THE BRIDGE

Takeshi Hirano

Takeshi Hirano

Takeshi is a Japanese tech blogger and a co-founder of The Bridge, and is also the CEO for bootupAsia, Inc. He started his career as a web designer.

Articles

Wantedly, Japan’s social recruiting startup, files for IPO

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See the original story in Japanese. Tokyo-based Wantedly, Japan’s social recruiting startup, announced today that its IPO application to the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) has been approved. The company will be listed on the TSE Mothers Market on 14 September with plans to offer 50,000 shares for public subscription and to sell 19,500 shares in over-allotment options, for a total of 80,000 shares. Daiwa Securities will lead the underwriting. Its share price range will be released on 28 August with bookbuilding scheduled to start on 7 September and pricing on 6 September. According to the consolidated statement as of August 2016, they posted revenue of 840 million yen (about $7.6 million) with an ordinary profit of 120 million yen ($1.1 million) and a net profit of 77 million yen ($700,000). Wantedly, the company’s flagship service offering business-centric social networking opportunities, has about 800,000 individual users and 23,000 corporate users. About 1.5 million unique users visit the platform a month while 27% of these users visit it at least once a month. Led by the company’s CEO Akiko Naka (69.98%), its major shareholders include CyberAgent (TSE:4751, 11.1%), Shogo Kawada (co-founder and advisor of DeNA, 6.38%), Shinji Kumura (Founder of AnyPay /…

At the press conference introducing Wantedly’s new contact management service Wantedly People in July.
L to R: Akito Sakasegawa (New Business Development, Wantedly), Akiko Naka (CEO, Wantedly), Naoyoshi Aikawa (Lead Engineer, Wantedly)

See the original story in Japanese.

Tokyo-based Wantedly, Japan’s social recruiting startup, announced today that its IPO application to the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) has been approved. The company will be listed on the TSE Mothers Market on 14 September with plans to offer 50,000 shares for public subscription and to sell 19,500 shares in over-allotment options, for a total of 80,000 shares. Daiwa Securities will lead the underwriting.

Its share price range will be released on 28 August with bookbuilding scheduled to start on 7 September and pricing on 6 September. According to the consolidated statement as of August 2016, they posted revenue of 840 million yen (about $7.6 million) with an ordinary profit of 120 million yen ($1.1 million) and a net profit of 77 million yen ($700,000). Wantedly, the company’s flagship service offering business-centric social networking opportunities, has about 800,000 individual users and 23,000 corporate users. About 1.5 million unique users visit the platform a month while 27% of these users visit it at least once a month.

Led by the company’s CEO Akiko Naka (69.98%), its major shareholders include CyberAgent (TSE:4751, 11.1%), Shogo Kawada (co-founder and advisor of DeNA, 6.38%), Shinji Kumura (Founder of AnyPay / Das Capital, 4.13%), Yoshinori Kawasaki (CTO of Wantedly, 3.26%), Archetype (2.02%), Nihon Keizai Shimbun or simply The Nikkei (1.17%), Naoyoshi Aikawa (Lead engineer of Wantedly, 0.59%), Masanori Sugiyama (Chairman and President of Zappalas, 0.42%) and Kosuke Matsumoto (Managing Director of Enish, 0.42%).

Wantedly was founded back in 2010 under its previous name of Fuel by Naka who previously participated in launching Japanese operations of Facebook. Focusing on the potential of referral recruitment business, she launched the Wantedly social recruiting platform.

Wantedly Visit
Image credit: Wantedly Singapore

By stepping into beyond just a recruiting platform, Wantedly has been a taking the position of a LinkedIn-like business-centric social network platform. In order to expand its business by increasing touch-points for businesspersons, the company has launched additional services such as Wantedly Visit (interview scheduling assistant between hiring companies and employee candidates), Wantedly People (business card management) and Wantedly Chat (group chat app).

