Tokyo Tech Startups: IE-KMD Venture Day Re-Cap
Japanese VC & startup culture is itself a very long-tailed startup; the product and revenue model are obvious, and in this case, the investment, marketing, and incubating were handled by the IE Business School, the Keio University Graduate School of Media & Design, and J-Seed Ventures. It went like this:
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IE-KMD Venture Day Tokyo
A fantastic view of Tokyo’s Akasaka district, nine tech startups with an idea, service, or product, a panel of judges and the players in Japanese venture capital, addresses from high-profile entrepreneurs, the curious, and at least one media outlet - such was the setting last Monday at NTT Docomo Ventures on the 31st floor of the Ark Mori building.
The institutional pillars of the event were Madrid's IE Business School (IE), considered among the world’s finest, and local partners at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Design (KMD), a program working on the cutting edge of business-relevant digital media. Their collaborative force, assembled and wrangled by Tokyo-based J-Seed Ventures, produced what was a first of its kind competitive startup event. A first for Japan, of course.
Now, there’s no shortage of lament for Japan’s dearth of startup & VC opportunities - we’ve done plenty ourselves - but there is movement and a growing domestic and international interest in what is regarded as largely untapped startup potential. The involvement of event sponsors Rakuten, Turkish Airlines, AOL, Orrick, and venue host NTT Docomo evidence as much. Certainly, this was a wildly positive event, but it’s not all handshakes and happy business.
No Debate: Japan Needs a Startup & Venture Capital Culture
It’s a thesis-worthy subject, but we’ll put it simply: Japan needs to innovate for a global market, but the monolithic, traditional engines of Japan’s tech-heavy economy appear incapable of doing so. Therefore: stasis, i.e., capitalism fail.
Venture-focused events like the case in point are increasingly common, but they don't yet offset the alarm. High-profile moves by American interests, e.g., Google’s recent acquisition of SCHAFT Robotics and Firsthand Technology Value Fund’s $5 million series-A infusion into Japan’s only market-capable virtual reality headset, Telepathy One, are particularly troubling harbingers.
AkihabaraNews was aware of these de-facto takeovers because we’re geeky like that, but we really have to wonder, and it’s only fair to ask: had/have any among the IE-KMD Venture Day's illustrious sponsors or VC movers & shakers even heard of SCHAFT or Telepathy?
To be fair, those two ventures might not be the most immediately profitable, but they’re very visible, and they set a somewhat dangerous precedent: if domestic startups go ignored long enough, then they might start shopping elsewhere. Telepathy, born and bred in Tokyo, is now referred to as a “Silicon Valley startup,” and SCHAFT Robotics, standing on the shoulders of decades of Japanese research, is now part of Google’s robotics initiative. Both cases should weigh heavily on last Monday’s crowd.
Okay, enough with the warning bells, let’s meet the contestants!
IE-KMD Venture Day Finalists
A preliminary competition narrowed a large number of applicants down to the 10 best ideas with the best presentations. Very simplistically nutshelled, here are the ventures:
Almost everyone on the planet agrees it would be a good idea for more people, young and old, to learn how to code. Codeprep aims to create a busines/educational model that allows independent users to progress through increasingly difficult programming problems, and then monetize the platform by licensing premium services to universities and other educational institutions.
Carrying around a laptop, smartphone, maybe a tablet, plus charging accessories, is the bane of shoulders everywhere. Compi wants to simplify our mobile computing experience by creating an affordable all-in-one based around the growing processing power embedded in our increasingly affordable smartphones. With an intriguing angle, they’re aiming for markets in the developing world.
Would you like to know a detailed history of exactly what happened at an event locale maybe… two years ago? Evement is a waypoint-based historical virtualizer that records location-specific data. How was the lunch, for example, at the briefcase makers’ conference held two weeks ago at NTT Docomo Ventures? Evement would be free for users, with a fee for establishing an event.
As keyboard pounders, a service like Flier makes us a little nervous, but we can objectively see the value in a service that compresses and summarizes written works into bite-size, magazine-like files. That’s Flier’s hook - it’s not the only service doing what it does, but it does it based around a digital medium and presents the summaries in digital magazine format.
If you’re a retail space owner, you’ve first got the problem of knowing where to put your products, and then you’ve the problem of knowing whether or not that works. Locarise uses an array of sensors that track pings sent out by the wi-fi radios in smartphones. Based thereupon, traffic flow analytics!
App/software-based personal finance assistants aren’t new, but this one works in Japan - and anyone who knows even a little bit about banking in Japan knows that anything to simplify, focus, and automatically analyze one’s financial habits is very, very welcome. MoneyTree can login to bank and credit card accounts and deliver intelligence.
Laboratory research, the kind with syringes and test tubes and bubbling things, can be very repetitive and tedious, so naturally it would be nice to automate as much as possible - but it’s very expensive and the highly specialized equipment is, well, highly specialized. Molcure’s Smart Lab Module aims to create a common platform for remotely monitoring and/or activating automated laboratory work.
You wouldn’t think children’s clothing is big business, that is, until you remember how briefly children stay a given size. Lot of turnover there. Leveraging SEO and community building social media, Sharebu aims to be a go-to online resource for premium foreign brands to which parents would otherwise have limited practical or financial access, i.e., Sharebu is convenient, sources unique products, and is cheaper!
Due to illness, this venture was unable to attend the event.
We all have too many accounts, too many usernames, and too many passwords. USRZ wants to be the one login to rule them all, and its service is aimed at Google Apps business users. Looking at our own ever-growing, ever-complicating list, there is definitely an appeal.
The breadth and creativity of all 9 finalists does impress, but the IE-KMD Venture Day was ultimately a contest where only three would leave with cash, scholarships, and prizes - they were:
3rd Place: Locarise
2nd Place: Flier
1st Place: MoneyTree
AkihabaraNews was pleased to play a role in promoting Venture Day Tokyo, and it was a treat spending the day among the small but vibrant, focused, and pleasantly internationalized Tokyo startup community. Congratulations to the winners, and good luck to all. We know what Japan needs to do.
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To see what we saw, have a look at the gallery below (mobile or non-flash users jump through to Flickr).
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