This is a guest post by Mari Futagami, Community Manager of Kyoto-based hardware startup accelerator Makers Boot Camp. The accelerator holds the Monozukuri Hub Meetup event in Kyoto on a monthly basis.
Additionally, all photos in this article were provided by professional photographer Miki Matsuura of Tumiki Photo.
See the original story in Japanese.
Monozukuri Hardware Cup 2017 was held for the first time in conjunction with Hack Osaka 2017 on 9th February. It is a pitch event hosted by Monozukuri Hardware Startup Consortium aiming to be a stepping stone for the Japanese “monozukuri” (referring to manufacturing in Japanese) startups which can potentially be successful around the world.
Monozukuri Hardware Startup Consortium is organized by Darma Tech Labs (Kyoto), FabFoundry (New York City), and TechShop Japan (Minato-ku, Tokyo), and this pitch event is treated as the Japanese regional preliminary of National Hardware Cup which has been held in the US since 2015. Although typical national events in Japan are often held in Tokyo, Monozukuri Hardware Cup will be held in Kansai area for the next three years including this time.
Hardware Cup Final has been held in Pittsburgh since 2015, and there is a reason why the regional city was chosen to be the host for the final of the event. Pittsburgh had once flourished as a town of steel industry, but its regional economy was seriously damaged by imported cheap steel in the 1970s. However, Pittsburgh, the city also known as an academic city having good universities such as Carnegie Mellon University, shifted its industrial base into high technology, as well as health, education or finance, and had gradually transformed into a new city since the 1980s.
Attracting innovative sections of top IT players including Google, Apple and Facebook, Pittsburgh has been developing into a more creative environment. Based in such a place, the hardware-focused accelerator AlphaLab Gear, chosen as one of the top 20 programs by Seed Accelerator Rankings Project, hosted Hardware Cup Final. AlphaLab Gear team has been creating an organic ecosystem in Pittsburgh as a key player, tying up with the academic / industrial world in addition to VCs.
Ilana Diamond, Chief of AlphaLab Gear, explained the reason for holding Hardware Cup:
In the US, hardware startups have more difficulties in fundraising rather than web or app startups. I think that is because they could not gain enough understanding of investors or media.
Pitches and exhibition booths
Exhibition booths were set for eight participant startups where visitors can try their products. By allowing them to actually touch and experience the products, their understanding of the hardware development seemed to deepen, and also active communication among startups came to be seen.
In the pitch competition, each team gave a pitch within four minutes and dealt with questions from the judges all in English in five minutes. Under the same regulation with the final, the eight teams competed for a ticket for the final in Pittsburgh.
The first presenter was Kyoto-based Atmoph which developed the world’s first digital smart window under the same name and aims to spread a new travel experience to homes. Co-Founder / CEO of Atomoph Kan’s experience of window-less environment in the US triggered him to start development of the smart window.
With beautiful moving scenery images displayed on the liquid crystal screen and sounds all over the world such as Hawaii, New Zealand, Switzerland or Patagonia, Atmoph provides users to get a feel for actually being there. All images were originally photographed in 4K resolution by partnered cameramen. Currently, more than 500 images of 30 countries have been uploaded and one can purchase them via the app. The window is also able to display daily life information such as weather forecasts or time.
The team is eyeing possibilities for application to health-care or home hub uses.
Dendama offers an IoT (Internet of Things) kendama (Japanese cup-and-ball toy) under the same name capable of online match games. The player population of kendama is said to be 3 million in Japan and the kendama boom is gradually spreading globally. Dendama is equipped with a sensor capable of discriminating complicated kendama skills by linking with the app and enables online match games with players all over the world.
The team plans exhibition at Kickstarter and SXSW, and continues business activities with a view to linking with AR (augmented reality) technologies.
Lightflyer was spun out from The University of Tokyo and is going to offer the launching service of ultra-small satellites leveraging its know-how of “the microwave rocket” accumulated for 13 years. The launching apparatus costs only tens of thousands of dollars for each ultra-small satellite and that is one-hundredth of conventional ones.
The Lightflyer team has established a research and development in cooperation with the University of Tokyo or Carnegie Mellon University, making efforts to complete the unit to put satellites into low orbit.
The automated electronic schematic creation tool Mille-Feuille supports programmers or artists without specialized knowledge to freely design their own custom electronic circuits. Mille-Feuille is composed of base board, module board, and device board. Users can participate in designing of the device boards as open hardware and can even sell them.
