Startups are at heart of South by Southwest Interactive

Startups are the heartbeat of South by Southwest Interactive.

The festival draws thousands of entrepreneurs, startups and investors from around the world, all looking to connect. The energy and buzz that creates is contagious, but the sheer magnitude of panels, keynotes and startup competitions can be overwhelming.

Fortunately, figuring out where to start has gotten easier. Startup Village, which debuted at the 2012 festival, consolidates entrepreneur-related programming into one place, the Hilton Downtown Austin.

That’s where you’ll find panel discussions that delve into every aspect of the startup ecosystem, from choosing a technology incubator for your startup to finding the right investors to deciding whether to sell your company or go for the gold. There will also be meet ups, demos and lounges for hanging out.

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Some attendees find it easiest to show up and wander, going wherever the conversations lead them. But there are some programs worth hitting if you’re looking for insight into the state of innovation in 2016.

For me, that means the SXSW Accelerator pitch competition is a must. In its eighth year, the two-day event starts on Saturday with 48 interactive technology companies taking the stage before an audience and panel of judges, including billionaire Robert Smith of Austin-based Vista Equity Partners.

This year, 470 companies from around the globe applied to participate. According to SXSW officials, the highest percentage of applicants came from Austin, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Internationally, companies from countries including the Netherlands, Germany, Israel, Korea and France vied for a spot.

(Three Austin startups earned spots on the stage: Bitfusion; which develops application enhancing software; PopUpPlay, which builds toys from childrens’ designs and Thrillbox, a media analytics platform.)

Another event at Startup Village that showcases new technology is ReleaseIt at SXSW, a competition that takes place on Friday featuring 10 companies launching new products or services during the 2016 SXSW festival. A panel of industry experts will choose a winner based on which product or service is most likely to succeed in the marketplace.

I also plan to check out Startup Village’s International Programming track, which is new this year and makes sense considering that the festival now draws a large contingent of entrepreneurs from around the globe. The track includes panel sessions highlighting global entrepreneurial ideas, trends and startup resources.

So that’s my plan. But I understand where people like Austin entrepreneur Richard Bagdonas are coming from when they choose to wing it.

Bagdonas, who recently launched a new medical software company, plans to spend some time at both Startup Village and JW Marriott, which is hosting the SX Health & MedTech Expo.

Rather than trying to get attention for his company, MI7, Bagdonas says he’ll focus on meeting potential customers, partners and investors.

“It’s really hard in recent years to get your signal above the noise, so we’re not trying that,” he said. “South by is really about the parties, that’s where the networking happens. That’s where the fun is.”