For Paddy Cosgrave, the chief executive of Web Summit, this year’s Collision conference is like running a tech demo — glitchy, virtual but promising.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended plans, Cosgrave was gearing up to organize the Collision conference in Toronto for its second year, a large-scale event that brings together startups, investors, journalists and a bevy of celebrity speakers. Instead, the company is now hosting a remote Collision From Home this year to showcase the company’s software.
“In my view this is our demo day of an online platform that may also be of use to other organizers of some of the largest conferences and events in the world,” Cosgrave said after the three-day event kicked off Tuesday.
The format at Collision last year was a series of stages scattered throughout the cavernous Enercare Centre in Toronto, with hundreds of startups at booths in between all those stages, facilitating opportunities for founders, investors, journalists and other attendees to meet up and swap business cards.
Even before the pandemic, Cosgrave has been a proponent of using technology to facilitate his technology conferences, and the company’s app has been an essential part of the service.
The app is a combination of scheduler and messaging service, with a built-in social network that allows attendees to connect with speakers and journalists, and arrange meetings.
Cosgrave said Wednesday the company essentially built out a full online conference software system in two months.
“Starting about eight weeks ago a very small team began to build out those features with a very heavy emphasis on video and networking,” he said.
“Ten weeks ago when we started having discussions with partners about partaking in an online conference, we weren’t able to actually show a full finished polished product at the time, so they had to do it on a promise.”
Only the Web Summit team really knows if it’s working.
At its core, Collision From Home is a series of channels streaming different pre-recorded panel discussions and talks, similar to what somebody would see at a normal conference — except that all the participants are talking into webcams from their homes.
The conference has also managed to book some big names, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will sit down for a question and answer with the Financial Times U.S. editor at large Gillian Tett on Thursday, and reality TV star Paris Hilton.
It hasn’t been without technical hiccups. When the event kicked off Tuesday people were locked out of the platform for a little while due to an authentication problem.
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But the aspect that Collision has been trying to foster — the temporary social network of attendees that allows for professional connections — Cosgrave insisted was still happening through messages and private video chats.
“I’m amazed by the extent that people are using one-to-one video,” he said.
Cosgrave said he intends to try and licence the software the company has built to other large organizations for events during the pandemic.
“We’ll license the software. In particular our focus will just be some of the biggest conferences — private sector conferences, public gatherings, political gatherings around the world,” he said.
“In the United States right now with the run-up to the election, it’s very challenging to put together large rallies and who knows what’s possible?”
Cosgrave was asked what kind of government subsidies his company received to host Collision in Toronto for three years, and whether Canadian taxpayers are subsidizing the Collision From Home event.
“I don’t know the answer to the first question, and I actually don’t know the answer to the second question either,” Cosgrave said in response to the inquiry from a journalist at The Logic, before suggesting those questions be directed to Toronto Mayor John Tory instead.
In an emailed statement the City of Toronto said it wasn’t offering any financial support to Collision From Home, but the city wouldn’t quantify how much money it’s giving to Collision overall.
“The City of Toronto partnered with Destination Toronto (formerly Tourism Toronto) and Exhibition Place to bring Collision — North America’s fastest-growing technology conference — to Toronto for three years to build on the momentum of the Toronto region’s technology industry. The 2019 conference was the first time this sought-after event was held outside of the United States. The three conferences were expected to have an economic impact of $147 million,” a City of Toronto spokesman said in an email.
“The original agreement between Destination Toronto and the conference organizers was for the event to be held in Toronto in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The agreement has been amended to 2019, 2021 and 2022.”