20 Inspirefest highlights that will make you wish you were still there

8 Jul 2016

The hard-working Caroline Mone and Nisha Rajendraprasad of Silicon Republic find time to relax at the Inspirefest Fringe with social media strategist Darragh Doyle. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

With Inspirefest over for another year, the Silicon Republic team reflects on the most memorable moments from the 2016 event.

Inspirefest 2016 put even more awe-inspiring speakers on the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre stage this year and merged the conference format with culture and fun at the Fringe events in Merrion Square. There were no shortage of highlights during this dazzling three-day event, so here’s just a smattering of them, in a sort-of chronological order.

Inspirefest 2017

The most comical keynote

You could easily tell that game designer and Romero Games co-founder Brenda Romero had consumed four cups of espresso before her keynote, as she announced in her opener. What followed was no turgid industry keynote, and more of a hilarious stand-up routine that shined a very bright light on sexism within the gaming industry.

Two words – ‘jiggle physics’ – triggered fits of laughter while also highlighting how women’s bodies are so sexualised because there are too few women in the industry to say, ‘Hey, that’s not cool’. You’d have to cry if not for Romero giving us all the strength to laugh at the flagrant absurdity.

Brenda Romero, Inspirefest 2016

Game designer Brenda Romero bringing the house down at Inspirefest 2016. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

The social media superstar

On Thursday, one of the most-talked about keynotes came from Sinéad Burke – activist, writer and PhD researcher.

Also known online as Minnie Melange, Burke spoke as part of the social media session, sandwiched between Waking the Feminists founder Lian Bell and Dr Sue Black, author of Saving Bletchley Park.

In a witty and inspiring talk, Burke explained how the internet and social media became a “friend” to her when she wanted to pursue her passion for fashion, and how her blogging has since led to her interviewing fashion designers and Oscar nominees.

“If I could speak to 16-year-old me… and tell her what the internet has done for me, I think she’d be really proud,” she said, as Twitter lit up with positivity.

The lessons in universal design

In an event that wasn’t short on profound statements, a simple, frank and undeniable comment from Judith Williams, global head of diversity at Dropbox, was instantly rendered one of the most memorable, and will no doubt stick with attendees as they return to work – many to design the apps, programs and products of our future.

Speaking about the importance of universal design, Williams referred to something Bryan Bashin, the executive director of Lighthouse for the Blind, said to her: “The ‘people with disabilities’ community – it’s the only minority that we are all one accident away from joining.”

This truth bomb was still ringing in our ears by the time Friday rolled around and Elize Jackson took to the stage to introduce us to the Inclusive Fashion & Design Collective.

Jackson’s concept of neo-universal design seeks to cater to the exception, because bad design is harming those who don’t comply with the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. She taught us about inclusion, warned of the fethishisation of disability, and her powerful lesson ended, suitably, with a cane drop.

The nuggets of networking know-how

Kelly Hoey, an investor with Laconia Capital, found herself being one of the most-quoted speakers at this year’s event, which says a lot given the calibre on show.

The comment that struck a chord with the audience was her twist on a clichéd, but largely true adage, in saying: “It’s not who you know or what you know, but who knows what you know.”

Kelly Hoey, Inspirefest 2016

Kelly Hoey, investor at Laconia Capital, on-stage at Inspirefest 2016. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

Hoey had laid out her three tips for success in business, which emphasised again and again that careers are forged through networking, even if the thought of it sends shivers down your spine. As she so rightfully pointed out, “Networking is every single human interaction,” so why would one instance be such a problem?

Wonder Woman’s grand finale

Closing up Thursday’s talks, the irrepressible Jeanne M Sullivan delivered a powerful treatise on why the experienced economy matters. “I am one of the few female venture capitalists and have been for over 25 years. You can’t use the word ‘retire’ with me,” she declared.

Sullivan also talked about the huge economic opportunity presented by the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado for the US. Then she donned a Wonder Woman outfit.

“I want to fend off the jerks and bozos who stand in our way. I want to take this tiara and take down the walls of stigma. Let’s fight ageism in the workplace, the war on cannabis; go out there and build your fabulous businesses.”

Wonder Woman indeed.

Jeanne M Sullivan, Inspirefest 2016

StarVest Partners founder Jeanne M Sullivan speaking at Inspirefest 2016 – before the Wonder Woman outfit. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

Research’s rising stars

On the first night of Inspirefest Fringe, the inaugural ResearchFest was a resounding success, as eight gifted researchers spent three minutes each presenting their research to a packed tent in Merrion Square Park.

With topics ranging from biomedical engineering and bioinformatics, to pain management and electronic engineering, the researchers’ training from SNP Communications really shone through as all participants gave concise and insightful presentations.

Taking the crown on the night was Dublin City University School of Electronic Engineering researcher Shauna Flynn, whose presentation on using block copolymers to build more transistors into a silicon substrate to further the progress of Moore’s Law impressed both the judges and the audience.

