AUSTIN, Texas - At SXSW Interactive, which has attracted more than 30,000 from all over the world, real business was getting done in conference rooms and hotel bars all around the Texas capital. The SXSW Accelerator, an invitation-only tech start-up competition, took place over the weekend at the Hilton, and it had a decidedly Philadelphia flavor.
But on the streets and in the Austin Convention Center, in keeping with the Internet philosophy that anything involving a cute animal will sell, there was no shortage of tech businesses putting a furry face on their clever idea. The much-hyped streaming video app Meerkat, backed by Philly start-up investment outfit DreamIt Ventures, launched in February and a big favorite here, was in the news over the weekend after Twitter announced purchase of its own streaming service, Periscope - and so limited Meerkat's access to Twitter.
On Sunday afternoon, however, the Accelerator competition included BioBots, a company founded by recent University of Pennsylvania grads Danny Cabrera, 22, and Ricardo Solorzano, 25. BioBots makes low-cost, breadbox-sized 3-D bio-printers that build human tissue and have mind-blowing implications for the future of medical testing and, potentially, the creation of customized human organs.
BioBots was one of 48 start-ups - and only eight in the health-care sphere - chosen to compete at the Shark Tank-style Accelerator. Hoping to gain investors, if not actually win the competition, Cabrera gave a two-minute pitch Saturday on BioBots to three judges, stressing its affordability and practicality. The pitch was good enough to convince the judges to pick BioBots as one of three health-care finalists.
The BioBots team was "having a great time networking and exchanging ideas," Cabrera said. "This is how great ideas come about: by having a forum where you can talk about what you're doing and listen to other people and go, like, 'What?! That's an awesome idea.' "
In the end, BioBots did not win. First place went to German outfit Tinnitracks. But BioBots was given an award for being most innovative, "recognizing the finalist that has created a product and/or service that is thought provoking and changes the world for the better."
"We're happy to be the most innovative," Cabrera said after hearing the news. "We're going to continue innovating. And we're 100 percent ready to party."
The most compelling SXSW Interactive talk I've caught so far was the crackerjack two-man tango on Sunday afternoon between authors Andrew Keen and Clive Thompson called Is the Internet the Answer? The title was a play on Keen's new book The Internet Is Not The Answer. It posits that innovations that were to set us free have instead eliminated our jobs and turned us into digital prisoners. It paired off Britisher Keen with Canadian Thompson, who takes a more optimistic view, as his newest book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, makes plain.
As for the SXSW music film lineup, Bill Pohlad's Brian Wilson movie Love & Mercy had its American premier on Sunday. The movie takes a two-part approach in recounting the story of the Beach Boys leader. Paul Dano plays Wilson during the 1960s, when the songwriter quit touring with his family band to listen to and record the sounds in his head. And John Cusack plays the older Wilson when he meets his Cadillac saleswoman future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) while under the thumb of crackpot psychologist Eugene Landy, played with evil panache and a demonic wig by Paul Giamatti.
Cusack called Wilson - whose new album, No Pier Pressure, will come April 7 and who will play the Mann Center on June 29 - "a real survivor in a way, to go through what he went through." Wilson said that as shooting began he worried he wasn't "strong enough to handle where the movie was coming from. . . . I was scared as hell to see myself as a drug addict." But he called revisiting his classic recordings, with many scenes shot in the actual Los Angeles studios where Pet Sounds was cut, "exhilarating."
On Saturday morning, Selma director Ava DuVernay gave a keynote address, and her upwardly mobile tale of moving from being a movie industry publicist to directing a $20 million best picture-nominated, Oprah-funded, 1960s civil-rights drama went over big with the aspirant indie-movie industry crowd.
Asked why it took Hollywood 50 years to tell the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's story in a feature film, DuVernay said: "I think the studios aren't lining up to make films about black protagonists. . . . Writers had a hard time approaching such an epic life. But to think it came about in a moment when so many things are going on in the world for it to speak to, I think it just wanted to be out now."
Technology, movies and music aren't enough to satisfy the all-encompassing beast that is SXSW. Last year, the confab started swallowing up sports, too, with the advent of SXsports, a "convergence" track between Film and Interactive that considers sports through a pop-cultural lens.
On Friday, former Sixer and always opinionated TNT analyst Charles Barkley had a SXsports interview session with Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch. It was called "How to Remain Relevant in Today's Digital Age" - even though Barkley is opposed to social media in all forms, saying he has no intention of joining Twitter and giving his haters the license to attack him: "I don't want to give some of these losers the power."