TechFestNW Recap

We saw and heard some amazing talks at TechFestNW this year, including insights from a startup veteran, how tech can help save the music industry and the genius behind the crazy glowing tetrahedrons you may have seen off Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Cities such as Portland and San Francisco are brewing with some great talent in web design and tech startups. But the greatest strength of conferences such as TechFestNW lies in the way creatives are crossing the art and engineering disciplines in the most imaginative ways. Connections such as music and data. Beautiful, geometric sculptures and geeky hardware. Inventive clothing designs and e-commerce.

TechFestNW might be called the little sister to MusicFestNW, but speakers presented some big, innovative ideas.

Take, for example, the work by Instrument, a digital creative agency. The company built sturdy, “frat boy proof” tetrahedron sculptures that represented each venue at the music fest. When bands played, their songs were digitally translated into data that lit up the tetrahedron in different colors and motions. Viewers could interact with each sculpture on their cell phone. With a swipe of your finger, you could change the colors on the pyramid in real time. Pretty neat, but tricky to sync electronically, as Instrument explained in one of their talks.

A view from above the glowing tetrahedrons designed by Instrument, a digital creative agency in Portland.

We also loved the work by Amelia Pape, a social entrepreneur and founder of My Street Grocery, what she calls a “pop-up grocery store.” She’s been hauling fresh, affordable ingredients and ready-to-cook meal kits to lower income areas, such as North Portland and Gresham. There’s a misconception that poorer people don’t care for health food, she said.

“When we think about food access, what we think about is third world countries, but I didn’t think about… this grand foodie city of America,” Pape said.

The problem is that many people don’t have access to affordable, healthy food. They don’t have the means to buy that kind of food, whether it’s time, money, transportation, lack of cooking skills or the fact that a good grocery store is just too far away, Pape said.

“A social problem is often from a market failure,” Pape said.

Amelia Pape shared about her journey in solving a social problem through entrepreneurship.

Other talks focused on the music industry. Many seemed to touch on how indie and “middle class” artists are helping to drive the industry forward. Brooke Parrott, a Portland-based artist ambassador from Songkick, shared how the live music industry is struggling because it simply doesn’t keep track of all the data about concerts, such as tickets sold broken down by city and forecasting global demand. There’s a disconnect between music and the tech industry, she said.

New ideas such as Songkick’s Detour lets fans pledge to go to a concert for their favorite music artist. If the show is confirmed, the pledge is converted into a ticket and the fan is automatically billed for the show. This way, bands have a better idea of whether they’ll actually make money from a live show, and fans have a say in requesting their favorite band to come to town. (Can we please bring Muse again to Portland?)

CASH Music provides free, open source code for musicians to better reach their audiences through digital platforms.

Another take on the music industry came from CASH Music, a nonprofit that builds open source programs to help music artists sell, share and promote music directly to their audience. Everything is free and available for anyone to use. CASH is also building a curriculum to teach musicians more web tools — which is still quite a novelty, considering that digitally pirated music is what led to plummeting record sales.

Tech and apparel design also made an appearance at the conference, including a discussion from Betabrand‘s founder, Chris Lindland.

“Sons of Britches” from Betabrand, a website that sells clothing with a sense of humor.

Lindland’s known for his wacky, witty, lighthearted approach to clothing design, and he’s made it his mission to make Betabrand reflect that aesthetic. Fans can vote on crazy-weird concepts, and the most popular ones get manufactured and sold on the Betabrand website.

Who knows, maybe you do need zany clothes such as a zip sweater that “prevents stretched collar syndrome” and fleece drawstring pants.

Written by: Dominique Fong

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