Echo Brown’s powerful performance

Another fantastic act at the Inspirefest Fringe, Echo Brown brought her one-woman show, Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters, to the stage on Thursday evening.

The audience was immediately captivated by Brown’s talent, comic timing and brutal honesty. Pivoting from moments of genuine, cutting comedy – skewering the white experience of black culture, among many other things – to darkness and pain, and back again, the strength of her performance was undeniable.

Brown’s ability to have an audience laughing and dancing one moment, and bring them to the brink of tears in a quiet, serious moment the next was impressive, and brought the crowd resoundingly to their feet at the end of her powerhouse performance.

Astia’s Venture Showcase

The cream of both international and local Dublin investor circles was in the room at Friday’s Astia Venture Showcase, held right alongside the main event in Accenture’s Grand Canal offices.

The four start-ups presenting did not disappoint. Rowan Gardner’s Oxford-based Ozo Innovation is developing technologies that make food processing more hygienic. Vicky Brock’s Glasgow-based Clear Return helps retailers retain profits and avoid losses from returned goods. Diane Janknegt’s Amsterdam-based WizeNoze search engine unearths child-appropriate content and can determine a person’s reading ability. And, finally, Dubliner Santina Doherty’s Unravel Analytics is a QA tool for tagging, saving businesses a fortune on lost opportunities in online marketing.

The stats that pulled you up short

Some of what we learned from Inspirefest was what we already knew deep down, but it took someone else saying it for it to really sink in. Other lessons were a little more surprising.

One of those moments came from Dr Charlotte Blease, research fellow at the University of Leeds. “If we think that medical appointments are simple, we’d be wrong,” said Blease. “Medical error and wrong diagnosis is the third-biggest killer in the US.”

Dr Charlotte Blease, Inspirefest 2016

Dr Charlotte Blease delivers her keynote address at Inspirefest 2016. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

This mind-blowing fact came in the middle of Blease’s keynote, gleaned from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report published earlier this year in The BMJ. This single statistic really brought into perspective the trust we put in medical professionals, and how much we really need them to know what they’re doing.

The incredible Irish research

During the medtech session on Friday, Tyndall National Institute’s Lisa Helen gave a keynote on her pioneering smart needle, and how she’s developing a parking sensor for surgeons. Taking us step-by-step through the whys and the hows behind the smart needle, Helen’s talk was gripping, fun and all-round enjoyable.

The subject of a previous in-depth article on Siliconrepublic.com, Helen showcased just how successful Irish researchers have become, and why the Irish Research Council is working hard to spread the love for Irish research.

Lisa Helen, Inspirefest 2016

Lisa Helen, PhD researcher at Tyndall National Institute, talks us through her smart needle research. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

The child prodigies

On Friday afternoon, the Future Leaders session saw Ann O’Dea sit down with Outbox Incubator co-founder Mary Carty and alumni Niamh Scanlon, Edel Browne, Vanessa Greene and Elle Loughran.

During this lightning-quick exchange the audience found out that this fearless foursome are listing new achievements by the day, with Scanlon’s fingertips all over two fine apps, in particular. The first is her e-car charge point monitor that we have looked at before. The second, though, is a great concept for journalists, providing a service to send and receive questions to sources with the capacity for text, audio or video content to be sent on the fly.

Greene’s Echoing Stem vlog, Loughran’s role with the British Science Association and Browne’s Free Feet project were also stand-out examples that the next generation of sci-tech has a lot to offer.

The emotional standing ovation

“Hi, my name is Karla. It wasn’t always, but it is now.”

So began the gripping keynote from trans woman Karla O’Brien, a computer science student at University College Dublin. Taking us from her ‘peak’ in 1994 when she was named the ‘Johnson & Johnson Baby of the Year’, right through to her surprise at being able to stand in front of an auditorium as the centre of attention, O’Brien’s story of struggle and success through her formative years ended with the audience on its feet for a standing ovation, and many had tears in their eyes.

The happy ending

Dr Maureen Gaffney was the final speaker at Inspirefest, delving into the science of happiness with some valuable information and a few brilliant one-liners to take away. None more so than the remind that, “We’re all fish swimming around in the same water, our happiness affects everybody else.”

With bouts of humour and a focused series of concise life advice, it was a fine way to sign off the main event.

Dr Maureen Gaffney, Inspirefest 2016

Dr Maureen Gaffney, psychologist and author of ‘Flourishing’, presenting the final Inspirefest keynote. Photo via Conor McCabe Photography

The amazing, tireless and generous volunteers

We can’t personally thank every one of the 90-some volunteers who kept Inspirefest going for three full days here but, as a collective, we are eternally grateful to them for their generosity of spirit and dedication to the event.

In just one shining example from behind the scenes, a volunteer at the VIP desk came to the rescue of speaker Carrie Hammer, who was without the right shoes for her presentation thanks to some lost luggage. Having overheard that Hammer was on the hunt for some size-five heels, this volunteer sped off home in a taxi to fetch a pair in time. In fact, she had first offered to cycle all the way!

