The Irish entrepreneur behind the world’s fastest-growing tech conference programme wants to launch his next event in the UAE.
Paddy Cosgrave, the CEO of Web Summit, says he is in talks with the UAE government over plans to bring a global tech and innovation gathering to the country by 2022.
Cosgrave’s company currently runs Lisbon’s Web Summit, Hong Kong’s Rise and Collision, which this month took up residence in Toronto, Canada, having relocated from the United States. Together, the events attract more than 110,000 delegates annually, with attendance at each increasing year-on-year.
“The Middle East is massively in our future,” Cosgrave says. “Already at Web Summit, we have massive participation from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but also from Oman and Saudi Arabia, and the number of start-ups participating from the region has been growing year-on-year.”
While admitting there is “no shortage of events in the Middle East,” Cosgrave believes his firm can bring something new and help boost the region’s standing on the global tech field. “I don’t want to build something regional for the Middle East. I want to build a global event in the Middle East. That’s a great opportunity for countries in the region, in that they don’t have far to travel to showcase all of the good going on there.”
Among the Middle Eastern start-ups to have exhibited at Web Summit in recent years was Careem, which recently sold to Uber in a cash-and-stocks deal worth $3.1bn. Cosgrave says the firm is a prime example of why the Middle East should be put under the spotlight of international investors and venture capitalists more often.
“When this little car-sharing app called Careem showed up, everybody thought the idea they were going to take on the might of someone like Uber was ridiculous. That they could compete with these global firms that already had such a head start just seemed ludicrous, but it turned out they proved pretty much everybody wrong.
"They built a great company in the Middle East and exited to Uber for a pretty stupendous amount of money, proving it’s very, very possible to build incredible companies out of the Middle East. People are doing it and many of them are coming to Web Summit, and to Collision, and to Rise. So, I think the region is thriving.”
Cosgrave also cited the ambition of the UAE government as a draw, adding: “To do an event of this magnitude, you have to form a partnership with the city or country hosting, and that’s for a range of reasons. It’s partly scale, and it’s partly because we have people flying in from all over the world, including from places like Tajikistan and Sudan, places that [can be difficult to gain visas from in some instances], so there has to be a high degree of coordination. The governments we work with have an interest in using these platforms to showcase their own countries, and the countries we work with often have quite potent stories to tell the world.”
Well known as a disruptor on the technology scene, Cosgrave caused a stir last year when he announced the decision to relocate Collision, North America’s fastest growing tech summit, to Canada. Having launched in Las Vegas and later in New Orleans. San Francisco had been due to take over hosting duties, until Cosgrave changed direction in 2018, announcing that Toronto had staged a final-minute coup. This was, he says, in part because of its highly credible tech scene, but also largely due to its openness to incomers from all over the world – an attitude he feels is mirrored in the UAE.
“There’s a huge amount of activity in Toronto. It’s very cosmopolitan, very open to the world at a time when I think the United States is becoming a little bit more of a closed society. We’ve people from 125 countries around the world here today, a lot of attendees have come from countries that would ordinarily now face significant challenges getting into the United States and I think, for us, that’s a problem. We want this to be a melting pot of entrepreneurs, investors and executives from all corners of the world, not just a favoured few nations.”
Indeed, while sceptics had doubted Toronto’s ability to lend Collision the same big-name draw as San Francisco.
“There were mean Tweets,” Cosgrave jokes – evidence this month on the floor at the city’s sprawling Enercare Centre was very much to the contrary. Amazon, Microsoft, KPMG, Cisco and Dell were among the firms exhibiting, while huge names of the tech scene, including former Twitter CEO turned Medium founder Ev Williams and Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos took to the stage for the event’s acclaimed panel discussions.
“I think sometimes when you’re in Silicon Valley you can get caught in something of a bubble, where you think the centre of gravity of the start-up universe is exclusively anchored to the 60km area you’re in,” Cosgrave says.
“But, the truth is, the world has shifted. It’s now multi-polar when it comes to tech, and companies are emerging from everywhere.”
Indeed, insisting that myopia is rife in the USA’s tech hub, Cosgrave believes that the decision to hold events further away from Silicon Valley actually lends appeal to the Web Summit calendar.
“Just a moment ago I was meeting with [founder of seed firm Uncork Capital, formerly SoftTech VC] Jeff Clavier, who is one of the most successful early stage investors in Silicon Valley. He’s here in Toronto, and not just flying in and out for his talk but here for days. He doesn’t mess around. His business is investing in great entrepreneurs and he’ll spend the past 48 hours dining, meeting, having coffees with incredible entrepreneurs and when you multiply that by hundreds of investors – 800 I think, from around the world though many are from Silicon Valley – here in the city for days at a time, you can see the impact.
“I think if we went to Silicon Valley, many of the most active and important VCs would have just shown up to talk and then gone home. But here, they’ve made a commitment by taking a five-hour flight, so they’re going to stay and allow us to create this mini fishbowl, which I think offers a better outcome for everyone.”
Describing his events as for business rather than for personal relationships, Cosgrave sees his role very much as one of matchmaker, pairing promising start-ups with investors, and linking up-and-coming entrepreneurs with mentors they might not ordinarily have access to. As part of this aim, attendees at all of Cosgrave’s summits are given access to an event-specific app, which must be downloaded to gain entrance. Every company, sponsor, exhibitor, journalist and visitor to each event is given a unique QR code and profile on the app, providing an easy way for attendees to search and contact others they’re interested in networking with.
“It’s very easy if you head up a very established company or you’re president of Microsoft to meet the CEO of GE, but when you’re starting out and building the next wave of companies you’re usually isolated,” Cosgrave says of the approach. “You’ve got no connections and you’re a total outsider, so events like this provide an opportunity to connect into that ecosystem. Increasingly, when people are building companies, there aren’t many opportunities to efficiently meet people from all over the world who can help take you to the next level. And I include journalists in that. We’ve got hundreds of journalists from all over the world here and that’s rocket fuel to these new and emerging companies who ultimately need to share their stories with the world.
“The media and speakers in attendance are at the apex of the pyramid and, by their profession, are incredibly proficient at networking. But if you’re at the base of the pyramid, like a small start-up, the software we provide you with is extremely powerful. There are many ways to organise conferences and our differentiator is overwhelmingly software. And it works.”
Whether the next generation of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs has to make the journey to Lisbon, Toronto or Hong Kong to make those connections should become clear very soon, Cosgrave says, though he believes that the success of the event in Toronto in May is proof, if it were needed, that the UAE too could prove a successful draw for the world’s biggest names in tech.
“When you talk of Canada, people think of primary industries – energy, energy, energy – and when people think of the Middle East, they think of energy too, of oil and gas. But it turns out there’s a lot more going on in both. And I think the sooner the world wakes up to that, the better for the region. So hopefully we can make it work in the UAE. It would give us a real kick bringing people from all over the world to do something there.”
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