See also:

Translated by Masaru Ikeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

Deep learning startup Preferred Networks raises $95M from Toyota for self-driving tech

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See the original story in Japanese. Tokyo-based Preferred Networks (PFN), the Japanese startup offering deep learning technologies for Internet of Things (IoT), announced today that it would receive an additional 10.5 billion yen (about $95.4 million)investment from Toyota Motor (TSE:7203). The cash injection will make Toyota an eternal largest shareholder for PFN.  Based on this, both companies will further work on the joint development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in autonomous driving and other mobility business fields. Since its launch back in March of 2014, PFN has been proposing Edge Heavy Computing, the distributed data processing scheme dealing with an enormous volume of data from various IoT devices, aiming to let devices interact each others so that each device can autonomously make a higher level decision making. The company has been focused on serving transportation, manufacturing and bio healthcare industries by partnering with Toyota, Fanac, National Cancer Center and other institutions. This funding from Toyota follows the previous one receiving 1 billion yen in December of 2015 after both companies started joint research back in October of 2014. According to the press release from PFN, the investment was led by Toyata’s understanding that object-recognition technology and analysis technology of vehicle…

Image credit: Toyota Global Newsroom

See the original story in Japanese.

Tokyo-based Preferred Networks (PFN), the Japanese startup offering deep learning technologies for Internet of Things (IoT), announced today that it would receive an additional 10.5 billion yen (about $95.4 million)investment from Toyota Motor (TSE:7203). The cash injection will make Toyota an eternal largest shareholder for PFN.  Based on this, both companies will further work on the joint development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in autonomous driving and other mobility business fields.

Since its launch back in March of 2014, PFN has been proposing Edge Heavy Computing, the distributed data processing scheme dealing with an enormous volume of data from various IoT devices, aiming to let devices interact each others so that each device can autonomously make a higher level decision making. The company has been focused on serving transportation, manufacturing and bio healthcare industries by partnering with Toyota, Fanac, National Cancer Center and other institutions.

This funding from Toyota follows the previous one receiving 1 billion yen in December of 2015 after both companies started joint research back in October of 2014.

According to the press release from PFN, the investment was led by Toyata’s understanding that object-recognition technology and analysis technology of vehicle information, both of which have been co-developed by the two, is something essential for the motor company looking into the next-gen mobility society. PFN will use the funds to enhance computational environment and accelerate talent acquisition.

Translated by Masaru Ikeda

Japanese marketplace app Mercari launches own fund to invest in C2C startups

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See the original story in Japanese. In January of 2016 Japanese C2C (consumer-to-consumer) marketplace app Mercari announced a 450 million yen (about $4.1M US dollars) investment in Base, the Japanese version of Shopify, effectively shocking it back to life. Somehow it feels as if the Japanese entrepreneurial ecosystem has been enriched. On Tuesday Tokyo-based Mercari revealed their project “Mercari Fund” to invest in startups specialized in C2C products/services and marketplaces. It is an “investment project” with Mercari itself making the investments rather than establishing an investment arm or subsidiary. The companies invested in will also be considered for partnerships with Mercari’s services, such as Mercari (marketplace app) and Mercari Atte (a service enabling users to sell/buy stuff on a meeting basis). Up to now, Mercari has been investing in startups such as Base (Shopify-like instant e-commerce platform), Rentio (rental service of home appliances and camera), Flamingo (language learning service). In February of this year they acquired Zawatt, the Japanese startup which has been operating the Sumaoku flea market app. Although I confirmed the company’s goals, I feel that the main purpose is to create an economic zone with Mercari at the center, meet the needs of even more users, and…

See the original story in Japanese.

In January of 2016 Japanese C2C (consumer-to-consumer) marketplace app Mercari announced a 450 million yen (about $4.1M US dollars) investment in Base, the Japanese version of Shopify, effectively shocking it back to life.

Somehow it feels as if the Japanese entrepreneurial ecosystem has been enriched.

On Tuesday Tokyo-based Mercari revealed their project “Mercari Fund” to invest in startups specialized in C2C products/services and marketplaces. It is an “investment project” with Mercari itself making the investments rather than establishing an investment arm or subsidiary. The companies invested in will also be considered for partnerships with Mercari’s services, such as Mercari (marketplace app) and Mercari Atte (a service enabling users to sell/buy stuff on a meeting basis).

Up to now, Mercari has been investing in startups such as Base (Shopify-like instant e-commerce platform), Rentio (rental service of home appliances and camera), Flamingo (language learning service). In February of this year they acquired Zawatt, the Japanese startup which has been operating the Sumaoku flea market app.

