How Japan’s most international Startup Summer School was created

Sushi Suzuki

This is a guest post by Sushi Suzuki, Founder and Lead Organizer of Kyoto Startup Summer School.

Sushi is a specially appointed associate professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and KYOTO Design Lab where he teaches Design Thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is responsible for ME310/SUGAR, a nine-month innovation program that originated in Stanford University and expanded globally.

Previously, Sushi co-founded Paris Est while teaching design innovation at École des Ponts ParisTech and was the Executive Director of the ME310 program at Stanford University. he also set up an innovation team for Panasonic Europe, was one of the co-founding members of, a Japanese start-up company that handles antique kimono and accessories online.

Sushi was born in Kyoto, Japan but spent over fifteen years in the US and over five in Europe and has traveled to over sixty countries. He holds a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and B.A. in Studio Arts from Rice University.

Kyoto Startup Summer School is a two-week entrepreneurship program hosted by the KYOTO Design Lab (D-Lab) at the Kyoto Institute of Technology. The program, conducted entirely in English, brings together over sixty participants, workshop facilitators, and lecturers from around the world.

Why a Startup Summer School?

A scene from Kyoto Startup Summer School
Image credit: Sushi Suzuki

Back in 2014, I was moonlighting with a German startup company called Yocondo that was working on creating a semantic product search engine to be used as a personal shopping assistant. The team was four brilliant engineers and me, a concept developer with mechanical engineering and Design Thinking backgrounds. Bootstrapping, we worked hard to develop proprietary technology and a product that would be useful to people. While the product was rapidly improving, we didn’t quite reach the explosive uptick in usage or meetings with investors for funding. After the unemployment pay for some of the team members ran out, the team disbanded. Another funny-named company in the startup graveyard.

Through this experience, I got to attend both Web Summit in Dublin and Slush in Helsinki, both world class startup events. Trying to network with investors and get attention from the media, we quickly realized that there was so much we didn’t know about the startup world. Engineers and designers have this mistaken belief that “if you build something good, users will come.” While we did read books and articles on startups, it didn’t quite sink in with us. I realized that being good at making things doesn’t necessarily make you a good entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship and startups are buzzing around the world now, and more and more young people want to start companies. However, there is so much more one needs to learn than what is available in most universities. Going to engineering, design, business school will only give you a piece of the whole puzzle. This is why Kyoto Startup Summer School (KS3) was created, to give a comprehensive overview of entrepreneurship.

How is Kyoto Startup Summer School structured?

Participants discussing during the workshop
Image credit: Sushi Suzuki

There are a lot of entrepreneurship programs and courses out there modeled after the Lean Launchpad model. Participants get together on day 1 with their ideas and form teams. After successive user interviews, mentoring sessions, and pitches over several weeks to months, the teams ultimately deliver a startup idea with a strong product-market fit. KS3 purposefully avoids this model and focuses more on a variety of content that entrepreneurs should know before founding. These are organized in modules of different lengths, taught by active entrepreneurs, professionals, and academics in the field.

At the core of KS3 are two multi-day workshops of Design Thinking and Lean Startup. The Design Thinking module focuses on the mindset of innovation, of being collaborative, user-centered, and experimental through rapid prototyping. For the last two years, we’ve been fortunate to have Anja Nabergoj, lecturer at the Stanford teach this workshop. The Lean Startup module is about developing your idea to make sure you achieve good product-market fit through micro-experiments. Too many entrepreneurs keep making the wrong product with a misguided notion of what the customer wants, and both Design Thinking and Lean Startup help prevent this.

After the two big workshops, there are many smaller lecture and workshop modules. These modules could include sessions on investors-entrepreneur relations by the head of 500 Startups Japan, crowdfunding by the head of design and technology at Kickstarter, or “how to work with accelerators” by the managing director of Plug and Play Center Japan. One popular session from 2018 was focusing on corporate culture at startups by a researcher who did his Ph.D. on this topic. I teach a session on startup pitches utilizing my experience as the pitch coach for Slush Tokyo.

Meetup session with local entrepreneurs
Image credit: Sushi Suzuki

The smaller workshops focus on introductions to more skill-based topics such as mechatronics prototyping with Arduino, introduction to software development or CAD, and storytelling for marketing. The goal of these modules isn’t to make the participants into experts in any single field but to provide foundational knowledge into many different fields that is important for creating startups. By getting a strong introduction, the participants will know what they have to learn in order to be successful when they take that leap into entrepreneurship.

In addition, throughout the two weeks, there are more fun events such as meetups with local entrepreneurs, visits to startups in the region, and morning yoga and meditation sessions. KS3 finishes with 54 hours of Startup Weekend where participants can flex their muscles and apply everything they’ve learnt. This session is co-organized with the SW Kyoto community and brings in local members as well.

Who comes to Kyoto Startup Summer School?

KS3 started in 2016 as a two-day beta test with four lecturers and a dozen participants. Most of the participants were local as we only advertised the program a month in advance. In 2017, we expanded the program to two weeks and spread the word to all corners of the world. I remember thinking: “will people really come to Japan for a two-week program on entrepreneurship?” Sure enough, we had 199 applicants from 51 countries that year from which we selected 35 people, and people really did come from around the world. 2018 was just as popular. Some participants came from Brazil, Chile, and Egypt, places very far from Japan. We even had a candidate from Iraq but he was not able to get a visa.

On the other hand, we don’t get nearly as many applications from Japanese students. Originally, we thought the applicant pool may be 40-50% Japanese, but in the last two years, it’s been about 3-5%. We knew the language barrier will scare off a lot of people, but we’re starting to realize that there isn’t much of a summer school culture in Japan. Getting more Japanese participants is definitely a challenge for the future.

Countries where everyone involved in KS3 have come from
Image credit: Sushi Suzuki

In 2018, we also opened up the first week of the program to corporate participants. The two core workshops on Design Thinking and Lean Startup are actually applicable for companies and employees trying to develop new products, services, and businesses. We had several companies send their employees to be trained in these methodologies and we hope to expand this in the future.

One of the greatest satisfactions we’ve gained from running KS3 has been the community we’ve been able to form every year. Every year we create a Facebook group with all the participants and we see that many of them continue to interact after the summer school. Many people come from countries where the startup movement is still in its infancy and connecting with like-minded passionate people around the world is empowering. We’ve also been getting a lot of great feedback, both positive and constructive. We’re continuing to improve every aspect of KS3 and looking forward to those who will join us this year!