An ongoing pause on large-scale gatherings in the U.S. during the second quarter of 2020, unsurprisingly, also led to a near-total shutdown of M&A activity in the conference and trade show space.
At the onset of Q3, however, the Machine Learning Conference—an eight-year-old events series which attracts hundreds of attendees to its semi-annual shows in New York and San Francisco, among other locales—says it’s successfully been sold after eight years as an independent business.
The buyer: ModalityIQ, a new company quietly launched last November by former CFO Publishing and EnsembleIQ exec Richard Rivera, who most recently spent a year as CEO of Bobit Business Media, where he was among a handful of executives who have both arrived and left since that company was acquired by private equity firm Gemspring Capital late in 2018.
“We were attracted to MLconf because of its loyal, dedicated, collaborative and vibrant community who are all on the frontier of developing advanced and emerging technologies that will change the way we live, work and play,” Rivera told Folio: late last week. “MLconf is all about ’sharing lessons learned,’ which is at the heart of our mission at ModalityIQ.”
We wanted to learn more about Rivera’s new company, as well as the vision behind investing in an events business in the midst of a global pandemic, so we conducted the following interview via email last week, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Folio: It sounds like part of your vision is to build out more of a media business around the Machine Learning Conference. Is that fair to say?
Richard Rivera: Yes, that is fair to say. Our true purpose is to develop and offer a tech-enabled knowledge sharing and learning platform, and the media portion of the business we’re developing will certainly play an important role and sit alongside other offerings (such as training, education, research, data, and analytics) that we’ll amass via organic product development as well as strategic acquisitions and partnerships.
Folio: Did you have any trepidation about investing in an events business in the current climate?
Rivera: Absolutely. We needed to wait to see how big of an impact COVID would have, and it was apparent rather quickly that in-person events would be significantly impacted. However, our strategy was to create an enhanced and enriched online presence for the [machine learning/data science/artificial intelligence] community—an already digitally astute one—and therefore it made sense for us to close this deal. No one knows when we’ll be able to get back to hosting in-person events, but when that time comes, we’ll certainly be ready and in a stronger position with a broader set of offerings. Our strategy is already showing signs of success, as we closed MLconf’s first webinar sale ever just last week.
Folio: What’s your response to those who might say that’s a risky proposition?
Rivera: Our focus is to lead with acquiring and developing communities and offering those communities varying products and services. Therefore, our thinking regarding MLconf was not that we were acquiring an events business, but more that we were joining a loyal community and one that’s hungry to share and learn. Also, a few tenets of our acquisition strategy that MLconf specifically checked off were: 1) a loyal customer base; 2) unrealized potential; and 3) strong community and customer relationships.
Folio: Did the pandemic present any unique challenges in your due diligence, i.e., assessing the value of the business?
Rivera: I’m not at liberty to share the terms of the deal, but the pandemic certainly presented many challenges, including re-assessing deal value and structure as well as reprioritizing our approach post-transaction.
Folio: Are you looking at any additional acquisitions for ModalityIQ, and if so can you share any insight into the types of targets you might be considering?
Rivera: Yes, we are actively looking at a few specific opportunities, all within the emerging technology sector, but unfortunately I can’t disclose any particulars. I will share that our areas of interest within EmTech run the gamut from identity management, robotics, FinTech, security, AR/VR, autonomous operations, biometrics, etc., and we’re also interested in products and services that focus on functional facets like hiring, assessing and developing talent within this market.