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Washington Post: SXSW Interactive now part tech showcase, part lobbying forum

AUSTIN, Texas — Every spring, thousands of entrepreneurs, innovators and investors and descend on this state capital for the annual South by Southwest technology convention. Over the past few years, SXSW Interactive has become a draw for federal policymakers, too, including prominent administration officials and members of Congress, many of them looking to build a reputation as a supporter — or even a member — of the tech community.

The result is one of the few face-to-face collisions each year between Silicon Valley and Washington, in which hundreds of entrepreneurs and dozens of politicians find themselves in the same place at the same time. That presents a unique opportunity for organizations that represent the policy interests of entrepreneurs and innovators — and many are making every effort to capitalize, turning the event’s opening week into part technology showcase, part lobbying forum.

“It’s clear from the interactions you see that this is becoming the place for that kind of communication,” Evan Engstrom, policy director at Engine Advocacy, a research and advocacy group based in San Francisco, said during an interview here. “It’s a perfect storm of having a bunch of innovators and entrepreneurs coming together in one place, as well as this concerted push from policymakers and elected officials to come down.”

It’s that first part that’s most important, he said. While large technology firms have the resources required for more traditional lobbying efforts in Washington, small and new ventures must generally rely on strength in numbers to have their voices heard on Capitol Hill.

Convening those companies is often difficult, as tech startups are being built in pockets in every corner of the country. With many flocking to Austin, groups like Engine can gather scores of them into one room — or, as is often the case at the festival, one bar — to both solicit support for their current lobbying battles and discover new fights they should consider taking up.

Being able to lure Washington’s decision-makers to the meetings only sweetens the deal.

“Once they’re here, it’s frankly not hard to get policymakers to come to out to our events and pay attention to startups, because they see it as a unique opportunity, too, to meet with some of the innovators they don’t normally get to see,” Engstrom said.

It’s a relatively new component of South by Southwest, according to Amy Millman, who made her fifth straight trip to the festival this year. Millman runs Springboard Enterprises, a nonprofit advocacy group for women-led businesses based in Washington. She said “it’s really in the past two or three years” that the event has become a magnet for state and federal government officials. “It’s about time,” she added.

“We go to a lot of these events, but I can’t think of any” that now bring together as many entrepreneurs and policymakers, Millman said. The only one that perhaps rivals it, Millman and Engstrom agreed, is the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

This year, SXSW Interactive attracted Obama administration officials such as Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. The delegation from Capitol Hill included Reps. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Will Hurd, R-Texas, Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., as well as Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the latter of whom made his fourth consecutive visit to the conference.

“We have seen a change over time, in which tech has become front and center,” Moran said during a forum titled “Politics of Innovation: DC, Tech Working Together.” In part, that’s because there are pockets of tech startups now bubbling up in districts across the country, he said. It’s also the result of more lawmakers making trips to events like South by Southwest and the Consumer Electronics Show, he added.

“It’s a conversation that wasn’t happening five years ago,” Moran said.

Hurd echoed that same sentiment during an event the following day.

“A number of my colleagues have come down this year, and many of them didn’t even know what South by Southwest was before,” he said. “What’s great is that now they’re interacting with entrepreneurs and starting to understand some of these issues.”

There seems to be a strategy for bringing entrepreneurs at the events into the conversation, too. Often under the pretext of educational seminars, many forums follow a common script. The presenters — often from a mix of advocacy and trade groups, think tanks, technology firms and the public sector — start with a broad overview of a political issue, walk through anecdotes of how startups are affected, and almost inevitably, conclude with a call to action, with directions for those in the room who want to get in touch with their state or federal representatives.

On Sunday, for instance, the festival featured a session titled “How Public Policy Protects Patents and Startups.” Hosted by TwinLogic Strategies, a lobbying shop in Washington, the panel featured Yahoo’s government affairs director as well as the senior counsel for the House Judiciary Committee in Congress, which is led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who has several times introduced legislation that would overhaul the patent system with more protections against so-called patent trolls that buy up intellectual property solely to use the legal process to extract payments from offenders. Naturally, the session largely centered around the importance of passing such legislation.

Other issues that dominated the conversation at this year’s conference included net neutrality and cybersecurity measures, as entrepreneurs keep close tabs on the future on the Internet. More than one session focused on immigration reform proposals, as well, with tech companies large and small eager to bring in more highly skilled workers from overseas. Measures intended to increase access to capital and startup investments were another hot topic.

“If any of you want to write to your senator, and say that you hope they support the bill, that would be helpful,” Barbara Boxer, who manages a pair of investment groups, said toward the end of a session on investment tax credits. She had just finished presenting research on the benefit of state programs that provide tax breaks to startup investors and was stumping for a proposal to do the same thing at the federal level.

“One of the reasons we want to talk to you about this is not only to educate you about this, but to put out a call to action for entrepreneurs and startup investors,” said Boxer, who is based in Los Angeles. “Get up there, write a letter or make a call to your senator or your representatives in the House.”

But that’s the tricky part, according to both Engstrom and Millman. How do you sustain momentum after the conference and encourage entrepreneurs to make their voices heard after they leave Austin?

“It’s about making those contacts and connections down here and making sure startups return home knowing how to get engaged,” Engstrom said.

Added Millman: “In Austin, the way I look at it, it’s about planting seeds.”