TechBBQ 2023: The ‘hygge’ Nordic start-up event with big ideas
The best thing about attending a tech event populated by early-stage start-ups is the ideas — from underwater astronaut training facilities to adhesive devices designed to prevent women from tearing during childbirth.
All of this and more could be found at the eleventh edition of TechBBQ, which took place last week in a warehouse on a business park near Copenhagen Harbour.
The start-up conference started out as a small BBQ gathering in a park for tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs in 2013. Since then, it’s evolved into a larger scale summit attracting folk from all over the Nordics and beyond.
Yet, while there were around 7,500 attendees at this year’s two-day event, the show appears to have lost none of its cosiness — or ‘hygge’ as they say in Danish.
Some people brought their dogs, others brought their babies. It was no big deal. The only thing missing was an actual barbecue (much to the chagrin of some delegates I spoke with).
Diversity in motion
Overall, women were noticeably well represented at the event — according to the organisers 64% of attendees were men, 34% were women and the remaining 2% identified as nonbinary or preferred not to say.
In most European territories women comprise less than 25% of the tech workforce, so this was a positive representation. Women and nonbinary people also made up 52% of the speakers.
As one speaker, Anna Lee observed: “It’s always heartening to come to a tech show and see a queue outside the ladies’ toilets.”
The diversity in attendees also translated into a diversity of ideas and products at the event — Lee’s being a case-in-point.
A former engineer at Amazon’s Concept Engineering division in Silicon Valley, Lee founded a sex tech firm, Lioness, which makes a smart vibrator that syncs with an app where women can access biofeedback and visualisations.
Ahead of the European distribution of the product, Lee was at TechBBQ to give a talk on tackling the gap in women’s health data.
This is now a subject Lioness has become an authority on, as it claims to have amassed the world’s largest dataset of female physiological sexual function at over 150,000 datasets.
‘Save the vagina’
Another female-led start up at the show was campaigning to ‘Save the Vagina’ with an eye-catching stand over in the bio-tech zone.
Danish Oasi.care has developed a patent-pending medical adhesive device that it claims will support midwives and health workers in their efforts to protect and reduce birth ruptures.
The firm, founded by Ditte Marie Fog Ibsen and Julia Sand Skovsted, has been working with Danish maternity wards and organisations such as Nordic Health Labs to conduct a series of pre-clinical health tests and pre-sales scheduled for later this year.
“We can’t say very much about the product because of the patents — but in January all will be revealed,” promised Ibsen, who added that the event was a good platform to meet VCs, investors, and partners from other countries.
“It’s very important to be visible here, even without a product. The people are so good at helping you to connect,” she added.
The strong emphasis on biotech this year follows the support of the Novo Nordisk Foundation — one of TechBBQ’s main sponsors and funders, who’s Danish HQ’s multinational pharmaceutical company produces the diabetes and weight loss drugs Ozempic and Wegovy.
Another device that caught my eye was a digital therapeutic device for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Digital therapeutics are evidence-based therapeutic interventions driven by software to prevent, manage, or treat a medical disorder or disease.
Brain +, founded by Kim Baden-Kristensen, offers two such technologies — one for use in a professional health environment, and the other as a support app which can be downloaded to personal devices for home use.
The treatments, which use cognitive stimulation therapy, claim to help restore a patient’s independence and quality of life by treating cognitive decline in dementia.
Baden-Kristensen, a keen wellness practitioner with a side project in yoga retreats, was also at the conference to talk about how founders need to take care of themselves.
From inner space to outer space, as I headed towards the future-facing Starlight zone, the main attraction appeared to be a model produced by space architects at SAGA. Their project partners include some big tech firms such as Autodesk, Lenovo, and Bosch.
The ‘one-person habitat’ pilot — which resembles a tank with windows and adjustable feet — is designed to support life submerged in water for up to 48 hours in depths of up to 7 meters, for underwater exploration and astronaut training.
One of the firm’s founders, Sebastian Aristotelis — who was part of the two-man crew on the LUNARK expedition, where he spent 100 days in isolation by the North Pole — talked at TechBBQ about his plans to test the model out later this year.
Of course, the talks are another big draw at this conference. They were largely concept and ideas-driven, rather than product-based plugs.
I moderated a panel on the Forest stage looking at the role of tech and media in human rights activism.
The line-up comprised of independent human rights consultant Dr Siyabulela Mandela; Sune Rasmussen, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and Anna Coen, founder of DKTech4Ukraine. As such, there was very little for me to do other than ask the occasional question and let them get on with it.
We covered much ground in the allotted 35 minutes: Mandela was interested to learn from Coen about the air-raid app that alerts Ukrainians to shelling and potential chemical or radiation hazards — as well as another which helps Ukrainians locate the nearest bomb shelter.
Mandela wondered if these technologies were something that could be replicated in conflict zones across the African continent.
He also works as a trainer for the Canadian-based foundation Journalists for Human Rights, and said he was keen to partner with global media houses to empower local reporters to effectively report and share stories.
On stage he openly invited Rasmussen to help train journalists in the regions he works in.
The London-based Danish WSJ correspondent – who covers Iran and Afghanistan – also drew attention to the dangers and threats reporters face every day – both online and physically.
A case-in-point, Rasmussen added, was his colleague, the WSJ’s Evan Gershkovich – who was detained in Russia on March 29 this year while on a reporting trip and accused of espionage.
It’s a charge that both he and the WSJ vehemently deny. To find out more about his detention and how you can support Geshkovich on social media click here.
Starlink: a force for good?
The conversation also turned to Starlink, which dominated the headlines last week — after reports emerged that Elon Musk refused an emergency request to allow his satellite service to be turned on over Crimea during a raid on the Russian Navy.
Mandela said that if connective technologies were made accessible to both the privileged and the marginalised, and were not controlled by autocratic governments, then it could be a force for good.
As a case in point, he cited President Museveni’s Ugandan Government — which has been in power for more than 40 years and ordered an internet black out five days before the 2021 elections, hampering the competition from any form of digital communications.
Like the UK, Denmark’s start up population is big on ideas, but it can be harder to stay and scale, due to the lack of funding opportunities, which is partly due to regulations surrounding institutional pension funds.
Also like the UK, the Danish government is planning to free up some of this regulation this year, with Danish pensions giant ATP recently granted more scope to invest in entrepreneurship and start up companies.
While this is great news for the Nordic start-up and scale-up community, I do hope, as the conference inevitably grows, it will not lose its ‘hygge’ or passion for big ideas.
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