Although I confirmed the company’s goals, I feel that the main purpose is to create an economic zone with Mercari at the center, meet the needs of even more users, and carve out a secure place for themselves. One example is Kauru, Mercari’s new service released in May, it takes the established market of books and gives an enriched user experience by providing them with estimated market prices from information gained when they input a barcode.

See also:

It is possible to tackle this type of specialized service through their own initiative alone, but if they are looking to expand the economic zone more speedily, investment will be a natural way. I also confirmed this, but we can assume there will be more cases of acquisition, similar to Zawatt. Regarding concrete methods of collaboration, the company is considering further collaborations with Mercari ID and Atte, and has plans to make this information public in the future.

Also, while the individual investment amount will not be disclosed, keeping in mind the considerable investment volume of 450 million yen in Base in January of last year, we can think of it as being in the investment amount range where business synergies are felt and adjust it individually. Unlike an investment fund that keeps external funds here and there, it will be an investment project purely for business synergy.

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda

Japan’s crowdfunding site Campfire breaking away into cryptocurrency, P2P payments

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See the original story in Japanese. Campfire, one of leading crowdfunding sites in Japan, announced earlier this month that it has fundraised 600 million yen (about $5.5 million US) from JAFCO (TSE:8595) and SBI Investment. Details such as the payment date and investment ratio were not announced. The company also revealed that their total funding so far has reached 1 billion yen (around $9.1M US). See also: Japanese crowdfunding site Campfire secures $3M to launch social lending service Since the company’s beginning in 2011, they have seen over 6,500 projects, had 240,000 backers participate in crowdfunding while the total amount of deals transacted on the platform has reached 2.4 billion yen (about $22M US). In particular, they have experienced remarkable growth in the past year, and in 2017 the total value of transactions has increased to 12 times that of the period from January to March of 2016.  With this funding, the company expands into cryptocurrency, P2P payments, and investment businesses. One year since founder’s return as CEO It has been awhile since the idea of crowdfunding appeared. Around eight years ago Kickstarter took the lead in 2009. If we look at the annual review published by them we can…

See the original story in Japanese.

Campfire, one of leading crowdfunding sites in Japan, announced earlier this month that it has fundraised 600 million yen (about $5.5 million US) from JAFCO (TSE:8595) and SBI Investment. Details such as the payment date and investment ratio were not announced. The company also revealed that their total funding so far has reached 1 billion yen (around $9.1M US).

See also:

Since the company’s beginning in 2011, they have seen over 6,500 projects, had 240,000 backers participate in crowdfunding while the total amount of deals transacted on the platform has reached 2.4 billion yen (about $22M US). In particular, they have experienced remarkable growth in the past year, and in 2017 the total value of transactions has increased to 12 times that of the period from January to March of 2016.  With this funding, the company expands into cryptocurrency, P2P payments, and investment businesses.

One year since founder’s return as CEO

Kazuma Ieiri, Founder and CEO of Campfire
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

It has been awhile since the idea of crowdfunding appeared.

Around eight years ago Kickstarter took the lead in 2009. If we look at the annual review published by them we can get a general feel for their numbers. About 580 million dollars is invested in nearly 58,000 annual projects, and since the numbers published by Campfire are cumulative it is difficult to compare the two.

In February of last year Kazuma Ieiri returned as CEO of Campfire. At that time he expressed a feeling of crisis.

It’s been five years since we began Campfire out of love for crowdfunding, but honestly if Campfire itself and crowdfunding as a whole is left as it is, I’m worried about shrinking.

At the time, Ieiri was grappling with a 5% cut to commission fees.

I want to launch 1000 individual projects for 50,000 yen (about $460 US) from one large project totaling 50 million.

This train of his thought lead to the concept of the “democratization of funding.”

His next move was swift.

They made a rapid fire succession of announcements about use cases leveraged by the crowdfunding platform: Local businesses that promote local initiatives, fan clubs that are allowed to charge on a subscription basis, in addition to music performance supporting projects currently showing great growth.

