SXSW Health and MedTech: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly


Every March, just before the real Madness, there's a hashtag that trolls Twitter in a four-lettered flurry of chaos: #SXSW

Like an increasingly gnarly chia pet, SXSW has exploded in scope at an exponential pace. The massive set of film, music and interactive technology conferences have taken over the city of Austin each year since 1987, so it should come as no surprise that in 2015 yet another joined the fray: the Health & MedTech Expo.

If you missed it, I'm simultaneously sorry for you and jealous of the sleep you saved. It was worth every yawn in the end, though. When the opportunity to attend SXSW Health & MedTech with InsideTracker arose, I jumped.

Little did I know what awaited on the ground: Traffic that makes L.A. freeways look like the Autobahn. If you aren't lucky enough to secure an overpriced hotel room downtown six months in advance, expect your wallet to be squeezed for every parking dollar imaginable. If you have a room, expect taxis and a fleet of aggressive pedi-cabs to do that instead.

Once settled in the eye of the South By Storm, a maddening chase ensues. This involves the futility of hunting down humans via digital means for real-life meetups; joining 65,000 frustrated 4G users in search of WiFi; and racing between hotels, bars and "houses" packed with people, swag and St. Bernard puppies (I'm looking at you, Mophie).

Expect sleep deprivation, dehydration, Uber sticker-shock, hangovers and blisters.

Everyone is perpetually low on smartphone power, and perpetually caffeinated despite hour-long lines at every Starbucks within in a 10 block radius.

That's the price of entry. SXSW is packed with people because SXSW is ripe with innovation, opportunity and connections. Here's the down and dirty on the first year of Health & MedTech:

Biggest Buzzword: The microbiome.
Until recently, only health nerds like me prattled on about this subject. In four days at SXSW, I heard it more than I have in four years. #Progress

Biggest Health Brand Presence: Philips & Under Armour Connected Fitness.
Philips had a large visual presence with a sleek lounge containing couches and outlets. Much-needed. Under Armour Connected Fitness just built its snazzy new HQ in Austin, and it is as cool as you think it is. So cool, that they invited people to come party in it. No wonder Morgan Stanley analysts are so bullish on UA stock.

Best Gimmicks: This was lacking in Health & MedTech, so no one wins.
Two non-health brands beat everyone else with smart marketing. SapientNitro delivered lunch to my co-worker and I at our booth, after I complained on Twitter of malnutrition due to long lines and a lack of time for food consumption. Verizon Wireless delivered gifts to irritated Austin residents whose lives were disrupted by SXSW mania.

Best Swag: Okay, I'm biased here.
Objectively speaking however, InsideTracker (whom I work for) had the hit. We gave away syringe-shaped pens, filled with green ink to match the company logo. A massively popular item, despite its rather mundane status amid a sea of selfie-sticks. The Incredible Hulk came up a lot in conversation.

Best Activation Event: Withings Pop Fitness dance classes.
Withings caused a stir, bringing in teams of "Britney Spears dancers" to show off the new Withings Activité Pop smartwatch. They staged Pop Fitness classes which had participants counting steps while learning the dance moves to Baby One More Time. I'm no Britney fan but I won't forget that sight. You win, Withings.

On-Site Experience Trends: Pain-management, sleep, cognitive health and the quantified-self.
Products on display ranged from blood analytics to health insurance and wearables. A startup called iHeart, which claims to accurately measure your internal age using your pulse, was on hand with a demo of their device and people lined up for that. Partying at SXSW probably makes you older.

Best Parties: Speaking of parties, the best SXSW networking is done in the dark, in bars. Or in daylight, in bars. The theme is bars.
One of the best featured Sir Mix-a-Lot. Can't beat Baby Got Back. That shindig was hosted by Austin startup Honest Dollar. I met co-founder Henry Yoshida and learned that not only is he a smart event planner, he has one of the smartest startups in the city. They won the ATI SXSW Pitch Competition. I missed Mix-a-Lot but here's my video from the sold-out show featuring my buddies Ilan Bluestone and Jerome Isma-Ae, two DJs from Europe who stopped by Austin on their U.S. tour.

Other noteworthy items include meeting astronaut Ron Garan at the world premiere of Planetary, an awe-inspiring documentary directed by my friend Guy Reid. There was a panel in which the world learned that the Star Trek Tricorder is finally a real thing. I rode in a Ferrari at 150 mph on the Formula 1 Grand Prix track at Circuit of the Americas and took my blood pressure before and after. Despite the exhilaration, there was little change. Perhaps I'm an alien.

Speaking of aliens, I met the awesome guys behind Deep Space Industries, who plan to mine asteroids for water because we need to get humans off this planet soon. You read that correctly. They're my new favorite people.

The 2016 Health & MedTech Expo will be better. There's plenty of room to be cooler, more authentic and more engaging. Next year, I'm bringing my own personal SXSW Sherpa to carry my limp, hypoglycemic body from the convention center back to the airport. That's a great brand-activation idea. Don't steal it.