As New Orleans works to secure its footing as a hotbed of tech startup activity, the city is expected this week to host more than 10,000 investors, entrepreneurs and writers to a growing technology conference that was lured from Las Vegas in large part by the appeal of sandwiching its schedule in the middle of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Now in its third year, the Collision conference will be held Tuesday through Thursday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. It’s the American version of Web Summit, the massive annual tech industry conference that attracted more than 42,000 attendees last year to Dublin, Ireland, for three days.
“It’s a big deal for New Orleans,” said Chris Schultz, a local entrepreneur who helped bring Collision to New Orleans. He believes it could become “our equivalent of (Austin’s) South by Southwest, done our way and with true New Orleans soul and culture.”
Like Web Summit, Collision brings together investors and entrepreneurs for panel discussions, nightly networking events and prearranged meetings.
The conference culminates with a live-pitch competition where 108 startups were initially selected to present on-stage in front of a judging panel and attendees. From there, 20 advance to the semifinals and are whittled to three, who will present live Friday on Collision’s center stage.
Panels focus mostly on topics involving sports, tech and media — sometimes mixing a few areas and often delving into how it’s being disrupted by new, emerging technologies. Speakers run a gamut of backgrounds, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre; semi-retired professional wrestler Mick Foley; musician and producer PJ Morton; and Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck.
Pairing Collision between the two weekends of the city’s signature music and cultural festival was a big draw for its organizers.
“Jazz Fest draws hundreds of thousands of people to the city, but they didn’t really have a business reason to be in the city,” said Schultz, cofounder of Launch Pad, a collaborative workspace in the Warehouse District. “This gives them a reason to dive into our startup ecosystem and be a part of that.”
Already, Collision has grown from about 1,500 attendees in 2014 to more than 7,500 last year, said Mike Harvey, a Web Summit spokesman.
“We needed to find a home that was going to allow it to grow,” Harvey said. “We needed to find a great startup community, a vibrant startup community, that was really beginning to go places.”
The annual conference is expected to stay in New Orleans for the foreseeable future, he said.
In addition to its roster of events, Collision has a downloadable app with a built-in messaging system so that attendees can set schedules, arrange meetings and make contacts. The software also uses data to connect startups with investors for prescheduled, 15-minute back-to-back meetings. Last year, Collision hosted more than 600 meetings, said Harvey, who called it “sort of speed-dating between startups and investors.”
By hosting the conference, local business leaders hope to shine a spotlight on the city’s decadelong push to diversify its tourism-heavy economy and offer out-of-town entrepreneurs a glimpse at what it’s like running a tech company here. If they like what they see, the thinking goes, officials could convince them to relocate or open an office here.
“Landing this show really puts us into the big time,” said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.
While New Orleans has made recent strides toward building up its fledging tech sector, Schultz said, more work is needed to escape from the shadows of better-known tech cities like Austin, Texas.
To Schultz, chalking up a few big wins, like having five “exits,” in which successful home-grown firms are sold for $100 million or more, would give the city more credibility as larger tech firms consider establishing a local presence.
“All of that is very obtainable if we just keep up the trajectory we’re on,” Schultz said. “That will then really get us to that next level.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.