RECAP & TOP 3: Venture Day Tokyo 2014 (GALLERY)
Where New Tech Begins:
Venture Day Tokyo Makes a Solid Year-Two Statement
With arguably good reason, many believe Japan’s traditional giants’ predictable, on-schedule product iterations have ceased to innovate within, let alone lead the global tech market. Instead, much like the outside world, optimists are looking toward previously unlikely, unexpected, ground-level innovations to positively disrupt and invigorate Japan’s future tech economy.
Both as a media sponsor and an outlet intent on remaining dialed-in to the community, we spent a snappy 5 hours last Friday at one of Tokyo’s newest startup events: the IE Business School Madrid, Keio Graduate School of Media and Design, and J-Seed Ventures seemingly successful, second annual Venture Day Tokyo.
This year’s Keio University venue was much larger, the agenda was thoughtfully a few hours shorter, the program thankfully lighter on windy speeches, and the heart of the matter, the pitches, were definitely more regimented and concise. With attendance more than twice that of 2013, interest is clearly on the rise and the collaboration seems well placed amongst the growing and steadily maturing calendar of Tokyo startup pitching events.
WOVN.io frontman Jeff Sanford gives his solo pitch (screen simulated).
10 Teams with 5 Minutes:
How & What Gets Pitched
As with nearly every startup idea on planet earth, Venture Day Tokyo’s were all IT services or products. Pitches included intangible cloud-based software services (MakeLeaps), a novel purchasing and distribution system (CarryOn), a proprietary manufacturing solution (True 2 Materials), and even an app-enabled physical product (Breezy not Wheezy). Most of the business ideas or models are closer to theory than reality, but that’s often the whole point: filling gaps in extant business models (WOVN.io), streamlining currently cumbersome services (Another Japan), or breaking into monopolistic, entrenched sectors (AmazingLife) with new ideas, tools, and methods.
Pitches were made by teams led by both Japanese and/or foreign residents, non-Japanese multinational teams of students or alumni from the two academic sponsors, and even a completely non-affiliated American developer who joined from Osaka.
Officials, notables, onlookers.
Mirroring the inaugural event, teams were each given 5 minutes to impress a panel of investors and industry players, luminary guests, and the curious public. In turn, each pitch was followed by a handful of questions and/or candid criticism. The heard-it-all-before panel combined with the keep-it-moving schedule meant leaving the kid gloves at home - which is to say, while Venture Day Tokyo and events like it carry overwhelmingly positive atmospheres, those unaccustomed would likely recoil at some of the panel’s harsh, occasionally dismissive feedback and blunt questioning.
The Field, the Winners
The second Venture Day Tokyo competition was technically among 10 teams, but in reality it was much more like two competitions and live-action predestiny: on one end there was basically a practice scrimmage amongst 4 JV teams, another 4 teams were giving each other a run for 3rd, and the remaining two, well they’re less ground-level “startup” and much more “already happening” ventures - only monumental fumbles could have kept them from nailing 2nd and 1st.
And so, the winners:
The teams assembled
Breezy not Wheezy
This multinational KMD team was the lone idea-based pitch to make the top 3. Despite having no extant product or services, their concept of a using a smartphone-enable peak-flow meter to streamline and quantify asthma monitoring and treatment for children had considerable impact. A concise, coherent, and effective pitch delivered in several parts by multiple team members, combined with confident, competent replies during the Q&A put them well above most of the pack.
Prize: Three-Month Residency at J-Seed’s Venture Generation Startup Incubator
WOVN.io’s product is actually a single line of code that widgetizes almost any website into a multilingual environment spanning the world’s 11 most commonly used online languages. WOVN.io aims to further open the web to the 70% of online humans who do not speak English as their first language. Jeff Sanford, WOVN.io’s frontman, made a confident solo pitch that included a very smooth product demo. Given that the company’s already received sizeable funding and demonstrated its real-world viability, the only real competition was at the very top.
Prize: Round-Trip Airfare to IE Madrid from Turkish Airlines; Three-Month Residency at J-Seed’s Venture Generation Startup Incubator
We all assume that the Japanese still love paper-based bookkeeping, fax machines, and physically signing and stamping official documents in-person, and it’s endlessly annoying to most foreigners doing business here. Well, co-founder Jay Winder and his team at MakeLeaps are successfully demonstrating that the Japanese are also tired of the old system, and a business doing something as seemingly mundane as digital invoice management has turned into one of Tokyo’s most successful startups. With thousands of customers already signed up, service expansion plans, high six-figure funding, and a seasoned, seamless pitch, the only way MakeLeaps was leaving without 1st place was if they didn’t bother to show up.
Prize: Round-Trip Airfare for Two to IE Madrid from Turkish Airlines; Three-Month Residency at J-Seed’s Venture Generation Startup Incubator
Accidental look of surprise, we say!
So, a successful event, a brief snapshot, a partial cross-section of the late-2014 Tokyo startup ecosystem. A year ago, our startup coverage was peppered with harbingers, and we berated all those responsible for Japan’s glaring lifelessness in the Economist’s Cambrian Moment. But this year, it’s looking ever so slightly less like dusk.
Editor’s Note: As it’s targeted at our more casual reader base, this article isn’t as heavy on the details for the startup enthusiasts. To dive deeper and get links and appropriate jargon, visit our friends at startup & venture-focused Tech in Asia and check out Jeff Quigley’s detailed event breakdown.