April 6, 2018

Five for Friday: Slush Tokyo

Slush delivered its trademark pöhinä for already the fourth time in Tokyo on 28–29 March, drawing an estimated 6 000 attendees, 600 startups, 200 investors and 300 members of the media to Tokyo Big Sight.
Slush delivered its trademark pöhinä for already the fourth time in Tokyo on 28–29 March, drawing an estimated 6 000 attendees, 600 startups, 200 investors and 300 members of the media to Tokyo Big Sight.
Julia Bushueva

Cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence were the two most dominant themes of Slush Tokyo 2018.

With head-scratching buzzwords such as blockchain emanating almost ceaselessly from the four stages set up inside Big Sight’s East Hall 7, the event left most participants with much to contemplate and others, possibly, in a state of bewilderment.

The consensus among many veteran participants was that the event was more focused than in previous years, with several of the speakers, startups and panel discussions focusing on the vast future potential of cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence.

Here are our main takeaways from the event.

Japan is embracing Slush

Slush, which has emerged as one of the leading startup conferences in the world, continues to grow in Japan.

The excitement among the approximately 350–400 local startups in participation was tangible even before the ear-splitting opening ceremony was over, given the rare opportunity to rub shoulders and exchange business cards with some of the most renowned startup entrepreneurs and influencers in the world.

The local crew and volunteers, who buzzed around the conference hall tirelessly, did a marvellous job to ensure everything ran smoothly and to re-create the event’s hallmark atmosphere in Tokyo.

“Slush is being run almost entirely by locals this year,” commented the visibly satisfied CEO of Slush Tokyo, Antti Sonninen.

“The local crew and volunteers have been so productive that I’ve actually had a chance to relax a bit,” attested another crew member who had made the trip from Finland to lend a hand in organising the conference.

Cities get involved

Another sign that the pöhinä is catching on was the stronger-than-ever presence of local authorities at Slush Tokyo.

The Japanese cities of Fukuoka, Sendai and Yokohama had all set up booths at the event to show off the strengths and special characteristics of their business environment – an indication that a vibrant startup scene is increasingly recognised as a key contributor to regional socio-economic development.

Yuuya Shirakawa, a public connector at the City of Sendai, the most populous city in Northeast Japan, pointed out that the cities are not competing against each other due to their distinct industrial and academic make-ups.

 “We want to promote business growth in Northeast Japan,” he explained.

 Interest in cryptocurrencies is sky-high

If Slush Tokyo taught us anything, it is that interest in cryptocurrencies is booming despite – or because of – the fact that the prices of several major cryptocurrencies have recently fallen to their lowest levels since last December.

“The next Bitcoin is here somewhere,” David Schwartz, the chief cryptographer at Ripple, stated in between posing for photos with cryptocurrency fans at the opening-night event of Slush Tokyo on Tuesday, 27 March.

The hype, however, is justified because cryptocurrencies are fundamentally an attempt to solve actual problems, such as how to reduce the time to settle (cross-border) payments from days to seconds and how to bridge the various isolated payment systems in use today. The World Economic Forum (WEF), similarly, has reported that experts and executives expect roughly 10 per cent of the global GDP to be stored on blockchain technology by 2027.

Yet, a number of challenges remain for the mass adoption of cryptocurrencies.

The regulatory environments must be developed and harmonised, a balance must be found between user freedoms and protection, and the general public must develop a better understanding of the concept and technology.

The tendency to view cryptocurrencies as investment vehicles rather than transaction mediums, on the other hand, may not be as big a problem as is often suggested.

“Speculation drives many kinds of industries […] and product development,” reminded John Lilic, the director of operations at ConsenSys.

“Web monetisation is broken”

One of the multiple challenges digital payment protocol developers have set out to address is the monetisation of the Internet.

The current, advertisement-based revenue model is “broken” as it has resulted in web users resorting to ad-blockers and content producers to ad-blocker detectors, Stefan Thomas, the chief technology officer at Ripple, said in the opening keynote speech on Wednesday.

“The current [ad-based] revenue model is nothing more than a bypass of a fundamental problem,” he said, pointing out that there is presently no direct, reciprocal interface between the user and owner of a particular website.

“Ripple’s Interledger Protocol,” he added, “could be the answer. The payment protocol utilises ledger-provided escrow to enable secure payments across different ledgers through untrusted connectors, thus facilitating interledger payments.”

“True reciprocity, from content producers to consumers, is now possible,” he stated.

Finland a leader in B2B VR

Virtual and augmented reality were another dominant feature at Slush Tokyo – especially at the joint pavilion hosted by Business Finland and the City of Helsinki, where Finnish startups offered a glimpse of how such technologies have and will continue to transform the tourism, entertainment, advertisement and even manufacturing industries.

Marko Salonen, a programme director at Business Finland, pointed out that what sets these startups apart from many of their global competitors is their focus on developing solutions primarily for businesses.

 “Finland has produced a number of business-to-business solutions, while elsewhere companies are more focused on games and entertainment,” he told. “Scaling your business in the consumer space is really price-dependent.”

Text: Aleksi Teivainen 

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