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Recapping the Best of SXSW 2023: Highlights and Insights

SPARK panel discussion at Midwest House with crowd

South by Southwest (SXSW) is an annual conference and festival in Austin, Texas, that brings together a diverse range of professionals from various industries, including music, film, technology, and entrepreneurship. The event allows attendees to network, learn from thought leaders, and experience new ideas and innovations. 

Midwest House

Midwest House on Rainey Street with crowd gathered

Midwest House took over Half Step on Rainey, showcasing the innovative spirit and talent of the Midwest region. The five-day event featured a range of music acts, pitch contests, and panels designed to highlight the unique qualities and contributions of Midwest entrepreneurs, investors, and creatives. Midwest House overall had a strong Michigan contingent in attendance, providing a platform for networking, collaborations, and partnerships with other entrepreneurs, investors, and economic development organizations. Some of the topics covered at Midwest House included the future of mobility, the intersection of healthcare and technology, and the role of sustainability in business. 

Ann Arbor SPARK co-sponsored Michigan Day at Midwest House on March 13 to showcase the innovation and R&D ecosystem of the Ann Arbor region to a national and international audience, highlighting our region’s strengths in areas such as mobility, life sciences, and technology. SPARK hosted a panel with:

  • Mike Psarouthakis, University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships;
  • Tom Duensing, Head of Product Development LPS Division, Sartorius;
  • Roger Peene, Vice President, Product and Business Development, MemryX;
  • Kim Brown, Senior Director of Marketing, Blumira; 
  • and moderator Margarita Hernandez of Ann Arbor SPARK.

The discussion explored the importance of partnerships with academic institutions, private corporations, and economic development hubs in creating an environment where startups, venture capitalists, and a range of talent can thrive. The panelists also addressed key resources currently in place to support R&D developments and discuss challenges in creating a sustainable innovation ecosystem.

Kudos to SPARK startup client Shantonio Birch, who won the student pitch competition for his company ThermoVERSE, which focuses on pioneering technology that will deliver cost-effective heating and cooling energy retrofits so that low-to-middle income (LMI) housing property managers can reap the benefits of an energy efficiency (or building code) upgrade without having to open up the walls. 

Themes of SXSW 

Global Networking

Opportunities to meet interesting people in “organic” ways are harder and harder to come by, but SXSW is one of the best places to do that. It’s difficult to go to SXSW with a pre-set idea of what will happen, who you’ll meet, or what you’ll see. You just need to go and be open to learning. 

SXSW networking opportunities for attendees are vast and can be overwhelming. From interactive sessions, meet-ups, mentor sessions, exhibits, pitch competitions, live music, great food, and parties, SXSW provides a wealth of opportunities for attendees to connect with others, build relationships, and advance their careers and businesses.

One of the unique aspects of SXSW is its global focus. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with peers from around the world, learn about innovation in different countries, and pitch their own ideas. International attendance was alive and well at pre-Covid levels. The ability to visit activations like the UK Music Embassy, The Australia House, and The Near East EU House, and engage with peers in the global innovation industry was very productive. For example, SPARK was able to pitch Ann Arbor as a place to locate a business and take advantage of a deep well of talent in front of a globally diverse audience. (Great job, Bill!)

The importance of building a network, especially for people under-represented in our current environment, was a key takeaway. Phil Santer, SPARK’s SVP and chief of staff, had a chance to attend sessions hosted by Black Women on Boards, a nonprofit dedicated to providing paths for black women to serve on publicly traded boards, and the experience of people transitioning to a new gender work in traditionally conservative industries (like banking). The importance of the network was clearer than ever — making connections and helping expand who people know and can work with was central in both discussions.

AI: Artificial Intelligence

SXSW is known for showcasing cutting-edge technologies and this year was no exception. AI was a big theme of the event, with many companies showcasing their innovative uses of the technology. 

One example was Amper Music, which has developed an AI-powered platform that enables users to create custom music tracks without any prior musical knowledge. Another example was Modulate, which has created an AI-powered voice modulation technology that allows users to change the sound of their voice in real-time, opening up new possibilities for entertainment and gaming applications. Other innovative uses of AI showcased at SXSW included chatbots for mental health support, AI-powered skincare analysis, and predictive analytics for sports betting. 

These examples demonstrate the vast potential of AI technology and the exciting possibilities for its application across various industries. There was some optimism around being able to use AI as a way to “break out” of our own way of thinking, of using AI intentionally to get us outside of our comfort zones and think about new things. If nothing else, it can help us innovate ways to do work going forward.


Diversity was also a big topic of discussion at SXSW, with many sessions and panels focusing on how to improve representation in various industries. The need for more diverse representation in marketing was also discussed, with panels exploring strategies for effectively reaching diverse audiences without alienating them. A few sessions specifically focused on how to address bias in AI, as AI systems can perpetuate and amplify existing biases if not designed and trained carefully. Overall, SXSW showcased a growing awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and a desire to improve representation across all industries.


There were several sessions at SXSW that focused on marketing, including social science and behavioral science. One session, “The New Era of B2B Marketing: How Behavioral Science is Transforming the Industry,” explored how companies can use behavioral science to create more effective marketing strategies. Another, “How AI is Revolutionizing Social Science Research,” focused on how artificial intelligence is being used to better understand consumer behavior and create more targeted marketing campaigns. Additionally, “How Social Science Can Help Make Better Products” discussed the importance of understanding human behavior and psychology when designing and marketing products. These sessions highlighted the growing trend of using social and behavioral science in marketing and emphasized the importance of understanding consumer behavior to create effective marketing campaigns.


Mobility discussions at SXSW were grounded in practical near-term innovation, much like CES. While autonomy and V2V/V2I technologies remained a central focus, incremental innovation was emphasized, rather than the pie-in-the-sky vision of fully autonomous level 5 robo taxis replacing car ownership within a year or two. The sessions also focused on trucking and aerial mobility.


In a departure from recent years at SXSW, event titles did not include Blockchain and Crypto. Instead, the new buzzword was Web3. While the concept of a completely democratized and decentralized internet is to be appreciated, the current reality of the crypto industry raises some concerns. Although blockchain technology remains relevant, it is now seen as an enabling technology rather than the main focus of the larger Web3 value proposition.

In conclusion, SXSW 2023 provided a unique platform for innovation, collaboration, and inspiration across various industries. It was an opportunity for entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders to connect, learn, and discover the latest trends and technologies shaping the future. From the diversity-focused sessions to the marketing and AI-related discussions, there was something for everyone. Ann Arbor SPARK’s participation in Midwest House and its networking efforts further demonstrated our commitment to supporting and growing the tech ecosystem in our region. 

Overall, the event served as a reminder that innovation is constantly evolving, and it is up to us to stay informed, connected, and adaptable in order to thrive in this ever-changing landscape.