w/ Hugh Forrest

Hugh Forrest.jpeg

This month we had the opportunity to sit down with our friend, the man, the myth, the legend - Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer for SXSW. Hugh has spent most of his career working diligently to make SXSW what it is. On behalf of the Community, we focus our conversation on the rise of the Health and MedTech track at SXSW but don't worry, we didn't finish until we got his picks for favorite Austin breakfast taco and  BBQ! 

Enjoy the following from our interview with Hugh and don't forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn and sign up to be part of the Community!

SXSW 2019 marks the 25th year for you as head of Interactive and your 30th year total.  What surprises you the most about how things change over the years?

The arc of the event over the last 30 years is pretty remarkable. When it started in 1987, SXSW was focused entirely on Music. Thirty years later, Music is still a big part of what we do. But we also cover things like startups, government, film, transportation, design, social good, television, style, sports, and food. Moreover, in the context of this conversation, we devote a significant amount of the SXSW program to innovation in the health industry. But even within this huge expansion of focus, one important thing hasn’t changed. Our bottom-line focus on helping creative people achieve their goals is the same now as it was three decades ago.

What has been your favorite moment(s) over the years?

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. I’ve probably seen him perform about 30 times over the last 30 years. So, his keynote in 2012 was one of my biggest personal highlights. People always tell you not to meet your idols, but Bruce was the exception. He delivered an amazing speech and he was incredibly personable when I was lucky enough to meet him backstage.
Of course another huge highlight was hosting President Barack Obama at SXSW 2016. Yes, it will be hard to top that particular keynote. But, I am pretty sure that we eventually will. SXSW has accomplished a lot over the last 30 years — yet our best days are still ahead of us.

What are you most proud of?

What keeps me going is when I hear about the opportunities that the event has helped unlock for them. It makes me extremely proud when a startup tells me that pitching at SXSW helped them secure funding. Or when a company tells me that they made a crucial hire as a result of a meeting they had at SXSW. Or when someone tells me that being at SXSW opened their mind to a brand new idea which led to a new partnership which led to a new business. Its a great feeling to play a small role in these kinds of career / life milestones.

Missed opportunities?

We’ve been lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time on a lot of different things. In that sense, we haven’t missed out on too many opportunities. Moreover, the current scale of SXSW means that if there is an important upcoming trend in any of the scores of industries that we cover, we likely have several panels or solo presentations that are focusing on it.

It's been 8 years since SXSW introduced a dedicated track for Health/MedTech. What was the impetuous to carve out Health/MedTech?

SXSW has always been a strong reflection about what is hot in Austin. When the event debuted in 1987, it was entirely focused on music — and that was a time when the Austin music scene was generating huge national / international buzz.
We added Film in 1994 because the film scene here was beginning to make waves with young, up-and-coming talent like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. It also made sense to add Multimedia to the mix in 1994 because this new wave of technology was beginning to take hold in Central Texas.
With the new Dell Medical School that launched in Austin in 2017, it made sense to reflect that industry within our programming. The Dell Medical School will have a huge impact on the future of this city — and I think it will also have a huge impact on the future of SXSW.

What is your vision for the Health & Med Tech track going forward?

As with all things SXSW, we want to showcase the most creative and most forward-thinking minds in the health space — people whose ideas are powering new approaches in this industry. What is particularly unique about SXSW is that these kinds of people are able to come to Austin in March and network (as well as earn from) innovators from many other industries. Mixing together the brightest thinkers from many different industries — and seeing the kind of great ideas that arise from these interactions — is one of the most valuable aspects of SXSW.

What have you been surprised by?

In terms of the Health track at SXSW, we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how quickly this has grown. For instance, two of our biggest speakers in 2017 were part of this programming — Joe Biden talking about his Cancer Moonshot and Jennifer Doudna talking about CRISPR. This trend of big-name health related speakers continued in 2018 when Michael Dell and Dean Clay Johnston gave an incredible presentation on their vision of the medical ecosystem of tomorrow.

