Posted By Simon Montford on June 15, 2016
The Europas is an annual conference and awards ceremony for technology startups. The event was organised and hosted by technology journalist Mike Butcher MBE, and took place yesterday (June 14) in London, at The Grand Hall at Old Billingsgate. As tech conferences go, it was a reasonably relaxed affair, with no VIP lists or sectioned off areas in order, to facilitate networking and knowledge transfer between attendees.
As mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, the reason why I attended this year was primarily because I was invited by Mike to host an Internet of Things panel. Although, to be perfectly honest, it felt like the day conference was really a warmup for the awards ceremony in the evening, those that did attend were treated to an excellent lineup of speakers that included Dave McClure (Founder, 500 Startups), Julia Hartz (CEO, Eventbrite), Taavet Hinrikus (Co-founder & CEO, Transferwise), Greg Marsh (CEO, Onefinestay), and Ken Segall (Former Apple Creative Director).
To keep things varied, in addition to the keynote talks, the packed schedule included break-out sessions, networking breaks, fireside chats, and panel discussions as well as a musical performance from singer songwriter Beatie Wolfe. In addition Mike pulled together something he called "pitch roulette", which involved entrepreneurs (who had already volunteered) being picked at random to go on stage to pitch for investment in front of a panel of hard-nosed investors.
The panel that I moderated started with a series of rather comical delays that included a missing speaker, a wardrobe malfunction, and a few technical glitches with the sound system. As far as I was concerned, the shenanigans only added to the enjoyment. With regards to what was discussed in the time available, I started off by asking my guest panellists to introduce themselves and their companies.
First up was Andy Hobsbawm (Co-Founder & CMO at EVRYTHNG), which is a leading British Internet of Things business that connects consumer products to the Web and manages real-time data, to drive applications on behalf of clients such as the packaging and labelling giant Avery Dennison, that puts labels onto products by brands such as Nike.
Next up was Thomas Nicholls (Executive VP of Comms at Sigfox), a leading French LPWAN provider. In the past 12 months alone Sigfox has added 14 countries, but ultimately the company aims to deploy its wireless network to cover the entire globe. Sigfox has been designed to connect low-energy devices that only need to send and receive small amounts of data over a long distance. The startup closed one of the largest VC rounds in French history ($115m).
Next, Gilly Coston (VP Marketing Kore Wireless). During her 20 years at 02 and Telefonica, and while at the consulting firm CGI, she acquired extensive knowledge of M2M communication, and gained an holistic understanding of how businesses can utilise the IoT to increase operational efficiency and productivity.
Finally, Kirsten Hancock (Head of Marketing at Blue Maestro) is the co-founder of a health and environmental monitoring product startup. The company's flagship product is a connected pacifier (Pacif-i), which does things like measure a baby's temperature and transmits health-related data to a smartphone app.
I decided to open the panel session by challenging terminology and industry stats. Firstly I wanted to understand why reliable sources were quoting such hugely differing growth forecasts. For example, a report by Gartner predicts that there will be around 20bn connected devices by 2020, whereas CISCO thinks the number will be closer to 50bn, and others forecast trillions of connected devices!
I suggested that the disparity is almost certainly because there's no clear definition of what a "connected device" or "Thing" actually is. Currently it can be anything from a multi-billion dollar industrial asset like a power station to a pair of connected socks (increasingly apparel will contain smart RFID tags that can facilitate data transfer via a smartphone). This means almost every item of clothing we buy within the near future will be connected to the Internet. If you add low value items such as connected apparel, the headline figure, trillions of connected devices by 2020 suddenly looks achievable. What this essentially means is that only a minuscule percentage of items today which could be connected, actually are.
We then briefly discussed connectivity standards, because it goes without saying that without connectivity there can be no IoT. What became apparent was that high bandwidth, high power networks, such as 4G and hopefully soon 5G, that are optimised for people-to-people, and people-to-thing communication, will increasingly play a less significant role. This is because the IOT will soon be made up of far more machines than people. The challenge with deployment historically has always been that often machines that need connectivity are located in remote locations, so aren't within range of power sockets, Wi-Fi, or a 3/4G signal. This is why LPWA technologies such as SigFox, Ingenu and LoRa, that can transmit small amounts of data over long distances very power-efficiently are starting to drive adoption of the IoT.
In addition to connectivity, the panel also discussed how the IoT will be used to add value to people's lives, and the economy in general. Examples included game-changing improvement within the health care sector. An example cited by Kirstin was adoption of medical devices that, when linked to cloud-based A.I., could not only continuously monitor your health, but ultimately replace your GP, saving the NHS millions. Other examples included industrial equipment that schedules maintenance inspections and orders replacement parts, and smart fridges that order food in the same way that the Amazon Dash Button does today. Also smart product tags that offer protection against counterfeiting and tampering of goods while in transit.
On the downside, concerns were raised about a possible transition stage where we become exposed to an Internet of StupidThings like ChatBots that don't quite understand our needs, and end up doing frustrating things. For example, smart fridges that order perishable goods the day before a long vacation.
The potential threat of privacy invasion was another concern. Several of the panel felt uncomfortable about inviting even more connected devices into our homes, that could potentially be used for surveillance by third parties. In particular Smart Home technologies such as Alexa, Google Now and Siri, as well as the prospect of smart labels such as the ones mentioned by Andy, that track usage and ping data back to the manufacturer. Andy responded by saying that product tracking would only be done with end user consent.
Unfortunately, in the time we had available we simply weren't able to do much in the way of "Blue Sky" thinking. This was primarily because there is clearly far too much that needs to be discussed today about what the IoT may look like within the very near future, so discussing what the world will look like when everything is connected will have to wait for another day!
After the conference, we were given an opportunity to network, and this was followed by a sumptuous dinner, after which the European Technology Awards ceremony took place. The evening culminated with an after-party "pop-up" nightclub on the mezzanine level, which was located above the main hall where the dinner and awards ceremony had just taken place. A good time was had by all, and I very much look forward to attending again next year. Congratulations to Mike and his team for organising such a fun, educational, and unique event, and thank you to my stellar guest panellists for agreeing to participate, and for their valuable contribution.
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