In July of 2013, South by South West issued an invitation to European tech startups in need of secondary funding. Now, all of Europe wants a piece of the action.
SXSW’s annual conference in Austin, Tex., has long garnered international attention. The event’s interactive segment alone has served as the launch pad for globally known startups like Twitter and Foursquare.
But in 2014, SXSW feels a bit different. Among the conference’s big name backers and high profile attendees, SXSW is now a strategic target for governments in European tech circles. Now, instead a UK-led representation, officials from the Netherlands, France, Sweden, and more are getting involved and clamoring to be heard.
Among the loudest European tech hubs at SXSW, the Netherlands’ executive endorsement of the conference is so widespread that it’s difficult to name everyone involved. A shortlist of Dutch organizations which have invested time, capital, or both, includes:
The Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA), the Dutch Topteam Creative Industry, and the government-backed Dutch Fellows collective.
Daniel van Vulpen, the New York area director for the NFIA — a government agency which helps U.S. companies launch in Holland — tells VentureBeat, “There has always been a large Dutch presence at SXSW, but … the focus of our government is changing from traditional companies to Internet-based companies.”
In addition to startups, the NFIA has launched major tech and lifestyle companies such as Tesla and Nike in Europe.
Vulpen says his overarching goal is to “build relationships between American and Dutch startups.” For the Netherlands, its SXSW presence revolves around a series of events all under the Dutch Today branding, with startups like Shapeways, Chordify, and Surfly.
In the eyes of Dutch Fellows chairman Michiel Frackers, Holland is only now making itself heard.
“For the first time this year,” Frackers shares, “we have a huge presentation as part of the official SXSW program.”
France, some 480 miles away, shares alarmingly similar plans.
Alec Turnbull, the Digital Attaché to the French Embassy in the US, calls SXSW 2014 a chance to reverse stereotypes.
“The standard image of French tech [is that] it’s hard to start a company in France,” but, Turnbull says, “that is really changing.”
“The way that Paris looks to me right now, it’s much like the way New York looked eight or even six years ago. There are a lot of incubators, accelerators, and government support, which is just starting to kick in.
“There have always been French entrepreneurs, but this is the first year that we’re doing an organized presence.”
As for competition with the Netherlands, Turnbull emphasized his big picture vision. He claims that regardless of which tech hub garners the most attention, growth in Europe will benefit the entire ecosystem.
But for Cédric Giorgi, the founder of Cookening and cofounder of the French Tech Club — a government supported organization — France’s SXSW role is far more dire. At past conferences, Giorgi says, “We were disappointed to see how badly our country was represented.”
“And it’s not just about the image of our country. It’s about the perception and reputation of all our startups and companies.
“We wanted to have something more than just a booth at the trade show, because SXSW is much more than that. We rented a central place, Trinity Hall, for three days to bring a little bit of French touch to the festival. This initiative is supported by private partners as well as the French government, which has recently launched a ‘La French Tech’ initiative.”
Giorgi’s goal is simple: “To change the perception of [France] and companies that are launched from there.” An advertisement by the French Tech Club puts it even simpler: “France has changed. … Come and discover how.”
Consistently highlighted by officials from both France and the Netherlands, the UK is often perceived as Europe’s most tech-friendly state.
Haileigh Meyers, an officer at UK Trade & Investment, an economic development agency for the UK, explains that the UK’s presence at SXSW will remain unchanged this year. However, she made clear that the UK has “had a presence at SXSW for over 5 years.” By comparison, mainland Europe is late to the game.
More from Meyers:
“There are over 1500 Brits at SXSW, representing one of the largest foreign contingencies at SXSW. As a result of this large contingency, the UK government wanted to ensure there were services and opportunities available to British companies, bands, and individuals to promote their product/band/idea.”
But the UK shares the same goals as every other foreign country involved in SXSW this year, according to Meyers:
“By foreign companies seeing what is available in the UK, we hope to see those companies looking to open operations in the UK.”
The UK, France, and the Netherlands certainly do not represent the entirety of SXSW’s European or larger international presence. There’s a sense of urgency from the Embassy of Sweden, which is teaming up with the UK for a SXSW panel. Returning attendees, Germany and Ireland also appear to have invested new effort into SXSW Interactive. The press announcement from Enterprise Ireland, for example, says that Irish tech entrepreneurs will “flex their start-up creds at South by Southwest” this year.
Beyond Europe, Brazil, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Chile are representative of startup-conscious countries heading to Austin this year.
Like clockwork, each visiting state promises SXSW attendees the same thing: That theirs is among the world’s top destinations for entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers. And each promise has a unique allure to different types of SXSW attendees.