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Innovation Insights from SXSW

SXSW 2015 3M Life Lab
So South By Southwest has gone mainstream. But because of that, we believe it has become an even more interesting place for spotting innovation. Beyond the startup hype and big-brand activations, we saw a very powerful convergence between technologies, ideas, and industries. There was more sense of collaboration between startups and corporations, academia and enterprise, private and public, and so forth, which yielded both compelling innovations and models.

Two trends held true across the board. First, the increased collaboration between the public and private sectors – and a conscious attempt by both sides to find the sweet spot between commercial gains and social good – has become a necessary driver of progress. Attendees felt this firsthand with ease of transport as ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft operated legally for the first time in Austin. Second, science has been injected with the steroids that are big data and venture capital, opening up new avenues between academic exploration and economic application.

Here’s a look at the most exciting ideas we found, which we believe have truly disruptive potential to forge new and improved markets and consumer experiences in the not-so-distant future.

The sharing economy meets reality

With Uber and Lyft finally in the city of Austin, transportation around the festival was more convenient than ever before, but thanks to the practice of surge pricing, often far more expensive. IBM’s Gadi Ben-Yahuda, an expert in civic innovation, outlined in his talk, “The Sharing Economy Is Failing. Abort or Retry?” why the surging growth of disrupters like Airbnb and Uber cannot be sustained without an open and sometimes difficult dialogue between citizens, governments, and the private sector. With disrupters playing the offense and regulators playing defense, and consumers unclear where legal lines are drawn, a change in approach needs to be made to ensure that the needs of the businesses and the people are met. It’s a two-sided problem to solve, where private and public must come together to represent the people’s interests. Ben-Yehuda argued convincingly that no one will win if we don’t have a more proactive, holistic discussion on how to make the sharing economy work for everyone.

The future of medicine could be prescribing a game

The MIT Media Lab gathered science-centric startups to demo the types of heady innovations you typically don’t see on the trade-show floor. This year, Akili captured our imaginations with its bold idea to use video games as medicine. On the path to be the first company to obtain FDA approval for a game, they are devising clinically validated diagnostics and therapies for children that engage them to use it under the disguise of high-quality video games. Partnering cognitive neuroscientists with game design experts, they’ve developed “games” that could someday be used to treat mental disorders as diverse as ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease. These tools could not only supplant the old-fashioned assessments and exercises that are the standard for today’s mental health professionals, they could also be paired with pharmacological treatments to add a powerful new dimension to treat disorders, ensure better compliance with treatments, or provide an alternative treatment for those opposed to traditional pharmaceutical options.

Wearables find a new niche

For many people, including medical professionals, there is a relationship between music and mental health, but the mechanics of just how music influences us remains mysterious. The Sync Project was launched at SXSW as a way to harness the reams of data that will be gathered from wearable technologies and layer that biometric data with musical intelligence algorithms such as Echo Nest, which powers Spotify’s recommendation engine. Through mapping the patterns between our physiological reactions to music and the attributes of music itself, The Sync Project not only hopes to take the guesswork out of targeted music therapy regimens, it aspires to fundamentally re-imagine how everyone uses and discovers music.

3D printing meets drones

While robotics is nothing new to tech or to SXSW, the diversity of robots on display at the festival’s first-ever Robot Petting Zoo – and their specialization of function – was unique. A common theme was the utility of drones and robots in disaster relief, from assessing damage and searching for survivors to aerial 3D printing of tools like wrenches and hammers. The pairing of drones and 3D printing – two technologies often overhyped and sometimes lacking in true utility – was an encouraging sign of progress in finding real needs technology can address.

In the end, we walked away from SXSW tired but inspired, and ready to translate these themes into actionable innovation strategies.