You truly went above and beyond, Mary. We salute you!

The omnipresent Lottie dolls

There were many popular women at Inspirefest, but it’s safe to say the most beloved ladies at the event were of the small, plastic variety. They were, of course, the Lottie Dolls from Irish company Arklu that were given to each speaker at the event.

Filmmaker Elena Rossini was so inspired when she received a Lottie doll at Inspirefest 2015 that she went on to make a film about six-year-old Abigail – the inspiration behind Stargazer Lottie – and Lottie’s trip to the International Space Station, which she screened on her return to the festival this year.

The deals done and connections made

One of the key developments to emerge at this year’s Inspirefest was the growing number of venture capital deals that may be in the pipeline as investors got to mingle with researchers and entrepreneurs.

While investor and angel interest was piqued at the Astia showcase, there is evidence that many more relationships were kindled at Inspirefest.

“For me it was particularly gratifying to see the relationships and connections that were built behind the scenes at Inspirefest,” said event founder Ann O’Dea. “I’m particularly excited about stories I’m hearing about researchers and entrepreneurs getting access to funding, thanks to introductions made at the event.”

The Women On Walls photobooth

Accenture Ireland brought its Women on Walls initiative to the Inspirefest Fringe, setting up a booth for attendees to take photos of themselves (aided with some colourful props), as well as giving people the opportunity to suggest the women they think should be ‘on walls’ around the world.

Women on Walls aims to inspire greater visibility of women on walls around the world – and we definitely think many of the Inspirefest speakers would be worthy of inclusion in the list of suggestions. The interactive display at the Fringe was a resounding success, with several of the trend-setting speakers enjoying the photobooth fun.

All the food!

We’re big, big fans of food at Silicon Republic Towers, and Inspirefest really spoiled us.

Lunchboxes catering to an array of tastes and diets were provided for attendees from quality-of-life services company Sodexo Ireland, packed to the rafters with drool-worthy (and healthy) goodies.

The best part – better, even, than the food itself – was knowing that Sodexo would be giving all leftover boxes to FoodCloud, which redistributed them to humanitarian agency CARE.

Beyond the lunches, the amazing food stretched over to the Fringe – where food trucks from Dave’s Pizza and Market Daisy proffered their wares – and the event after-party at House.

Inspirefest, our tastebuds thank you.

The House party

Escaping from the cold that enveloped the end of the Friday Fringe festival, attendees hopped on a bus for the after-party at House on Leeson Street, kindly hosted by Dropbox.

Once inside, a glass of Prosecco in hand, it didn’t take long for the first attempts at dancing – both good and not-so-good – to commence. It certainly didn’t take long for the VIP area to quickly spill out onto the dancefloor for Inspirefest’s very own DJ, and the partying continued until the wee hours.

House, Leeson Street

House on Leeson Street, Dublin

The fun-packed Family Fringe

After two days and nights of the Inspirefest conference and Fringe festival, the Family Fringe opened to the public on Saturday, inviting old and young alike to engage with all that STEAM has to offer.

Even for those who didn’t manage to secure a place at the in-demand workshops from GameCraft, Girls Hack Ireland, Coding Grace and CoderDojo, there was lots to explore, including interactive displays from Tog, Connect, Trinity Walton Club, Mint Tek Circuits and Dublin Maker, and entertainment from Physics Buskers.

The heart and soul of the Family Fringe event – the Irish maker community – was well represented with muppets and puppets from Props Factory, incredible origami virus sculptures and more papercraft creations from PaperPetShop, providing the public with just a taste of what will be on offer at the upcoming, and much-anticipated, Dublin Maker later this month.

Getting star-struck

While Inspirefest is all about shining a light on the people who don’t usually get to speak at events, it was hard not to get a little star-struck by some of the more familiar faces who turned up.

Singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan headlined the final night of the Fringe while Irish soccer star Stephanie Roche – responsible for that goal – was also on-hand as Sodexo’s wellbeing ambassador. Safe to say, there were some excited Silicon Republic employees who finally got to meet some of their idols.

Lisa Hannigan, Inspirefest Fringe 2016

Lisa Hannigan, centre, meets some of the Silicon Republic team

Inspired by speakers talking about the power of social media, we also set about using Twitter to help Accenture team member Claire Carroll meet her career idol, Kara Swisher – and succeeded!

A spectrum of STEM through the lens of inclusion

All these stories – and many more from Inspirefest 2016 – simply skim the surface of the experience, which orchestrates a multi-disciplinary merger between science, technology and into the arts.

Inspirefest’s efforts shine a light on science, technology, engineering, arts and maths through the prism of inclusion resulted in a rainbow effect – literally, as those leaving the theatre on Friday noted.

With this event, the full spectrum of STEAM’s potential and impacts beyond the commercial business world are explored, and we are proud to have taken part.

And those are just our team’s takeaways from the event. Check out what some of the Inspirefest delegates had to say in the video below.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM.