Social-media startups will need to share the spotlight this year at South by Southwest Interactive, the annual technology geekfest that catapulted Twitter Inc. to stardom in 2007.
Rock Health, an incubator focused on health-care startups, and WePay, an online payments provider, will showcase their products and services at the four-day conference that starts today in Austin, Texas. Edmodo Inc., an educational social network, is part of a new event focused on learning.
Dubbed “Woodstock for geeks,” South by Southwest is no longer just about creating buzz for the latest social-networking tools like Twitter and Foursquare Labs Inc. The 19-year-old conference is expecting about 20,000 entrepreneurs, investors and executives searching for the next big thing across the technology landscape, seeking to bring industries such as health care and education further into the digital realm.
“There are more and more applications for social and mobile technologies in the health-care world,” said Lisa Suennen, a co-founder at San Francisco-based venture capital firm Psilos Group, who is going to the conference for the first time. “To the extent you can bring it into the hip and exciting opportunity area is a wonderful thing.”
Suennen’s session -- “Why Invest in Health Tech?” -- is one of at least 18 at the conference related to health care. Other topics include wired hospitals, the use of social media by pharmaceutical companies, and online therapy.
In addition to the education conference, called SXSWedu, there are 13 sessions focused on education at the interactive conference, including panels on digital content and online communities for kids. Eleven sessions are about financial services and new forms of payments.
Bill Clerico, the co-founder of WePay, has attended South by Southwest for the past two years just for fun. This year, he’s participating in a session called “The Future of Money,” and spending the rest of his time meeting with potential business partners. His Palo Alto, California-based startup is taking on EBay Inc.’s (EBAY) PayPal unit by letting users buy things in groups, helping event promoters sell tickets and enabling people to accept donations via the Web.
“I’m meeting with storefront companies and event companies to talk about how we can help power payments,” said Clerico, whose four-year-old company has raised $10 million in venture capital. “The company is mature enough that now I can go looking for customers.”
South by Southwest is still known as the place for new mobile and social apps, in the same way that the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcases next-generation televisions and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, is the home for wireless technologies. In 2010, mobile check-in apps Foursquare and Gowalla Inc. were the standouts, and last year the focus turned to group-messaging services GroupMe Inc. and Beluga, which have both been acquired.
Mobile apps generating the most buzz heading into this year’s conference are Highlight, Sonar and Glancee, which use consumers’ contacts and social-networking data to connect them to relevant people in the vicinity.
That’s not why Halle Tecco is going. The founder of Rock Health is looking for software developers who want to do more than create the next mobile game or Facebook Inc. (FB) app. Her San Francisco-based incubator is investing in new startups focused on health technology.
“A lot of people that come to Rock Health would otherwise go build the next Facebook,” said Tecco, 28, who worked at Intel Corp. (INTC) and Apple Inc. before starting Rock Health. “We hope we can convince them to go build the Facebook for health care, because it’s an industry that has massive inefficiencies.”
Education has gotten so popular that for the second year, South by Southwest held a separate event that ran the three days before the Interactive conference. SXSWedu attracted about 900 people last year and three times that this year, said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
The education event brings entrepreneurs together with policy leaders and educators to discuss innovation in the industry. Nic Borg, chief executive officer of online-education company Edmodo, says he wants to meet developers who are interested in providing content to his site’s 6 million users, mostly teachers and students. The San Mateo, California-based company announced at the conference that it’s opening up to outside developers for the first time.
Providing a Bridge
“The idea is to capture the attention of a lot of really talented developers, who haven’t typically focused on the education space,” Borg said. “We’re trying to provide a bridge between the education side and interactive side so that folks see there’s a tremendous opportunity in the space.”
While education and health care may not get the attention of the hottest social-networking apps, they do have some of the most high-profile speakers. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, gave a keynote at SXSWedu, and Aneesh Chopra, the former U.S. chief technology officer, is taking part in the interactive session on health-care investing.
Suennen of Psilos Group is presenting along with Chopra. She says she is looking forward to seeing just how far health care has come in the world of South by Southwest.
“I’m not sure if I’m groovy enough to be there,” Suennen said. “I guess I’ll find out.”