BY IAN PANCHEVRE
Wow, wow, wow.
What a whirlwind has #SXSWInteractive been so far! I’m not even half way in and I’ve already had the pleasure of hearing addresses from Bre Pettis (CEO @ MakerBot), Travis Kalanick (CEO @ Uber), Joe Zadeh (Director of Product @ Airbnb), Scott Chacon (Vice President of R&D @ GitHub), Steven Blank (Author of Four Steps to the Epiphany and Startup Owners Manual) Elon Musk (PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors, Solar Cities), and former Vice President, Al Gore.
I’ve also been able to play with some amazing new technologies like 3D Printers at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering and motion-control software/hardware at Leap Motion’s promotional tent.
Not to mention, I’ve managed to score bunches of free t-shirts and get a few books signed – all while cluttering my pockets with flyers, cards, and stickers from plenty of early-stage startups. Oh, and my phone battery is dead for the what feels like the tenth time in the past two days.
But I wanted to take a brief moment to reflect on some of the amazing people I’ve gotten to know over the weekend. I’m at SXSW solely because of an organization, Interact ATX, that has sponsored badges for a youthful few in hopes of creating a community of entrepreneurial students from around the country.
Interact ATX was founded by Maran Nelson, a current senior at the University of Texas, who has been working with startups for the past few years. Nelson recently spent a summer in New York, where she came to appreciate the exotic appeal that Austin evidently had on the rest of the country.
“I was pleasantly surprised that a bunch of people thought Austin was the coolest city ever. Whenever I told people that I was from Austin, they would go crazy,” explains Nelson.
Nelson continues, “I asked myself, ‘What is the coolest thing that Austin has to offer each year?’ Clearly, I thought about South by Southwest. And then I asked, ‘what can I do to make something happen?’”
Nelson then got to work, reaching out to contacts at various universities as well as potential financial backers. The work, Nelson admits, “was a lot, especially for the first year for something to exist.”
But Nelson didn’t let logistical difficulties hold her back. At first, Nelson was told that having 25 or 40 participants would make the endeavor successful. “I said no, we are doing 100.”
Ultimately, Interact ATX received over 500 applications.
Admitted students represent a wide range of universities, including: MIT, Princeton, Brown, The University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale(!), Harvard, Rice, and The University of Texas.
Interact ATX sponsors – whose financial contributions subsidized badges, operations, and events – include Andreessen Horowitz, Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship, Balderdash, Capital Factory, Highland Capital Partners, the Cockrell School of Engineering, Readyforce, Bain Capital Ventures, and many more.
“It’s been a great experience, interacting with like-minded people who are working on projects that are trying to change the world,” comments Param Jaggi, a student at Vanderbilt.
Jaggi has built upon his high school science research – an endeavor which took him all the way to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) – to begin commercializing an inexpensive and disposable green technology. Jaggi’s algae-based technology can filter carbon emissions from the exhaust of cars, which contribute to over 25 percent of global carbon admissions.
Thomas Sohmers is another gifted mind. Sohmers, currently working on embedded cluster computing, has cracked the code for retrofitting raw processors from cell phones and tablets to create high performance computers. Sohmers hopes that his technologies will eventually replace current servers and mainframes with more powerful systems that use less power. As a seventeen year-old high school student from Hudson Massachusetts, Sohmers is a finalist competing for $100,000 in seed capital from Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship.
“It’s been really fun, I feel really honored to be a part of this group,” says Sohmers. “I really like Austin, it’s a lot better than three feet of snow.”
And then, there are the Longhorns.
Albert Rondan, Jeff Mahler, Chris Slaughter, and Dustin Hopper have teamed up with their professor from the University of Texas, Dr. Srirarm Vishwanath, to start Lynx Laboratories, a company which is producing a handheld 3D structural capture camera. For the laymen among us, their device is used like a traditional camera to capture and render objects or rooms in 3D.
“It takes the point and shoot experience of a 2D camera and applies it to a 3D concept,” explains Rondan, as he demoed a 3D image of an Interact Fellow’s face on his computer, using the software to circle around the face in surprising detail. The technology is impressive and is currently looking for funding through a recently launched Kickstarter.
In the words of Nam Chu Hoai, a student at Boston University, “The amount of energy at South By is overwhelming!” Indeed it is.
Fortunately, a select group of young entrepreneurs have each other to rely on as they navigate the brave new world of South by Southwest.
Please stay tuned for the next segment in Adventures in Austin!