TechFestNW kicked off its 2021 conference on Friday morning at 9 a.m. for a jam-packed day of speaking events and networking opportunities for Oregon tech entrepreneurs and investors.
TechFestNW describes itself as a “global gathering of technology and business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs” based in the Portland area. The conference is known for addressing important, contemporary topics in business, with former speakers including Siri co-founder Tom Gruber, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Portland-based TikTok star Alyssa McKay.
In accordance with public safety guidelines, TechFestNW went virtual this year, using the virtual event platform Pheedloop to host its nine-to-five schedule of panels and presentations. This year’s conference theme was “Emerge,” with an emphasis on redefining entrepreneurship and creating a more inclusive tech economy.
Normally a two-day event, the conference was shortened to one day this year. Its lineup was also condensed to fit the shorter timeline—this year, there were only eight speakers and interviewers, in contrast with 21 the year before.
The conference began with several keynote presentations, which then segued into a selection of networking tables where attendees listened to a wide range of topics such as investing in women-led businesses or diversity in the tech field. In the afternoon, the conference held the Angel Oregon Tech pitching competition, in which nine start-ups competed to win an angel investment worth $125,000. The winner was Rewire Neuro, a Portland-based biomedical research company.
Many different companies were represented among the conference attendees, both from the Pacific Northwest and abroad. Marceau Michel, founder and managing director of seed-stage fund group Black Founders Matter, gave a presentation on “the color of money,” urging investors to take a chance on female and BIPOC entrepreneurs who rarely receive venture capital. Another speaker was Mark Frohnmayer, whose company Arcimoto produces electric vehicles just a hop and a skip away from the University of Oregon. Cybersecurity reporter and New York Times columnist Nicole Perlroth also hosted a keynote, promoting her new book about cyber wars, titled This is How They Tell Me the World Ends.
The first keynote speaker to present was Lora Haddock DiCarlo, an entrepreneur who founded her eponymous company in 2017 with “a mission to create a more sexually equitable world,” according to her profile for TechFestNW. Her Bend, OR-based company, Lora DiCarlo, creates innovative, award-winning pleasure products using “sex tech” inspired by human movement and which mimics human touch.
DiCarlo promised there is nothing niche about her industry. According to her keynote, the sextech industry was worth $23 billion in 2017, but only two years later, the industry was worth nearly three times more, at $74.7 billion.
“This industry is not going away,” DiCarlo stated confidently. “And it’s continuing to grow.”
While most sex toys on the market use vibration, Lora DiCarlo’s products are designed using “biomimicry,” which takes the motions of the hands, tongue and mouth and translates them into microrobotic motions.
Their flagship product, the Osé, is futuristic and avant-garde—a far-cry from the stereotypical, pink dildo-shaped vibrators that embody the pleasure products market, inspired by a “life-changing” orgasm that DiCarlo herself experienced.
The Osé was conceptualized when DiCarlo reached out to John Parmigiani, the head of the Oregon State University’s Prototype Development Laboratory in 2017. After a meeting, a partnership began between DiCarlo and OSU. DiCarlo put together a team of student and professional engineers from OSU’s Engineering & Robotics department, many of whom were women.
Despite the many accolades that her company has earned, DiCarlo’s rise to success hasn’t been perfect, and she’s faced unique hardship in the tech industry as a pleasure products entrepreneur. In 2019, the Osé won an Innovation Award at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but a month later, when DiCarlo applied for exhibition space at CES, the show’s host, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), said that this had been a mistake, so they revoked DiCarlo’s award and banned her company from the show.
The CTA claimed that Lora DiCarlo was prohibited because sex tech was not allowed on the show floor. Yet despite this statement, some sex tech companies have been allowed to exhibit in the past. One company, OhMiBod, has inexplicably been on the CES show floor for a decade. During her keynote, DiCarlo stated she believes that the CTA banned her because they had called her products “immoral” and “obscene.”
Since then, DiCarlo has spoken out about the incident—in 2019, her company published an open letter to CES on their website, denouncing the show for “stifling innovation” through gender bias. They launched an international awareness campaign, which led to 4500 international articles, 70,000 email sign-ups, and an amazing amount of press, according to DiCarlo. Pressured from the campaign, the CTA would later revisit the decision and reinstate Lora DiCarlo’s award, allowing the company back into the show.
After the scandal with CES and the CTA, DiCarlo’s company reaped immense financial success. According to DiCarlo’s keynote, when the Osé launched its preorders, the company made $1 million in only five hours. After completing its first year of sales, they would earn a staggering $7.5 million. Their flagship product has been redesigned and re-released into the Osé 2, designed for a more “inclusive, intuitive fit with additional angles to fit a wider range of anatomies more comfortably.”
Thanks to its international awareness campaigns, the company has been discovered by people all over the world, even including mainstream celebrities. In 2020, British actress and supermodel Cara Delevingne joined the company as a co-owner and creative advisor. According to DiCarlo, Delevingne believes that sextech is something that “belongs in the mainstream” and that “it’s something that should be talked about openly.”
“The kinds of people that work here have a purpose…they show up because they believe in something, that sexuality informs identity, that identity informs confidence…and it’s confidence that will inform our equity,” DiCarlo said at her keynote. “It’s not just about sex, it’s about so much more than that. It’s all about pursuing that identity with positivity and confidence.”