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Slush 2023: Day 1 unveils AI dominance, tech downturn dynamics, and push for diversity in Europe

Picture credit: Slush Flickr

Once a modest gathering of like-minded individuals, Slush has evolved into a vibrant array of exciting events scattered across Helsinki. Taking place at the Helsinki Expo and Convention Center from Nov 30 to Dec 1, 2023, Slush 2023 promises an exhilarating two-day event encompassing stage programs, over 300 side events, mentoring sessions, meetings, and vibrant afterparties. 

With a distinguished lineup of speakers, featuring successful founders, world-class investors, and influential figures in the startup and tech arena, the event is poised to be a melting pot of innovation and inspiration. Slush 2023 is definitely a focal point for those seeking to champion the next generation of exceptional founders. This year, TFN did a collab with Antler and is bringing exclusive coverage directly from the Nordic grounds, providing a firsthand look at the unfolding events. So let’s check out how the first day went:

The Year of AI

As the first day of Slush draws to a close, one thing is clear. For the thousands of founders and investors that have descended on the Finnish capital, 2023 is the Year of AI. 

AI has been the dominant theme on stage, in the investor lounge and media interviews. The two busiest talks on the Founder Stage – Slush’s biggest space – were by Lightspeed Venture Partner’s interview with Mistral co-founder Arthur Mensch and Thrive Capital’s interview with Romain Huet, the Head of Developer Experience at OpenAI. 

We may not yet be living in a world where AI has reached its full potential, but AI startups are definitely the new celebrities of the Slush agenda. 

The industry is still trying to make sense of the OpenAI drama, hoping that players closer to home like Mistral will pioneer the technology in Europe and asking what use cases and business applications will eventually turn the hype into reality. Every founder that we have spoken to has been keen to prove their AI credentials and ensure investors that machine learning is at the heart of their product or platform.

Beyond AI – Navigating the Downturn

However, the majority of the content across Slush’s four stages on Day One actually focused on practical advice for founders navigating the ongoing tech downturn. Scaling companies, overcoming hurdles on growth journeys, global expansion and driving customer acquisition were the topics discussed by some of Europe’s unicorn founders and largest VC firms. 

Look past the excitement around AI and, a close second, climatetech, and there was a strong sense of founders still battling through the downturn and challenging funding environment. 

The main stage discussions and the conversations in the founder and investor lounges reflected a sentiment that times are tough, but whilst the downturn is set to continue into 2024, there is a cautious sense of optimism. 

As we heard today, and know first hand from the thousands of founders Antler works with every year, the downturn has been a brutal training ground for founders, but a relentless focus on revenue, traction and costs will ultimately create stronger and better tech companies. The founders that we met today have proved they can survive in this environment, and they are ready to grow when the market starts to recover. 

As Atomico’s Tom Wehmeier explained in his presentation of this year’s State of European Tech report, the value of deals in European tech is still down but we are seeing positive indicators of change. Record levels of talent, the resilience of early stage and new founders emerging from successful tech scaleups (the flywheel effect finally having an impact) were our key takeaways from the presentation and they suggest the foundations are in place for a strong recovery towards the end of next year. 

Diversity and Inclusion in Europe’s Startup Ecosystem

This year, the Slush team have clearly worked hard to ensure greater representation for women across all stages and the attendees seemed more diverse than in previous years.

However, the need for more diversity and inclusion across the European founder and VC ecosystem was another hot topic of conversation. 

Antler’s Sarah Finegan hosted a roundtable for VCs about steps VCs can take to introduce more effective inclusion strategies and there is a growing sense of the need for more action in the industry. 

Helsinki’s Biggest Party of the Year

Of course, founders and investors come to Slush for the famous after parties just as much as the stage agendas. Sequoia’s Slush Party was the highlight of the Day 0 events, and the hot tickets for Day One are the drinks hosted by Northzone and the legendary Backed VC party, which this year had more than 1,300 on the waiting list. 

For those that brave the sub-zero conditions, the evening events are often where the real networking and dealmaking takes place, and this year has been no different. 

The Slush Cultural Phenomenon Continues

There’s no doubt that Slush has become a cultural phenomenon and the calibre of speakers, founders and investors in attendance is now unrivaled in the European tech conference calendar. All the more impressive considering Slush still maintains its roots as a student project and training ground for young talent. 

Day Two brings more unicorn founders and high profile VCs, the unveiling of Slush’s prestigious Startup 100 Award and Antler’s Investor Office Hours session for aspiring founders. 

Stay tuned to Tech Funding News for more exclusive coverage at Slush 2023, courtesy Antler’s team including Livia Moore, Antti Tormanen and Sarah Finegan.

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