App Makers Woo Lawmakers as SXSW Conference Tackles Immigration

As entrepreneurs and venture capitalists swilled beer and swapped business cards at a technology conference in Austin, Texas, Kevin Callahan hunkered down March 9 for a closed-door meeting with Senator Jerry Moran.

Callahan, co-founder of app startup MapMyFitness Inc., was one of a few dozen attendees of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival -- including a Microsoft Corp. representative -- who were invited to discuss issues, including patent reform and immigration, with the Kansas Republican.

“It’s helpful to know I can start contributing to the conversation now so that 3 years, 5 years, 10 years down the line, the political factors are less of an issue in trying to grow my business and contribute to my little slice of the American economy,” Callahan, 36, said in an interview.

Tech’s mounting interest in shaping public policy was on display at South by Southwest, where industry executives including AOL Inc. co-founder Steve Case and Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk advocated for more cooperation between Washington and Silicon Valley.

“The next generation of disruptive companies are going to have to figure out how to interact with the government,” Case, now the CEO of investment firm Revolution LLC, said in an interview at the event.

Areas such as education, health care and transportation will be transformed by “a lot of the great innovations over the next decade,” he said, and “government is the largest buyer of those services.”

Focused Discussion

Suited politicians such as Moran and California Republican Representative Darrell Issa, both panelists at the conference, stood out amid the Austin Convention Center’s swarm of t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing technophiles. Their attendance underscored the rising influence of the technology industry among policymakers eager to create jobs.

While South by Southwest has played host to discussions about federal and local government in past years, participants at this year’s gathering struck a more urgent tone in seeking legislation around specific issues, said Mike McGeary, political director and senior strategist at Engine Advocacy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that urges closer ties between entrepreneurs and the government.

“There’s a lot more focused discussion this year on particular issues, as opposed to politics generally,” said McGeary, whose group advocates for issues affecting tech companies as varied as review site Yelp Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc., a mobile app that helps people find rides.

Immigration Proposal

McGeary helped organize the private session with Senator Moran, who covered such topics as the industry’s desire to ease restrictions on hiring highly skilled immigrants, Callahan said.

Moran, who also met with business leaders at last year’s SXSW conference, said this year’s group was more knowledgeable about issues and came prepared with more questions and ideas.

“A year ago, it was, ‘How do we get engaged?’ Moran said in an interview. ‘‘This year, it was much more, ’We’ve been working hard, we are connecting with policy makers in Washington D.C. What issues should we be paying most attention to?’”

Moran sought support for Startup Act 3.0, proposed legislation to reform the immigration process for highly skilled workers.

Among attendees of the meeting with Moran were Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc. and Andrew Rasiej, chairman of the NY Tech Meetup. Topics discussed included policies aimed at training more engineers in U.S. schools.

Party Alternative

For Callahan, the meeting and other technology policy discussions provided respite from the booze-soaked networking rituals that pervade South By Southwest, a conference where startups vie to host the most popular parties by hiring famous pop music acts and carting VIPs to remote destinations in limousines.

This year’s festivities included a party sponsored by Path Inc. and Spotify Ltd. that featured the rock group Jane’s Addiction. Founders Fund LLC hosted a barbecue at an Austin mansion known as Britannia Manor.

“South By is great because you’re drinking from a fire hose of ideas and inspiration,” Callahan said. “But then you’re also getting blasted by the fire hose of the booze and the partying.”

Calls for political change also came from several of the festival’s most high-caliber speakers. Musk said he’s working with government officials to build a rocket-launch station for his company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore advocated measures to protect the freedom of Internet users around the world.

Crowdfunding Oversight

Case spoke about the promise of crowdfunding, a practice of capital-raising for startups that he expects to benefit from the oversight of the Securities & Exchange Commission. He also recruited participants for The March for Innovation, an online event he helped organize to push lawmakers to pass immigration reform.

As tech startups grow and take on new markets, events like South by Southwest will need to adapt and provide forums for a broader range of knowledge, Case said in the interview.

“There’s going to be a little bit of a maturing of Silicon Valley,” he said. “As they move beyond the Internet per se, and building Internet companies, to innovate and disrupt other aspects of our lives and other facets of our economy, there is going to be a need to come up to speed with how governments work.”

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