Recently, over 10,000 founders, investors, and technologists gathered at the Moscone Center, in the heart of San Francisco, to attend the one-and-only TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Disrupt describes itself as “a 3-day conference focused on breaking technology news and developments with big-name thought leaders who are making waves in the industry” – and it was exactly that. They took “big-name thought leaders” pretty literally, with Shaquille O’Neal speaking on the mainstage in a session titled “Shaq-nology: Slam-Dunking Education’s Future with AI & Edsoma.” And while there was an industry stage solely focused on AI during the second day of the conference, it truly was the word on everyone’s lips the entire week. AI-this and AI-that were pitched left and right in the expo hall… and while you were trying to walk to the escalators, or the bathroom, or the next industry session (founders are great at spotting who’s wearing an investor badge). But overall, I found Disrupt to be a fruitful experience for those, like me, whose daily work is a blend of both trend discovery and venture deal flow.
So here’s what caught my attention at Disrupt.
First was disability tech. Disability tech comprises all products and services that improve accessibility for people with and without disabilities — think of it as assistive tech + adaptive tech + inclusive tech. Sandy Lacey, the Executive Director for the Howe Innovation Center at the Perkins School for the Blind, shared that 96% of the internet is not accessible. Many people who are visually impaired use screen readers online, but if companies have not oriented their websites to be read by these tools, then this segment of the population is left out altogether. This is important for companies to consider as the annual disposable income of those in the disability community is $13T. For the visually impaired, specifically, businesses use braille as a “quick fix” to claim accessibility, but only 10% of people with visual impairments can read braille. How can we ensure we aren’t sticking band-aids on accessibility, but instead actively working to make what we are building inclusive to all? There needs to be a focus on making daily life more accessible.
Second was the grid of tomorrow. There was a large focus on sustainability and climate tech, which was great to see with the size of the crowd that was attending Disrupt. A conversation that stuck out to me was around the future of the electric grid, specifically the biggest roadblocks in renewable energy grids. One hurdle (surprise surprise) is regulations. There is a lot of infrastructure to be built and we need to be able to build quicker, but getting the clearance or approval to do so can take up a lot of time. Over 70% of the current infrastructure in the US is over 25 years old — not all of it is able to support these new kinds of electric grids. Another hurdle to renewable electrification is the upfront cost to the customer. It needs to be in the homeowner’s best interest to switch to renewable forms of energy, instead of breaking the bank. This goes hand in hand with reliability — if customers are going to pay a pricey upfront cost to save money down the road, the tech needs to be reliable. There are tragic and recent examples of traditional electric grids are already failing their users during natural disasters. Our nation’s grid infrastructure needs to be strengthened and/or re-imagined to support a renewable future.
And lastly were the young founders and investors. I’m passionate about Gen Z, not just because I am a part of this generation, but also because I have been researching this unique segment of the population and getting to know who they really are. This made it very exciting to see young founders and investors at Disrupt. As I’ve shared with colleagues, Gen Z is expected to make up 30% of the workforce by 2030, so starting to see this number play out in real time was encouraging. There was a session focused on hype cycles and whether they should be followed or ignored (apt given the overwhelming amount of “AI” startups in the room, but that’s just my opinion) and much of this conversation was directed towards these younger founders. The panelists, comprised of three tenured investors, told young founders (young in age or young in experience) to recognize the cycles and understand them, so that their startups can show up in a way that makes sense for their context. The same was said for investors — don’t follow the hype for the sake of following the hype, invest in something if what’s being built makes sense for the industry or audience you are targeting. Thinking towards the future, I’m looking forward to seeing the waves young founders and investors will make in this space!