So last week we were in Paris at the annual Hello Tomorrow Summit – our favourite science startup gathering. They invite 3,000 people from all over the world – from investors, governments and media, to corporates, startups and academics – to share projects and opportunities across their 10 focus areas (aerospace, food & agriculture, wellbeing, data& AI, environment, industry 4.0, mobility, new materials, healthcare and energy transition). I’ve written before about why I love this conference so much, but for now, I wanted to share some of my favourite things from this year’s conference, to give you a flavour of why it’s the place to go to find some of the most fascinating people and ideas.
The first speaker on the first day was John Bradford of Spaceworks, who is currently working on finding a way to induce hibernation in humans for long haul space flight. Yep. And whilst this science still has a way to go (though he did talk a lot about how these methods are already used in the medical field…), what was most fascinating for me was being able to unravel an idea which on first look feels closer to science fiction, in an environment open to crazy ideas and with a focus on science fact. If science is to really change the world in bigger and better ways (and at rates closer to the world of Silicon Valley), we need to champion early-stage research ideas and concepts which may seem impossible. It’s how the startup industry does it, so let’s try and do the same more often in research.
New Materials Galore
As Dan Widmaier of Bolt Threads pointed out in his keynote, there hasn’t been a new material since Kevlar was invented by DuPont in 1971. But not only is he working on their spider silk material – already a hit at Paris Fashion Week with a collaboration with Stella McCartney – his talk was then followed by Eben Mayer of Ecovative Design who promptly announced their brand new material which they have made out of mycelium. He actually showed off his mycelium ‘leather’ watch-strap which he has been testing in the real world.
With innovation previously stagnant in the materials space, it was fascinating to see 2 new inventions inspired by biology back to back on stage – prompting wonder around what else might be going on in labs all across the globe. From a media perspective, it was great to see a big announcement come out of Ecovative – proving Hello Tomorrow as a strong contender for a media-heavy conference moving forward. (Which can only be a good thing for science communication!)
Social Impact at the Heart
At the end of the first day of programming, there was a competition hosted by Sycomore Asset Management, awarding €5000 to one of four social impact startups pitching on stage. The winner of this award – Saathi – has developed and manufactured biodegradable sanitary pads made from banana fibre. Despite the room not being too packed (the session did coincide with the start of the drinks service), it was brilliant to see such an award being part of the main programming, putting social impact on an important platform. Then onto the main startup challenge competition – where several startups in each of the 10 conference categories pitch to win their track for €15,000, and then €100,000 as the overall victor. It was a delight to see Saathi not only pick up the prize for the Wellness track, but then go on to win the overall Hello Tomorrow Challenge prize – beating an electric plane, a modular manufacturer and a future public transport system, to name but a few. Not only was it encouraging to see a startup with such a social impact focus picking up, well, all of the prizes, it was particularly encouraging to see a startup focusing on women’s hygiene products being held up as the most innovative solution. Bravo all round.
The Academic Ticket
This year at Hello Tomorrow, they offered up a wave of tickets dedicated to academics. For a conference so focused on startups, I really rated the special focus on getting researchers in the room alongside the entrepreneurs, thought leaders and funders. The startups and corporates will have massively benefitted from meeting academics from all areas of research to not only bounce ideas off, but to hopefully collaborate with in the future. But there are a few things I hope the academics in attendance might be able to take back from Hello Tomorrow itself. Firstly, the naïve optimism that is in abundance at any innovation conference – I really believe this openness to lack of immediate expertise would be so beneficial when it comes to solving complex problems in the lab. Secondly, the importance of good communication – whether it’s pitching, slide design, or the power of going big with production – this stuff makes a difference when getting ideas across. Third; the concept of going to events and conferences deliberately outside your area of expertise – yes the academics most likely aligned with at least one of the ten tracks on offer, but I would put money on them being able to gather ideas and inspiration from many other areas - something which is not encouraged enough in academic conference attendance. Finally, the power of serendipity: meeting random people who you don’t know, in a setting you’re not used to, can do wonders for working things out in your head.
There were so many more things to call out at Hello Tomorrow – but as someone who cares about science, the wider impact it must have, and the way it is communicated, these are just some of the things that stood out for me.
And I will most certainly be back in 2018…!