What can possibly attract over 13,000 technology enthusiasts from all over the world to Finland to enjoy temperatures of 10 below zero and 6 hours of sunlight? Slush, of course!
Nestled in the heart of Helsinki, the annual technology gathering once again emerged as a beacon of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit amid the winter darkness attracting more than 5,000 companies and 2,000 investors to one of the largest conferences in the venture capital calendar.
The essence of Slush was crystal clear to anyone entering the venue through a gigantic “Find it, Found it, Fund it” banner at the entrance. A completely non-profit organization run by 1,500 volunteers, Slush exists primarily to facilitate meetings between founders and investors. Its matchmaking tool reportedly surpassed over 100,000 meeting requests this year. As one prominent global investor observed, “There are a lot of good conferences, but Slush is in a category of its own.”
There was certainly no shortage of exciting cybersecurity companies looking to build more digital resilience in the world. The Paladin team had over 20 meetings each, ranging from early stage startups seeking financing to get their products to market to more mature cyber firms seeking a partner for doubling down on the market opportunity ahead.
There was a fantastic amount of geographical diversity too. Plexal’s Cyber Runway, the largest cyber startup accelerator in the UK operating under the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, sent 12 of their companies to get those firms in front of VCs. Enterprise Ireland also had its own large booth.
It wouldn’t be a conference in the time of AI without every corridor of the dimly lit exhibition hall bustling with discussion around machine learning. This was exemplified in one of the most popular talks during the conference with the interviews of Arthur Mensch, the co-founder of Mistral, the French AI startup developing open models that just raised a huge $415M round on top of $113M raised in June, and with Romain Huet, the Head of Developer Experience at OpenAI.
One thing that became clear during the discussions is that while European startups in the sector are optimistic about addressing the challenges inherent in AI, they are wary of the impact of regulation on innovation, starting with the European Union’s AI Act agreed just last Friday. These misgivings were shared by Mistral’s Arthur Mensch. From the audience’s comments, it seems that the European Union has a job on its hands balancing startups’ aspirations of becoming technological leaders in AI with the essential task of preserving security, privacy and ethics.
Despite a difficult year in the markets, the vibe at the conference was upbeat. Some companies had raised a lot of money when the environment was more lenient but were still keen to form new relationships albeit with less firm timelines on any new fundraising processes. The ones with less full coffers had a more prudent mindset acknowledging the need to do more with less.
“Durability takes precedence over growth at all costs,” said the Slush CEO Eerika Savolainen in her opening speech. Indeed, many companies Paladin met were actually running profitable operations already, or at least had that profitability in their near-term sights – a change from a few years back. This was reflected in the dozen or so talks with well-known executives on best practices in building resilient businesses, as well as the lack of flashy booths from the hypergrowth companies that used to fill the venue in previous years…now replaced by established Fortune 500 firms.
Paladin also took this opportunity to meet with the Finnish Information Security Cluster – an organization more relevant than ever with NATO’s eastern flank country now formally in the alliance. FISC, with its 80 members in the cybersecurity space, aims to increase cross-border activities, promote public-private-partnerships, conduct market surveys, enable national depth and width of high-level education, and enhance dialogue with national and international regulatory bodies. There is a lot of overlap between the missions of Paladin and FISC and we look forward to cultivating the relationship in future.
Slush has certainly solidified itself as one of the most anticipated events in technology and cyber and this year was no different. The caliber of speakers, investors and founders Slush continues to attract is phenomenal. We will certainly be back next year and hope that the economic winds will be blowing more warmly than the Finnish winter for founders in tech and cyber.