What is the biggest opportunity for the track in 2019? What would you like to see that you haven't seen in the past?

The SXSW Health Track continues to grow in popularity and attendance. I expect this trend will continue in March 2019. One thing we want to continue to improve with regards to the health professionals who come to Austin in the spring is that they should take advantage of the full array of SXSW programming. There is top notch programming within the Health track at SXSW — there’s also incredible content in the other 24 tracks, content that is directly applicable to the kind of skills that 21st century health industry professionals need to stay at the top of their field.

We have received feedback from the Healthcare business community that it's hard to justify expanding corporate resources to attend SXSW. They say it's just an excuse/boondoggle to go party in Austin. Thoughts? 

In addition to more than a thousand panels and solo presentations, keynote speeches from some of the industry’s brightest minds, and a four-day Trade Show, SXSW includes dozens and dozens of networking events that can lead to real-world opportunities. In 2019, don’t come to Austin in March to party — but to learn about tomorrow’s top trends directly from the people who are driving the future.

How do you dispel that impression/why is SXSW a must-attend for healthcare business professionals?

SXSW a must-attend for healthcare business professionals because it brings together the top thinkers in a variety of industries that are shaping tomorrow’s most innovative solutions. Want to connect with the world’s most promising startups? You can do that at SXSW. Want to connect with top mayors from various cities around the US? You can do that at SXSW. Want to connect with experts from the virtual reality or augmented reality industry? You can do that at SXSW. Want to learn how blockchain technology will impact healthcare? You can do that at SXSW. Want to connect with leaders from the non-profit space? You can do that at SXSW too. March in Austin is your one-stop shop to connect with so many people you need to remain relevant in the future.

How would you frame the ROI for someone in the digital health market?

There are many ways to frame the strong ROI that registrants can get by attending March Magic. Said most simply, SXSW registrants can make three-to-six months worth of career-enhancing connections in the space of 3-4 days.

What is the best way to get involved in SXSW 2019?

Voting on the 5000+ speaking proposals in the SXSW PanelPicker continues until the end of the day on Thursday, August 30. Of these 5000+ speaking proposals, 268 have been entered in the “Health & MedTech” track — so pay particular attention to those ideas. Startups in the health space can apply to be part of SXSW Pitch until Thursday, November 15. Also, there is still space available in the SXSW Trade Show (which runs Sunday, March 10 through Wednesday, March 13 on the first floor of the Austin Convention Center). The Trade Show gets tons of foot traffic, so it is a great way to make amazing connections with the SXSW community. Connect with me at for more information on all these opportunities at the 2019 event and don't forget to vote for your favorite panels here:

When will we learn what kind of health panels and presentations you will have at SXSW 2019?

Most of the programming for SXSW 2019 will be announced in mid-October on the SXSW website. Stay tuned to for more details!

And the question all of our readers want to know:

Favorite Breakfast Taco? Torchy's
Favorite Austin BBQ? I miss Ruby's on 29th street (


Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer for South by Southwest (SXSW). Scheduled March 8-17, 2019 in Austin, this event brings together more than 70,000 industry creatives from across the United States and around the world. These creatives are inspired by nine days of panels, presentations, brainstorming, networking, deal-making, socializing, creating, innovating, and fun.

Forrest was named "Austinite of the Year" in 2012 by the Austin Chamber of Commerce (along with fellow SXSW Directors Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro). In 2014, Forrest and these other SXSW Directors were named Austin Entrepreneurs of the Year by Ernst & Young. He recently received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Kenyon College, his alma matter.

In addition to his work at SXSW, he has previously served on of the National Advisory Board for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is currently part of the Board of Directors for Austin Habitat for Humanity and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Austin-based accessibility company Knowbility. Additionally, he is a trustee for the Austin Awesome Foundation.

Before joining the SXSW team in the dark ages of 1989, he founded a small monthly alternative publication called The Austin Challenger. He also wrote for several other newspapers and publications, including the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Sports Chronicle, the West Austin News, Willamette Week and the Seattle Weekly.