Waves of attendees of the Collision tech conference, on Tuesday, started to make their way through the Enercare Centre to the largest in-person gathering in Toronto, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two years ago.
The four-day event will see roughly 35,000 startup leaders, investors, and tech workers take in talks from more than 600 speakers, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and basketball star Carmelo Anthony.
Homegrown startups — Wealthsimple, Thinkific Labs Inc., and Goodfood Market Corp. — and international businesses — Netflix, Klarna and Cameo — laid off workers in recent weeks, while many more have frozen hiring.
Thoughts like Stanford’sdominated chatter around Collision’s booths and stages, where more than 600 speakers, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and basketball star Carmelo Anthony, will appear before the four-day conference once dubbed the “Olympics of tech” wraps on Thursday.
The travelling conference made its Toronto debut in 2019 and was expected to remain in the city for two more years, but when the health crisis materialized, Collision moved online. It has since committed to remaining in Toronto until 2023.
While local mask and vaccine passport mandates were dropped in time for the sold-out event, Collision CEO Paddy Cosgrave anticipated many would forgo handshakes and take advantage of an expanded event space, including a new outdoor area with meeting spots.
“There’s so many tables being put down, we had trouble finding enough tables,” he said, in an interview Saturday.
This year’s conference is coinciding with a fading exuberance around tech stocks, which soared during the pandemic but are now plunging, pushing companies like Netflix and Wealthsimple to layoff workers.
Cosgrave expects the downturn to be a hot topic at the conference, along with the state of crypto, after several currencies have significantly dropped in value in recent months.
Cosgrave says at least eight cryptocurrency companies, including embattled lending platform Celsius, dropped out of Collision in recent days.
Venture capitalists, who raised massive amounts of money and seemed like “the masters of the universe” with 20 or 30 times the returns, are now being forced to mark down their funds, he said.
“It’s just unbelievable, so what does that all mean for the wider sector?” he said. “Is this a good time to start a company? Is this a bad time to be raising? Is it a good time to be an investor?”
The cryptocurrency industry is also under pressure. Earlier this year, the price of Bitcoin sank to its lowest level since 2020 and stablecoin TerraUSD was embroiled in lawsuits, erasing an estimated $40 billion in investor funds.
At least eight cryptocurrency companies, including embattled lending platform Celsius, dropped out of Collision in the last three days, Cosgrave said on Saturday.
“Part of the reason is we said, ‘look there are major, serious questions. We want to put them to you on stage,’” said Cosgrave.
“None of them have said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to be asked the serious questions,’ but…things have suddenly come up…Crypto’s leading lights are unwilling to answer tough questions. They’re just running for the hills.”
Also missing from Collision’s stages is Shopify Inc., the Ottawa e-commerce giant whose CEO Tobi Lutke appeared at the conference’s first Toronto edition.
“Lots of journalists say, ‘Oh, what do you think that means?’ Look, just draw your own conclusions,” said Cosgrave. “Personally, I think it’s understandably (about) who’s going to give them an easy time right now.”
Amid a broad market sell-off that has particularly weighed on the tech sector, the price of Shopify’s stock has sunk more than 70 per cent since its late 2021 peak of $2,228.73.
Despite the absences and downturn chatter, many were still optimistic about both the tech and crypto industries at-large.