It is that time of year again – it is SXSW time.  I first attended SXSW in 2015.  It was so impactful I had a mini epiphany and quit my job the day I got back into the office.  My first SXSW was truly amazing and I saw some of the most inspirational tech innovations.  It reaffirmed my passion for innovation and digital technology in healthcare.  It put me on the path that I am on now as an independent consultant specialising in this field.  I returned to SXSW the following year and again in 2017.  I would have gone again this year … but Covid stopped that.  Instead I have been participating in virtual SXSW, which is better than nothing.

As always at SXSW there are some really interesting presentations.  Yesterday I listened to Brian Kerry and James Cameron talking about their new film about whales.  It was beautiful but also depressing stuff.  The damage and degradation our oceans, and their residents, face is appalling.  What we as a species are doing to this planet is the biggest crime and travesty.  Some of the other presentations I attended touched on the post-Covid world and some of the changes we will hopefully see implemented.  With more availability of home working there could be a reduction in travel pollution and a greater respect for the outdoors.  Let’s hope!


Another presentation I watched was Tim Ellis from Relativity Space talk about using 3D printing in space exploration.  It was amazing to hear that they can now build a fuselage in thirty days using 3D printing.  It used to take a year!  What was also interesting was his discussion on using 3D printing to build on Mars.  He speculated that we might see up to a million people living on Mars.  At the rate humanity is expanding though that is not going to be enough.

SXSW tweet

I heard more space talk from former NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar.  She shared some pretty amazing information about Mars too.  Apparently the plan is to get a human to Mars by 2035.  She did caveat that with “that might be pushed back” due to delays.  To hear her speak about seeing the aurora borealis from space for me was a reminder of just how amazing this planet is.  It also was a reminder for me that we should always dream big!

What would SXSW be without VR?  Combing with VR with NASA and space to seems like a match made in heaven!  In fact this year’s SXSW seems to be full of NASA astronauts.  Nasa’s Dr Jessica Meir shared her experience in space – and how it felt like home.  What was great was then to hear how they filmed for VR in space!  The result is an amazing sounding ISS VR experience.  I’m kicking myself that my VR headset is still in storage … perhaps it’s time to upgrade to the new Oculus.



Working in healthcare I had to watch some of the healthcare streams.  To be honest I am always a bit disappointed with many of the pharma presentations at SXSW.  There is some very cool medtech but rarely coming from pharma.  This year was no different.  There were however some quite inspirational presentations that really resonated with me.

Brian Solis shared some great points as part of his panel discussion.  I think one of my favourite quotes was “we talk about the patient experience but we don’t put them at the centre”.  This is so true.  I also loved how he called out that the pharma industry is rigid and needs to change.  As a patient and someone who has worked in the industry for over twenty years I could not agree more.

SXSW tweet

Many of my issues with the industry come down to this rigidity and “we can’t do” mentality.  What came out in some of the other health presentations was the fact that “yes you can”.  Covid has been a game changer.  It has driven change that should have happened years ago.  It was really quite sad hearing BMS talking about how they’ve moved all the patient advocacy online.  Well done … but surely most of this should already have been online?

A presentation around how patient centricity reduces health inequality talked about the digitisation of clinical trials.  It was interesting to hear the presenters talk about how they were able to move a large amount of the traditional trial set up, such as consent, online.  They mentioned how this new set up, of essentially taking the trial to patients in their home rather than patients traveling to trial centres, opens up the trial to a more diverse population.

Again though listening to this presentation I felt that these are all things that digital experts like myself have been flagging for years.  Clinical trials by their nature should be diverse.  Geographic barriers are an age old issue with clinical trials, particularly trying to reach certain populations groups.  Using technology to get rid of geographic, and other barriers, is very doable and a no-brainer.

What was interesting was to see GSK presenting some of the things they have been doing.  I saw GSK present a few years back at SXSW on the same topic.  I was impressed back then about how they were pioneering remote trials.  My gut feel is this ended up being a great strategy and positioned them well to deal with COVID’s reality.

Future trends

The final presentation I saw though gave me that good old #SXSW buzz.  Amy Webb from the Future Today Institute spoke about emerging trends for 2021.  Here was the innovation and cool tech I had been craving!  Unfortunately by the time I was watching this I had mild concussion (not SXSW related!) so I cannot remember everything brilliantly!  I do recall though her talking about the internet of you (or something of that ilk) and the concept of how we as individuals will be connected.  There was also mentions of evolutions in healthcare, such as a toilet that does a health check each time you use it.

Her conclusion however was a stark warning for the future.  We are heading into a time where our laws do not cover new issues emerging due to tech.  She gave the example of watermarking DNA and the evolution of deep fakes being used for crime.  She also flagged the growing digital health and societal divide.  All these new innovations will be great for the wealthy.  The poor however face a potential “big brother” future where if they want access to things they have to sacrifice their freedoms.  What was once the domain of science fiction is now dangerously close.

I could write so  much more about SXSW but this post is already far too long.  I would suggest having a look at some of the health presentations available online and the Future Today Institute reports.  It was great to be able to attend virtually.  It certainly had its benefits – I attended some sessions from the bath!  However it really did not compare to being there in person.  Fingers crossed I will attend again next year.

Virtual SXSW


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