Page last updated at 12:29 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

UK firms head to hi-tech festival

By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, Texas

Texas, Eyewire
SXSW Interactive grew out of the original music and film festivals

A Digital Mission of 34 British web companies is heading to Austin, Texas, for the annual South by South West (SXSW) Festival.

Backed by UK Trade and Investment, the companies have been chosen to fly the flag as the best of British digital enterprise.

Sam Michel, from the agency Chinwag which is organising the mission, said: "They are looking to expand their business, find partners and get investment in the US."

More than 10,000 web developers from around the world are expected at the festival, which starts on Friday.

Wide range

The Digital Mission will boast one of the largest stands at the festival, at which the latest web technologies from the UK will be demonstrated.

The 30 companies were chosen to travel to Austin from more than 100 small to medium enterprises.

They include businesses which range from a recommendation engine company (The Filter), to a music-streaming service (We7), personalised TV online (Vizimo), digital marketing agencies, social media firms and a cross-world gaming social network (Myrl).

People come for the panels but they return for the conversations between the sessions.
Darren Waters, Technology editor, BBC News website

Mr Michel said: "The UK has a dynamic digital sector and we were spoiled for choice."

This year the festival takes place against the backdrop of a global downturn but, said Mr Michel, the recession could have a positive impact on the global web industry.

"The effect of larger digital players laying off people is pushing some of the best minds in the business to explore new ideas.

"Large corporations are not necessarily an interesting place to be right now."

Hugh Forrest, the director of South by South West Interactive, agreed: "Despite the recession we've actually had a big year of growth, with registrations up.

"There's a lot of vibrancy in this economy. For better or worse doing SXSW, we have seen downturns before.

"The mood is a little more sombre but when people are together and sharing creative ideas it tends to brighten things up."

He added: "The last big slump in this industry was right after 9/11 and I always think it creates a pretty straight line from people being unemployed to having more time to innovate and come up with news ideas.

"People are looking at their business and opportunities differently and are developing new ideas."

Music man

One of the British firms travelling as part of the Digital Mission is, a recommendation engine and website whose backers include musician Peter Gabriel.

David Maher-Roberts of explains how it works

David Maher-Roberts, chief executive of TheFilter, said small companies were feeling the downturn.

He said: "We had to work harder to raise the round of investment we closed last month than it would have been a year ago. And we have to be incredibly careful on costs."

Mr Maher-Roberts said being part of the Digital Mission would help raise his company's profile out in the US.

"When you deal with digital entertainment companies in the US they are fairly West Coast-centric and if you are not there you have to stand out from the crowd if they are going to take any notice of you whatsoever."

TheFilter has two sides to its business - a recommendation engine which it licenses to partners, such as Nokia, and a destination website that it uses to showcase its technology and act as a playground for new features.

"A lot of people are doing music recommendations, it's a very busy space. A lot fewer doing video and very, very few are doing recommendations across any form of digital entertainment - it's what makes us unique."

More than 20 million people use TheFilter's technology every month.

"I've seen an absolute change in the last six months when talking to executives in e-commerce or media. They used to think recommendation engines were a nice thing to have for users, now they see it as absolutely essential," he said.

Better business

TheFilter is optimistic about the future, despite the recession.

"Our priorities are to further increase our number of partnerships - we currently have really partners in music and video.

Man using mobile and iPod, BBC
TheFilter helps people make more of mobile music

"Our main priority is that we will break even in the next six to 12 months so we can put our own future in our own hands."

This year's conference sees a strong presence from global players such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, as well as a plethora of start-ups and smaller players.

On the agenda are more than 350 talks about the future of the web, mobile and interactivity, including design, the future of user interfaces, video games, advertising online, and tips for getting investors on board a start-up.

SXSW has been one of the crucibles for web design, social networking and blogging, both professionally and personally, over the last few years.

Twitter hit its tipping point as a credible service among technophiles at SXSW two years ago.

The Interactive festival is one part of a wider celebration of film and music, and SXSW has become well-known as a launching pad for artists and bands.

The digital conference grew out of the original music and film festivals.

Mr Forrest explained: "Back when we started we were focusing on CD-Roms and what you could do there, and then segued to the internet.

"We were fortunate to become the epicentre of the blogging movement."

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