Cannes: where 3D printed sushi offers investors a lesson in diversification

Annual event showcases some radical new approaches but shadow of the giants is a potential downside

General view of the fortress prison on the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, the largest of the Lerins Islands off the French riviera town of Cannes, on June 19, 2019, where takes place an exhibition dedicated to the 'Man in the Iron Mask' held in the 17th century. / AFP / YANN COATSALIOU
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Some events can leave you feeling a little isolated from the real world.

Davos, the home of the annual World Economic Forum meetings, is one of them and, perhaps, its summer equivalent is the Cannes Lions – the festival of creativity in the gorgeously elegant, sometimes gaudily opulent French Riviera town.

There, with the Mediterranean lapping at golden beaches and palm trees swaying above canape-nibbling executives, stylishly branded spaces and fantastical presentations - imagine 3D printed sushi I dare you - things can feel a little otherworldly.

Yet, rather like Davos, Cannes is at its best when debating complex problems, confronting disruption and embracing innovation. There was plenty of each along the French town's La Croisette boulevard last month.

Firstly, the political climate is an ongoing worry for the business community: Europe continues to grapple with sluggish growth and economic uncertainty, not helped by leaders spouting inward-looking populism. The ongoing Brexit conundrum remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, the Middle East is seeing a rise in geopolitcal and trade tensions.

Add in the meeting of US president Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the weekend’s G20 gathering, Jay Powell’s interest rate indecision at the US Federal Reserve and an unfolding climate crisis, and it is tough to picture those canapes even half eaten.

Even if one overlooks the political drama, no corks were popping among the advertising elite after Facebook’s warning of "an attack" on targeted advertising, as legislators cast more scrutiny on the issue of privacy. The underlying message seems that even the biggest disrupters risk being disrupted themselves one day.

So how do you stay nimble when faced with such challenges? It was a question neatly answered by Tim Andree, the CEO of Dentsu Aegis Networks, a multinational media and digital marketing communications company based in London, whom I interviewed on stage in Cannes.

Mr Andree was drafted to the US basketball giant the Chicago Bulls as a teenager, but fate had other plans and he was forced to find an alternative career. You could say it worked out pretty well. His unconventional path helped cement his belief that people who pursue experience in a variety of areas set themselves up to succeed.

Taking too narrow a focus and following a prescribed path is dangerous, he warned, because it narrows your options. The virtue of "just saying yes" to any opportunity, without worrying about where it might lead, allows you to build a portfolio of diverse expertise.

It is a lesson that could equally apply to both business leaders and investors. Revolutionary ideas often come during periods of great disruption and there was certainly some radical thinking on display at Cannes.

Sushi made from 3D printers, perfectly honed to suit your bodies dietary requirements? Yes, it exists: a Japanese company called Open Meals was displaying its tailored wares, and plans to open its first restaurant in Tokyo next year.  Also present, another Japanese start-up, iSpace, looking to conquer the Moon with lunar landers and mini-rovers that will piggyback on Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon rockets. Reaching for the stars, sure why not?

The UAE is well known as a popular destination for start-ups – the recent AIM Startup study named Dubai as a top destination for hundreds of new ventures; but the picture is not rosy everywhere.

Just before I flew to Cannes, I interviewed philanthropist and CEO of the Case Foundation, Jean Case. She explained that, much of the time, those achieving extraordinary success are quite ordinary. You don’t need to be a genius; success often comes from taking a risky path and usually, at some point, encountering failure; but those who push hard through that will eventually succeed.

Ms Case also told me that the number of start-ups in the United States is at a 30-year low. She explained that last year 75 per cent of US venture capital went to just three places: New York, California and Massachusetts. Florida, the country’s third largest state, received less than 2 per cent of it.  Female entrepreneurs got under 2 per cent; African-Americans less than 1 per cent.

The start-up playing field, she warned, has become too narrow. Diversity is being lost and ideas left unsupported. Likewise, outsized companies – the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook – risk becoming enemies of innovation because of their sheer scale. Investors are simply not prepared to take on markets in which such players are so utterly dominant.

The fact that Facebook chose Cannes week to launch its own cryptocurrency, Libra, was intriguing but also spoke to this issue. The big players can make bold new bets; while the smaller ones still struggle to make their voices heard.

It is ironic, in an age so defined by uncertainty and utterly upturned by technology, that we aren’t being more diverse in our choices. We celebrate disrupters and enthusiastically embrace new products and technologies but it seems some investors are looking in the same old places for fresh ideas.

The message from all this, whether you are a business or an individual, seems clear: be brave. Times are complex, politics uncertain and disruption is rife; but by taking a chance and experimenting with new ideas, innovation and success could soon follow.

So, prepare to take on the unexpected and one day you just might hitch a ride to Mars while devouring some 3D printed sushi, all paid for by Facebook’s new crypto currency.

First Move with Julia Chatterley airs Monday-Friday at 6pm on CNN International