INSIGHTS

10 takeaways from Slush 2021

From quantum computing to NFTs and flying cars. Our editor-in-chief Konrad Olsson shares his experiences from last week’s tech/startup/investor bonanza in Helsinki.
Words KONRAD OLSSON
December 08, 2021

After having spent the better part of two decades visiting design fairs and fashion week, it was with great expectations that I booked my first ticket to Helsinki to visit the Finnish tech conference Slush. As an editor of lifestyle magazines, it has never been warranted to pay a visit, but my inner tech nerd has been eyeing it with curiosity for years. Now, with tech being an integral part of Scandinavian MIND, a visit is a given. 

The conference, created in 2008 by a group of tech entrepreneurs, including Rovio/Angry Birds-founder Peter Vesterbacka, took a hiatus last year, due to you-know-what. Last week it was back, albeit in a limited format — 8 000 visitors instead of 20 000. Here are my key takeaways from three intense days in the Finnish capital

No slush for Slush

The name Slush apparently derives from the wet and sad in-between-weather that defines dark December in the Nordics. Not quite winter, not quite fall, with slushy snow on the streets. This year, the weather was a crisp cold minus 10 celsius and the season’s first snow. Invigorating! 

The need-want ratio

First out on the main stage was Tony Fadell, designer, entrepreneur, and creator of the iPod, iPhone, and Google Nest. Tony was in Helsinki to launch his new book ”Build — An unorthodox guide to making things worth making”. He talked about the necessity of timing, of launching a product that solves a problem people are starting to have. He also pointed out that for a product to succeed, it has to solve a real problem, but that’s only half the story. ”The other half has to be emotional, has to hook you, has to grab you.” This need-want ratio is at the core of every successful product. 

Tony Fadell. Photography: Petri Anttila.

A case for quantum

In one of the fireside chats, Dr Ling Ge, the General Manager and Chief European Representative at Tencent, was interviewed by Wired‘s Amit Katwala. Dr Ling Ge delivered perhaps the most staggering image of how quantum computing might change the world. She used the iconic Shor’s algorithm as an example, saying that with a normal computer “it will take the age of the universe to crack it. Once quantum computing is here, it will take a split second.” It was a statement that almost kept me sleepless throughout the rest of my visit. (Well that, and the late-night drinks.)

Dr Ling Ge. Photogrpahy: Petri Anttila.

The future is slower than you think 

Another sobering perspective came from Benedict Evans, a tech analytic and Venture Partner at Entrepreneur First and Mosaic Ventures. Benedict delivered a fast-paced, 80-slide presentation on the state of technology. One of the key takeaways for me was that the future is, actually, slower than we think. Many of the groundbreaking technologies that we hail as game-changers actually take around 15 years to come to fruition. Case in point: mainframe computing is still larger than cloud computing. Meaning: the next decade will, in factual numbers, be built by ideas from the past decade. 

Benedict Evans. Photography: Riku Kylä.

The future of NFTs 

“NFTs are access passes”, said Aleksander Leonard Larsen, Co-founder and COO of Axie Infinity, in a talk titled “NFT – THE GREAT EQUALIZER OR AN EMPTY PROMISE?” It was a short statement, but a key takeaway for how this new digital asset will be used in the future. It’s not about the thing in and of itself. It’s about where the thing takes you. NFTs will be the entry ticket to cool communities, social status, and great experiences. 

Aleksander Leonard Larsen. Photography: Julius Konttinen.

Pitching? Don’t forget the small talk!

Ted Persson, co-founder of EQT Ventures, gave a generous keynote where he gave away several secrets for how to succeed with your investor pitch deck. One surprising insight was the fact that the first few interactions in the meeting are key, and that they shouldn’t be about the pitch itself. It should rather be about something simple and accessible that everyone in the room can agree on. Ted called it “Three nods to lower the guard”. He went on to underscore the importance of storytelling, that every startup can be likened to the classic hero’s journey — from the Bible and Star Wars alike. 

Ted Persson. Photography: Petri Anttila.

Spotify did not bow to Adele

In November, news broke that famed pop diva Adele had persuaded Spotify to take the shuffle button off all album pages so tracks play in chronological order. In reality, this was a happy PR coincidence for the Swedish audio streamer, revealed Chief R&D Officer Gustav Söderström on stage at Slush. “Anyone in tech knows that you can’t develop a thing like that in just one day. We had been working on it for months.”

Gustav Söderström. Photography: Esa-Pekka Mattila.

Infrastructure-free mobility 

A personal highlight was listening to the origin story of Lilium, one of my favourite companies right now. Patrick Natham, one of four founders of the German aviation company, was there to talk about how they are creating their version of an eVTOL — electric takeoff and landing vehicle. Or flying taxi, for short. Patrick pointed out something interesting early in the talk: the car is dependent on so much infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, that in and of itself costs a lot of resources and energy. ”It’s infrastructure for mobility that can not be scaled, costing a lot of co2 emissions.” His solution is of course to take to the skies, and I can’t wait to be on one. 

Patrick Natham. Photography: Julius Konttinen.

High-resolution metaverse

As with all international trade events, it’s in the evenings that the real action happens, at parties and dinners. One of the most sought-after events was hosted by Finnish virtual reality company Varjo, who showcased their new model “Aero”, a headset made for the consumer market. Previously, Varjo has been focusing on selling their expensive, high-end devices to their b2b clients. And Aero does not disappoint. Where Mark Zuckerberg is selling Oculus for bottom dollar to lure people into his social media metaverse, Varjos consumer product is still staggeringly high end. Varjo Aero starts at 2000 euro, and promises “human-eye resolution”.

Konrad Olsson trying out Varjo’s flight simulator.

Lights on!

Finally, let’s have a look at the aesthetics. I’ll leave the fashion review aside, let’s instead focus on the set design. It was dark, very dark, with numerous different light sources that cut through the arena. Fluorescent lamps and laser beams made the entire event look like a mix between a 90s laser dome and your average Eurovision Song Contest. I can’t decide if it’s ripe for a redesign, or if it’s an immutable part of the event’s identity and appeal. Maybe next year I’ll decide. Because I’m definitely going back. 

No shortage of lasers at Slush. Photography: Petri Anttila.
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