Startups and Big Companies Vie for Attention at Annual ‘Disrupt’ Conference

TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015 - Day 1
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 04: General atmosphere during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015 - Day 1 at The Manhattan Center on May 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
Photograph by Noam Galai — Getty Images

A version of this post titled “A celebration of startup ‘disruption’” originally appeared in the Startup Sunday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter.

Earlier this week, more than 4,000 people filled a large waterfront warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood for the startup extravaganza that is TechCrunch Disrupt.

The conference, hosted by tech news blog TechCrunch, is an annual reminder (at least for me) of the importance startup executives place on being seen by the right people and getting free publicity. After all, this year alone, hundreds of startups made a pilgrimage to the conference and paid at least $1,995 so they could occupy a small booth in the event’s big hall to show off their products. Hundreds more applied for a chance of being selected as one of the 23 that got to pitch their startup on the main stage to a panel of judges and a big audience.

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And the continued appeal of the conference doesn’t end with small startups hoping to catch a break. Some big companies also show up with unstated goal of burnishing their image for innovation.

“Since we have the most technologically advanced hybrid, what better place to showcase this than TechCrunch Disrupt,” Nathan Kokes, marketing manager for Toyota’s new Prius Prime car, said when I asked why his company spent dearly to set up shop at a startup conference. In the middle of the exhibition hall, Toyota displayed the upcoming car, along with a two-part virtual reality demo simulating a drive in the Prius Prius.

In some ways, the conference has become a reflection of the industry just outside of the building where we stood and listened to presentations about everything from video gaming to cybersecurity. Startups with the marketing budget can score a big booth while others with a convincing pitch can be judged impressive enough to make it onstage. And for the rest? Well, it’s long days of standing near their dinky booths by comparison, chatting up reluctant attendees who walk by, and hoping to catch a journalist’s or investor’s eye.

In fact, Mike Judge, the creator of HBO’s tech industry parody Silicon Valley, said on stage on Monday that a visit to the conference in 2013 as part of his research for the show made Disrupt an undeniable cultural element to both ridicule and celebrate.

“It was just perfect for our show,” he said.

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