“In any other era, in any other time, with any other people, this would be crazy. But it’s this era, at this time, with these people; so it’s happening”.
Those were the words of Rick Tumlinson as he opened the Space Technology segment of the Hello Tomorrow Summit last week in Paris. He was referring to the work of his company Deep Space Industries, who are building the technologies which will allow us to mine asteroids, but the same sentiment seemed to ripple through each and every startup, speaker and delegate at this DeepTech and Science gathering of minds.
Hello Tomorrow was set up in 2011 as a non-profit organisation aiming to bridge the gap between science entrepreneurs, investors and corporates. Fast forward to 2016, and they’re hosting an annual Global Summit in Paris, are active in 45 different countries with local events, and are running the Hello Tomorrow Challenge, a global startup competition, attracting nearly 5,000 startups across 112 countries. To date, €65 million has been raised by Hello Tomorrow’s finalists, and it’s safe to say they are raising the profile of deep tech and science as entrepreneurial endeavours.
For those who follow the tech conference season or frequent the likes of SXSW, CES and Web Summit, visionaries getting up on stage to lament about the future is nothing new. But what felt different at Hello Tommorrow, was that these ‘crazy’ ideas of what our future might look like were actually made real. This wasn’t a conference with a few ‘future of x’ panels mixed in amongst case studies and ‘how-to’s; these startups, entrepreneurs, scientists and corporate innovation teams are building the technologies and businesses which will actually move us forward.
It was difficult not to be excited when one minute a biotech founder pulls a ‘Steve jobs’ and produces a DNA sequencer out of his pocket; and the next a physicist is taking the audience through how to power space vehicles with antimatter. From drones that can smell, to coating satellites with glue to collect space debris, ‘crazy’ ideas were the foundation of every talk, pitch and meeting at Hello Tomorrow. It’s not every day a flying car wins a startup battle, after all.
But Frank Salzgeber, Head of Tech Transfer at the European Space Agency, said that the deep tech and science field was like the Adams family – the industry is full of characters and within the network, the crazy ideas make sense; but to the outside world, they are ‘freaks’. Salzgeber’s joke went down well, but he raised an important point – getting people to take these innovative solutions seriously is a difficult battle.
There aren’t many gatherings pairing entrepreneurs in the scientific ecosystem with policy makers, funders and corporates. The vast majority of startups and ideas presented at Hello Tomorrow could be world changing, but the question is not how worthy they are, but rather at what pace can they scale. As Salzgeber explained: it’s not the people who propose the mad ideas first, it’s the ones following close behind in second and third who really create change once the ideas become more accepted.
The tone of the conference was ‘visionary, but do-able’, and the talks were refreshingly open, thorough and well-communicated. The scarcity of the usual ‘innovation people’ was both frustrating yet unsurprising – though in some ways did make the conference have a community feel, resulting in meetings with key decision makers being much more accessible.
Hello Tomorrow was a summit of optimists – a place for those who not only know the future can be better but actively go and build it. This was a conference of making the crazy, real; and the science industry would do well to have more of these kind of gatherings throughout the year.
Rick Tumlinson walked off stage to a fitting quote on screen from Margaret Mead, which truly summarised the Hello Tomorrow summit:
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has’.