I met the CEO of Rework, Nikita Johnson, recently at a Nesta brainstorming event on digital health services. As a result I decided to attend their two day conference in Berlin last week. It was held in an excellent conversion of a ruined church in the former Eastern segment of the city. Nikita explained the event goal as to explore how innovative new advances in science, technology and entrepreneurship are reshaping business and society with a mix of technologists, entrepreneurs, researchers and industry leaders.
The event was organised via a series of sessions – Big Data & Healthcare, Smart Wearable Robots, Smart Materials Disrupting Society etc. Each session usually comprised a few short presentations, each followed by Q&A and sometimes a panel session. There was plenty of networking time scheduled and excellent food. Some local businesses had also taken exhibition space in the main space.
Of the latter the one that really made an impact on me is an affordable steady-cam device for the retail market. Before and after skateboarding videos illustrated how amazingly effective the device is. As someone who is experimenting with amateur video I am already seriously tempted. An IPO is imminent as is the retail launch. I asked the CEO if he had a plan for fast ramp-up if the product really catches on he assured me he has.
One of the over-arching themes that emerged is the quality and invention of European robotics reseach, often done in HEIs. Berlin’s Free University has an autonomous car that drives around the city, ETH Zurich is developing robots on the scale of microbes, Barbara Mazzolai from the Centre for Bio-Robotics amazed the conference with the vision and invention of her programme and Professor Paik from EPFL in Switzerland introduced us to soft robotics. From a practical point of view, the Finnish firm ZenRobotics presented a waste sorting/recovery pilot.
Much of the research has been funded by the Commission under FP7 or the current successor, Horizon 2020. The second day was curated by Beatrice Marquez-Garridofrom from the EC Future and Emerging Technologies section. I was especially impressed by the session, Open Design, Meet the New Makers and I immediately e-mailed an old friend who is the UK’s leading historian of design about one of the presentations with a novel sociology of design. She was pleased to pick up the lead.
On the practical front, Fraunhofer FOKUS was authoritative on the subject of the Internet of Things. Professor Luca Gammaitoni from the University of Perugia presented the FP7 project Zero Power – building then nano-to-micro bridge for energy sustainable ICT. This project has established three possible ways to build zero energy switches and on the way has clarified some physical fundamentals like the relationship between energy and information entropy.
The second day kicked off with short presentations by European start-ups, two of which caught my eye. McKinsey alumnus, Claudia Leissner, explained her Proboneo concept. This involves brokering partnerships between the CSR arms of major German firms who provide resources and social innovation projects – both funds and expertise are involved. Another start-up, Argus Labs, is working on bringing machine based emotional intelligence to mobile devices.
The Conference wasn’t just about projects that are completed or well under way. Beatrice M-G introduced a fascinating Horizon 2020 programme where the call deadline has not long closed and the programme goal is to take machine intelligence ‘beyond problem-solving’.
I met several Brits who thought the event was worth the journey including the CTO from Microsoft Ventures UK in Whitechapel and the CEO of Fast Future. Berlin is said to be the major European centre for technical start-ups and the experience of the conference confirmed this. There was a magazine available about 100 Berlin start-ups. In the forword the mayor explains that more than half the venture capital investment in Germany happens in Berlin. I managed to spend some time walking around the former Eastern sector which has a very young vibe. I went to an excellent gig with Norwegian-German band Kat Vinter on the evening of the 2nd day of the conference who recorded some of their album in the Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey.
Organising conferences of this kind globally seems is Rework’s stock in trade, and a further event in San Francisco is in development. September will see a UK event similar event to the Berlin conference but with different content. This is certainly going into my diary.