While sales of device boards will become the first profit for the firm, it also plans to customize and sell the license of the electronic schematic creation tool and its firmware (they are Web tools) to user companies. Moreover, the team has a concept of preparing a marketplace focusing on device boards and offers services like Google Play.
PLENGoer Robotics develops the original personal assistant robot. The team introduced this time a personal assistant robot capable of changing a general home into a smart home by controlling camera functions or household appliances, which was exhibited at CES too.
Unlike conventional cameras requiring pushing a shatter button, PLENGoer Robotics’ camera recognizes ideal photo opportunities and provides natural photos automatically.
- Japan’s PLENGoer Robotics unveils palm-sized cubic assistant robot at CES 2017
- Meet The Adorable Skateboarding Robot That You Can Print At Home
QD Laser develops the retina scanning type laser eyewear which projects images directly to wearer’s retina from the built-in laser projector on the eyewear frame. The number of visually handicapped people with impaired vision, who are not completely blind but have cloudy eyesight, totals at about 1.5 million in Japan and 250 million in the world including developing countries so this technology has a possibility of contributing to improvement of their quality of life.
With the specially designed optical system, QD Laser is able to project clear images regardless of the accommodation of eyes including eyesight or in-focus position. The team has been developing the glasses as medical instrument or welfare equipment in order to recover visual senses of visually handicapped people mainly caused by dysfunctions of anterior ocular segments such as corneas and lens. The team also implied the application possibilities in other fields such as AR or smart glasses where significant expansion is expected in the future.
Secual was founded in June of 2015, aiming to realize a new style of home security utilizing IoT. When the built-in sensor of the device installed on a window or a door detects unusual vibration, it transmits information to the firm’s center system via the gateway and notifies user’s smartphone of the analyzed information.
The device costs about $90 at least. Since it can be easily installed without requiring wiring works, the team approaches possible users who had gave up introducing home security due to high costs or installation limitations in rental houses, and aims to secure profit by setting $8.7 as the monthly charge.
The team is also developing new devices that work with Secual and is looking to various kinds of business development such as utilization in welfare facilities through strengthening cooperation with external organizations.
Vaqso develops the scent generation device attachable to HMD (head-mount display). Linking with VR contents, it is able to shoot out various realistic smells and provides VR experience with higher reality. The device can be installed to all HMD on the market.
Awards Ceremony: QD Laser Won the Top Prize
After the pitch competition held at the communication area with a casual atmosphere, the awards ceremony was held at the main arena.
The scent device for VR Vaqso team took 3rd place and the personal assistant robot PLENGoer Robotics team took 2nd place. The top prize went to the retina scanning type laser eye-ware QD Laser team.
The chief judge of the pitch competition Jeffrey McDaniel, Executive-in-Residence of Innovation Works hosting the accelerator AlphaLab Gear, commented on Japanese hardware startups:
Presentation in English must be the great first step to make appeal to overseas investors. I hope you all grow up utilizing Japanese manufacturing background.
After the competition, judge Shuji Fujita (President of EO Osaka) and judge Hikari Takahashi (Co-founder of Brain Portal) gave advices to eight participant teams about the key to success in business development. Fujita and Takahashi made great efforts to support the Japanese startup culture.
The qualifier QD Laser team was given a ticket to the pitch competition in Hardware Cup Final (19th to 20th April, Pittsburgh), as well as round-trip tickets from Japan to New York and travel expense support of $2,600 by the travel sponsor All Nippon Airways.
PLENGoer Robotics in 2nd place and Vaqso in 3rd place were given exhibition rights at demonstration area in Hardware Cup Final and travel expense supports ($1,800 for 2nd place and $880 for 3rd place) as well. Moreover, participation rights to Hardware Cup Demo Day which will be held either in New York or Pittsburgh will be awarded to all higher-ranking winners.
While it was the first Monozukuri Hardware Cup held this time, eight teams were chosen as finalists from 24 applicants through documentary elimination and competed fiercely to qualify for Hardware Cup Final by presenting their own products and business plan.
I hope that holding Monozukuri Hardware Cup continuously in the Kansai area will contribute to further growth of the Japanese hardware startups and become a foothold for creating the ecosystem of manufacturing.
Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy