North East firms head to Texas for UKTI's Trade Mission

THERE are quite a few folk from the North East off to "geek spring break" this year.

Crowds on 6th Street during the 2011 South By Southwest event in Austin, Texas

THERE are quite a few folk from the North East off to "geek spring break" this year.

UKTI has broken the good news that its Trade Mission to this year’s South By Southwest conference will feature more of the region’s companies than normal, with a healthy number making travel plans for the trip to Austin, Texas, in March.

This year’s crop of 34 companies chosen for the UKTI Mission to SXSW include six from the North East.

There’s Cramlington’s Palringo, which has been building up a mobile group messaging service with more than 10 million users.

Gateshead’s Recite has developed a service that allows websites to become more accessible to dyslexic or visually-impaired users.

Sharemyplaylists.com from Boldon, South Tyneside, has already won the admiration of Spotify for its work in allowing music fans to create and share their own playlists.

Newcastle’s Happiest aims to create a social network that helps people share their positive experiences.

And Addiply is promising a new way for publishers to attract hyperlocal advertisers, while Thrive offers a lovingly-designed management tool for freelancers.

South By Southwest has a pretty sparkly reputation for music, film and emerging technologies. Fortune magazine hailed it as “the single best place in the creative innovation world to build relationships and get to know people”, while Popular Mechanics calls it “an ideal laboratory for the wired world of the future”.

So when the companies from the North East emerge blinking from the airport into the Texas sun, they’re in for a heck of a ride if they play their cards right.

“It’s about exposure”, says John Holmes-Carrington, an international trade adviser for UKTI in the North East region. “It’s all about being able to show people what you’re doing face to face, rather than just describe it or do it on Skype.

“South By Southwest is one of the biggest events on the calendar. The idea is to go over there and get the business done straight away, so companies need to be ready to go. But you can walk into a bar and there’ll be someone from Universal next to you.”

Austin conference-goers have already met a few companies from the region. Screenreach, for one, showcased its two-way screen interaction Screach app at the event not long after plugging it to the DEMO conference in California. It won a tablet and a trip to Barcelona at the event’s App Circus app-pitching competition, and opened an office in New York soon after.

UKTI’s mission aims to get promising companies in front of as many potential partners as possible.

There’s a pre-mission briefing and a market masterclass, as well as breakfasts and round tables with over 200 US and UK companies, investors and media writers. It also goes about promoting the firm as an example of someone doing great things from the British Isles.

“It’s one of the highlight events of the year for us, alongside events such as Midem in Cannes”, says Holmes-Carrington. “In previous years, it’s been known for its music focus, but interactive definitely has a bigger presence now than in the past.”

The firms on the list have already attracted a fair bit of interest regionally and beyond. For example, venture capital firm Northstar Ventures has already invested in Recite, Addiply, Thrive and Palringo, while Recite is turning heads in Australia and Sharemyplaylists.com was one of the launch partners at the high-profile unveiling of Spotify Apps.

Addiply says its system will attract more local ads to publishing websites by allowing them more control over price, placement and suitability.

It has already signed up publishers in Germany, France and Spain, not to mention The Journal's publisher ncjmedia in the North East of England. It is currently in the process of launching a new-look “beta” Addiply with some websites in the USA.

Founder Rick Waghorn says: “It’s clearly great for the region that all these companies are part of the mission. We’re looking to prove the concept with a sterling performance in the North East, but everyone dreams of cracking the United States, whether it’s me or Robbie Williams.

“It’s a great melting pot of media thinkers and do-ers and a few VCs. There also might be an element of star- spotting. It’s fascinating to be in the same room as some of these people.”

Waghorn himself spoke at a conference on the future of digital advertising in New York in 2007, and Addiply had a brief link-up with the University of Berkeley’s Oakland North website. As a flag-flier for hyperlocal, he’s particularly interested in one South By Southwest topic The Hyperlocal hoax: Where’s the Holy Grail?

“It’s all about how there’s all this fuss about hyperlocal, but how no one has yet delivered a sustainable business model around it. We could definitely get involved in that discussion.”

The interactive part of the event will run from March 9 to 13, with film from March 9 to 17 and music from March 13 to 18.

Fresh from a major traffic boost that followed Spotify’s arrival in the US, Kieron Donoghue of Sharemyplaylists.com is stepping up his visits to events this year, with dates already booked for South By Southwest, Midem and others.

His advice to businesses visiting such events is to “hustle and network like crazy”. He adds: “Quite simply, it’s the world’s biggest music and tech event. So if you’re in that space, you need to be there.”

 
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