problem. It’s the massive amount of power it takes to move data, Sohn said.

For us, the climax of our very long day was an XTC pitching event with five startups. Kinga Matula, founder of biotech startup QurieGen, based in Nijmegen, crushed it, winning the Global Deep Tech Startup Competition at the TNW Conference.

Overall, there are good things and not so good things about TNW, including the scale. It’s in a cluster of dedicated warehouses on the outskirts of Amsterdam. At any given time, there are simultaneous events on multiple stages and you simply can’t get to more than a few. I’d love to have heard the discussions about whether banks have become tech companies, “Beyond Algorithms: How LLMs are paving the way for AI-driven Financial Transformation,” “Valencia: The Emerging Innovation Capital” and, of course, “Behind the Paywall: Uncovering Only Fans with Lee Taylor.”

Strictly to understand the financials driving this phenomenon, of course.

Helene Samadurova, Incooling

Everything, everywhere, all at once

Alas, there were just too many things going on and we had to stick tight to our clients. Outside the main building, the grounds had a carnival feel, with food, fun and padel. For startups you could get matched for meetings with potential investors, so that’s plus.

We saw a number of startups from our HQ of Eindhoven, including Veridis, and we talked with Rudie Verweij and Helena Samodurova from Incooling. Helena liked the high energy level, but rates Artic 15 as the best of the best.

We at Dispatches found the TNW Conference, with more than 10,000 attendees, to be very well organized. There were no technical glitches, for example. The TNW staff kept things moving on and on schedule. According to Cheryl Boyd, co-CEO of Dispatches Europe and my wife, they were like a well-oiled machine and worked very well with the Extreme Tech Challenge team in putting together their program for the day.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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