Web Summit faces acid test with Lisbon event

Next week’s jamboree will be test of new CEO, and life after Paddy Cosgrave

Web Summit is set to enter a new phase next week as it faces its first event without cofounder and former chief executive Paddy Cosgrave at the helm. The ex-boss, who stepped down last month, has traditionally been an outsize presence during the jamboree, opening it and holding press events throughout.

But this year it will be new chief executive Katherine Maher, former Wikimedia Foundation head, who takes to the stage in Lisbon in his place. The stakes are high, with Web Summit keen to prove it can leave its one-time chief – and current majority owner – behind.

Cosgrave is not the only one who will be officially absent from the event. His posts on social media about Israel’s action in Gaza not only triggered an outcry among the Israeli tech sector and investors, it also prompted the exit of some big name sponsors and participants.

Among those who will not be attending are Intel and Siemens, the first big tech companies to withdraw from the event. They said given recent events they would not be attending Web Summit Lisbon. Sponsor Google was next to go, with a short statement that made clear they would no longer participate.


Then came Meta’s decision to pull out; although it was not a sponsor, its president of global affairs Nick Clegg had been due to speak on stage. Amazon Web Services also withdrew as a partner, as did fintech Stripe. The latter had been due to appear on stage, with chief product officer Will Gaybrick and chief marketing officer Jeff Titterton scheduled as speakers. Stripe was also a sponsor of Web Summit in recent years; it no longer appears on the company’s list of partners.

Some investors have also abandoned plans to attend, including Y Combinator chief Garry Tan and Sequoia Capital partner Ravi Gupta, a blow to those who had been hoping to catch the eye of high profile investors.

Some exits were not quite as public though. IBM quietly withdrew from the event at some point last month, while Irish-founded Intercom, also pulled its participation with little fanfare.

Speakers such as actor and entrepreneur Gillian Anderson and serial entrepreneur, author and marketing professor Scott Galloway also said they would no longer take part, leaving the event with some gaps in the schedule. Among other speakers who were originally listed but no longer are Amy Poehler, Joseph Gordon Levitt and LL Cool J. The big name celebrities may not be the sole reason people attended Web Summit – most will be there to make contacts, meet investors and tell their story to a global media presence – but it added to the overall buzz of the event.

Although Cosgrave’s resignation seemed to stem the flow, there were still a few more who would drop out in the following weeks. Volkswagen was one; the most recent was the German economy minister. Robert Habeck had planned a trip to Portugal next week that would include attending Web Summit, but has now decided to cancel the entire thing.

A spokeswoman said the current political events in Portugal – the resignation of its prime minister Antonio Costa amid a series of raids as part of a corruption probe – was a factor, as was the discussion about Web Summit. More than 300 Israeli entrepreneurs wrote an open letter on Wednesday to Mr Habeck, calling for a boycott of the event.

It is understood though that a sizeable German delegation still intends to attend the event.

Web Summit has said that a number of partners who had been considering their involvement with this year’s event had decided to come. But none of them appear to include the big names that have cut ties with the company, and Web Summit is not publicising the ones who have reconsidered.

The Ukrainian tech delegation, however, will be attending following Cosgrave’s apology and resignation. The event has also been publicly backed by local Portuguese authorities, with Lisbon benefiting from the economic boost that 70,000 attendees at the event will bring to the local economy. The European Commission is also sending a delegation, and the European Investment Bank, a sponsor of the event, sending a number of people along.

Wikipedia chief Jimmy Wales is also set to speak on the main stage on the opening night of the event, with Ukrainian pro boxer Wladimir Klitschko taking to the main stage on Tuesday. He isn’t the only sports person planning to appear; footballer Patrice Evra is also a speaker, on stage to discuss the “I Love This Game” brand and his journey from football pitch to boardroom.

Signal’s chair Meredith Whittaker and Alibaba president Kuo Zhang are down to speak on the first full day of the event.

On the Irish side of things, a pavilion of 23 start-ups will be taking part in the “Irish Island”. The 23 companies were selected from sectors that include human resources, health, education and sport.

Although Web Summit has decided it will no longer provide financial backing to the publishers of The Ditch website, the company’s owners Eoghan McNeill and Roman Shortall are also listed as attendees. Web Summit has cut all ties with the website and its owners, with the company’s general counsel transferring his stake – independently held, Web Summit said – in the company last month.

In total, Web Summit says there will be more than 900 investors, 2,600 start-ups and 300 partners at this year’s event. That is a little short of the 1,081 investors that the 2022 event attracted but that is not the final count.

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist