Innovative Meetings

Pioneers Festival Bolsters Startups

Pioneers Festival has evolved its focus from building a better economy to building a better world. Not bad for a student project.

It might sound patronizing to refer to Pioneers Festival as a “student project,” but that’s how Natalie Thonhauser, the Festival’s director, describes its origins. And in fact that’s exactly how the Vienna-based conference for technology startups and entrepreneurs began.

It was 2009, in the middle of the global financial crisis, and a group of technology and business students at Vienna University of Economics and Business became determined to take control of their fate — “to not end up with corporations and be swallowed by them,” Thonhauser said, “and create something entrepreneurial, to really inspire people to do something of their own.”

Initially, that meant organizing 40- to 50-person events for startups of all kinds in Austria and throughout Europe. The community grew quickly, and within a few years the event organizers were thinking about scaling up — in terms of not just the size of the program but the scope of its mission. “Entrepreneurship is important, but what else? It’s not about the next haircut [salon], butcher, coffee shop, or whatever,” Thonhauser said. “These are important, but it is not what pushes mankind forward.” The solution: add technology and science to the entrepreneurial mix, and “really tackle the big challenges of mankind.”

In 2012, they launched Pioneers Festival, a two-day event at Vienna’s 13th-century Hofburg Palace. Held most recently on Oct. 29–30, 2014, the Festival draws about 2,500 investors, technology executives, scientists, and researchers from 30 different countries. They represent some of the economy’s hottest sectors, which last year in-cluded big data, artificial intelligence and robotics, and medical technology.

Sharply produced and grandly staged, the Festival balances education sessions, technology spotlights, and leadership development with a variety of networking opportunities, including one-on-one sit-downs that pair investors and startups. The program is intense and fast-moving. The one-hour opening session at the 2014 Festival, for example, included a warm-up activity with Managing Director Tim Röhrich and Thonhauser (15 minutes); a Q&A with Harald Mahrer, state secretary of Austria’s Federal Ministry for Science, Research, and Economy, and Pioneers co-founder Andreas Tschas (10 minutes); a Q&A with Hannes Ametsreiter, CEO of the Telekom Austria Group and A1 Telekom Austria, and Tschas (10 minutes); and a keynote by Dennis Curry, senior director of business innovation for Konica Minolta Business Technologies (20 minutes).

At Investors Day, a competition held a day before the conference, 50 startups from around the world — culled from one thousand applicants — pitch to a jury of experienced investors. It’s another way for the Festival to fulfill its mission “to inspire, empower, and connect,” Thonhauser said. “If people really invest time and money to come together, we must make it easy … and make sure they get the best out of it.”

Getting in the Game

The next step for Pioneers Festival? Helping directly fund new technology companies. The organization is partnering with SpeedInvest, a Vienna-based investment fund, to launch SpeedInvest II, a €50-million fund for tech startups. “We are huge believers that with technology and entrepreneurship we can tackle the biggest challenges that we face and will face in the future,” Pioneers co-founder Juergen Furian said during the opening session of the 2014 Festival, “and that’s exactly why we are positioning Pioneers at this intersection.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.