Austin’s annual SXSW music, arts and tech festival officially kicked off today, and it’s already clear that there’s going to be at least one central focus for the show: The ongoing collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and its repercussions.
I arrived on the ground this morning, and overheard people talking about it on my flight from Toronto (filled with entrepreneurs, Shopify employees and some investors); had one person ask me about it on the street without prompting (the only person I stopped and talked to on the street); and heard it discussed first as the crowd babble and then as the first topic on a panel called “A Dog’s Life: Longevity Science Gets Serious” about extending the lifespan of dogs via advances in biological sciences.
That panel, featuring The Longevity Fund’s Laura Deming and Loyal’s Celine Halioua, and moderated by The Atlantic’s Andrea Valdez, kicked off with Deming apologizing to the audience in advance for being slightly distracted because she was “just waiting on a wire to transfer [her fund’s] money out” as she checked her phone. She then proceeded to look at her phone whenever she wasn’t actively being asked a question.
Halioua followed that immediately by commiserating with her investor, saying “all morning we have been trying to figure out where the fuck to put our money.” She later also joked that the innovations her company is developing stand to “compound over time, just like the interest that I will no longer be getting on my bank deposits,” which rightly earned laughs from the crowd. Halioua wasn’t glued to her phone: She was looking down at her Apple Watch without interruption instead.
Note that neither actually even had funds with SVB directly – they were just concerned their banking institutions might suffer knock-on effects.
Valdez did ask a question about the impact of the SVB collapse to kick off the panel after both panelists volunteered their own remarks, and Deming noted that in case the audience wasn’t aware, this was effectively “the worst banking crisis since 2008” in terms of the startup world.
If you’ve attended tech and startup conferences in the past, you know that panelists generally never have their devices out on stage, nor are they usually actively checking them if for some reason they do. That, combined with the nervous laughter both investor and founder delivered their half-jokes with, were truly remarkable to watch.
Before the session even started, different groups both in front and to my right were talking about SVB, with varying levels of familiarity with the situation. While you may think it’s early to call this as the talk of the show — watching that kind of candid anxiety onstage from established startup industry players, and hearing the general buzz and tension from everyone else in the room, makes it clear that this year’s SXSW won’t be about anything it probably intended to focus on.