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December 7, 2018

5 takeaways from attending Slush

Five nuggets from Europe's quirkiest tech event

John Thornhill

6 min read

For those who have never attended the Slush tech conference in Helsinki it’s worth noting: it’s crazy. Each year some 20,000 attendees descend on the slushy Finnish capital to talk tech in a cavernous convention centre and party til the sun comes up (very late in that part of the world). There are also numerous investors that attend the conference to source new and interesting startups to invest in. For Slush 2018, we sent the very sober Sifted team of John Thornhill and Maija Palmer to attend the conference. 

Here are their five most interesting observations.

1. As a not-for-profit organisation founded and mostly run by students, Slush embodies a broader cultural change occurring across much of Europe: an awakening of interest among the young in entrepreneurship as the career of choice.

Slush has now partnered with several leading business schools (including Berkeley, London Business School, and the Stockholm School of Economics) to launch an Academy to provide education for the twenty-first century and train the next-generation of Daniel Eks. Initially, it will run a summer programme for 10-30 students offering them an internship abroad, personally curated studies, and mentoring by the Slush family of entrepreneurs and investors. The philosophy is very much going to be “learning by doing”. Its aim is to have 300 students on longer and more formal programmes within five years.


Andreas Saari, chief executive of Slush, says that - like Steve Jobs - the academy wants to create a reality distortion field. “We think that everything is possible. My personal wish is that we inspire numerous people to tackle the most difficult problems, which are also the biggest opportunities,” he says.

2. One of the many intriguing themes to emerge from Atomico’s State of European Tech report is the extent to which Europe’s tech IPO market now regularly outstrips the US. This year, Europe has notched up 69 tech IPOs compared with 28 in the US. Highlight of the year was Spotify’s $25bn direct listing.

There are, of course, several reasons for this trend: companies are staying private for longer in the US given the scale of available VC funding and the different capital market structure across the Atlantic. But it also suggests that European tech may develop in a more heterogeneous way to the US.

One European investor explained it like this: “We talk about the tech industry in the US. But what we are really talking about is the VC industry. They set the standards of success.

“The VC model has become so dependent on unicorns as to force companies to grow. They are transferring investment risk into operational risk.”

In this view, Europe’s tech companies may not be able to “blitzscale” as quickly as US rivals but they are developing in a slower, steadier and more capital efficient way.

3. Companies need to stop thinking there are different rules online and offline. Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, used her keynote at the conference hammer home this point. The idea that the internet is some kind of exception, a place where you can move at lightning speed and say sorry later is no longer going to work - at least not with policymakers.

“It’s a new world for regulators, working to make sure they offer just as much protection online as offline,” she said. As technology moves increasingly into the real world - moving cars and pizzas and blood samples as well as pixels - this is becoming increasingly true.  Just ask companies like Uber, which have found themselves embroiled in resource-sapping disputes with authorities everywhere from London to Copenhagen and Sofia. Companies like Taxify, Uber’s Estonia-based rival have taken note and are taking a far more collaborative (an so far more sucessful) approach with regulators.

Vestager, known for handing out sizeable fines to big tech companies like Apple and Google, is keen to ensure fairness in tech. Powerful, successful companies should not be allowed to prevent smaller, younger companies thriving, she said. In early 2019 the EU is gathering people from different fields of expertise in Brussels to discuss how to keep markets open for innovators.

4. There are a million ways to solve the urban mobility puzzle. Autonomous cars are interesting, said Markus Villig, founder of ride-hailing platform Taxify, but they will not be relevant for at least five years. Scooters, on the other hand, are here now and provide the perfect solution for some city-based travel. Taxify will be going big on scooters next year, launching them in several cities across Europe, just as soon as the weather brightens up enough to make the open-air rides a bit more pleasant.


But while scooters get a lot of hype, plenty of other parts of the mobility market remain up for grabs. Volvo is looking at ways to revolutionise the ownership of cars. It founded a separate company, Volvo Car Mobility, which is developing an app to make short-term car hire easier. If it was truly easy to hire a car just when you needed it for a trip to the beach or to pick up something from a furniture store, each shared-ownership car would take five others off the road, says Bodil Ericsson, chief executive of Volvo Car Mobility. Ericsson reckons that kind of statistic - with its implications for reducing congestion and pollution - will put policymakers on her side when it comes to negotiating licences and permits. The service is expected to launch next year.

5. Naturally, there was a lot of talk about AI at Slush. One of the most interesting speakers on the subject was Tero Ojanpera, the former CTO of Nokia now CEO of Silo.AI, the largest private AI labs in the Nordic region.

Silo.AI is working with financial institutions to detect patterns of fraudulent behaviour and has helped the European Central Bank predict vulnerabilities in financial markets. This fits with his view that AI “enables us to do existing things a little bit better”.

But what really excites Ojanpera is the possibility that AI will soon reach an inflection point enabling wholly new business models to be imagined and created. Just as Facebook and Uber were able to invent completely new types of company based on the digitalisation of information, so next generation companies will use AI to rethink industries and generate new revenue streams. “We will be able to twist reality in a way that nobody was able to see before it happened,” he says.

One early example he cites is Orica, the Australian explosives company, whose materials are used in 1,500 blasts around the world a day. The company has been digitising the data from those explosions to develop a whole new business modeling outcomes and reducing costs. You can read about it in this Harvard Business Review case study.

John Thornhill

John Thornhill is Sifted’s editorial director and cofounder. He is also innovation editor of the Financial Times, and tweets from @johnthornhillft