In addition to cutting fees, the company also gradually removed hurdles so that more people could participate in crowdfunding, for example, adding the “All-In” function that allows projects to receive funds even if they do not reach their target. As a result, the total transaction amount will increase greatly, and after seeing an increase in capital, etc. via external funding, they will once again be on the path to growth.

Breaking away from crowdfunding

So, what are Ieiri’s views on crowdfunding and the future?

First, it is easier to understand by organizing the new business expansions announced this time around. The business will be comprised of the FireX cryptocurrency exchange (recently launched), a P2P (peer-to-peer) payments service called Polca (scheduled to launch in June), investments, and their  major existing business area dealing with crowdfunding projects.

The overall picture presented by Campfire

What they all have in common is the matching of people who intend to start something and those who wish to support them. Of course, their cryptocurrency business is not solely for trading; an even bigger incentive is likely that they are more easily able to decide rules based on comparisons with legal currency.

Polca is an extremely personal support/financing project, and Campfire a slightly larger project, with the businesses that could stem from them bringing investments and loans. Through the use of crothe ghosts of transaction fees that haunt them at every turn can be exorcised.

To tie it all together, the hazy picture the company paints of their platform, with people connecting at the center and the goal of support through distribution of their own money effectively creates an economy.

The next stage of the “Democratization of Funding”

Speaking with Ieiri at Infinity Ventures Summit in Kobe.
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

In an interview conducted in November of last year, Ieiri confided his thoughts on expanding the scope of the project from crowdfunding to a social and money lending business. He reiterated those sentiments this time around.

He said:

Japan is full of challenges–so much so, that they even say we’re a developed country with problems. […] A redistribution of wealth, I think is what it’s called–I believe it’s necessary to create a system to circulate money from private citizens who have it to those who do not. However, it remains, how to do it through a steady business scheme rather than charitable activities.

Crowdfunding was supposed to be the ideal democratization method for Ieiri. However, as the beginning numbers show, the wall remains high to make it even bigger and turn it into a financial method anyone can access. The announced funding appears to be a way to break through the wall.

At the time of this news was revealed, I was able to get in contact with Ieiri in Kobe during the invitation only conference, Infinity Ventures Summit. He had this to say on the funding:

It’s been about one year, February of 2016, since returning full-scale to Campfire, which had 3 employees at the time. Now that number has increased to nearly 70, and we moved offices just the other day. In regards to finance, as we announced, we have earned nearly 1 billion yen cumulatively.

In terms of the total transaction voume, this year it’s expected to be around 3.5 billion yen, bringing the total to 5 billion. We’ve seen some growth, but we still have a ways to go. Until now we were ‘Campfire for Crowdfunding’, but from here on out we will evolve into Campfire–aiming for a world where anyone can raise their voice for any funding needs, including crowdfunding. I intend to use the funding to advance our new image, one that goes beyond the framework of crowdfunding in order to advance the democratization of funding.

I plan to continue checking the trend of how the crowdfunding model evolves in Japan.

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda

Japan’s One Visa helps companies better manage visa applications of foreign workers

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See the original story in Japanese. Tokyo-based Residence recently unveiled the open beta version of One Visa, the online visa applications management platform. It allows Japanese companies to submit visa applications for their employees and manage when their visas will become expired and must apply for a new one. Usage fee is 40,000 yen per company. Residence also announced that it has recently raised 36 million yen (about $324,000) from Primal Capital and Skyland Ventures. The platform allows companies to manage the profiles of their foreign employees. It will notify the personnel department when their visa expiration timing comes closer, then tell them automatically what kind of visa will be needed and take them into an automated visa application flow. Users can download forms in need for their visa application simply by asking questions, or can even ask a paralegal to conduct the entire process through the platform instead of doing themselves. According to the company, there’s an increased demand in managing visa applications for foreign employees at Japanese companies as the population of foreign visitors and residents in Japan are on the rise. About 1.6 million visa applications were made in Japan in 2015, which is 6% higher than…

Image credit: magurok / 123RF

See the original story in Japanese.

Tokyo-based Residence recently unveiled the open beta version of One Visa, the online visa applications management platform. It allows Japanese companies to submit visa applications for their employees and manage when their visas will become expired and must apply for a new one. Usage fee is 40,000 yen per company. Residence also announced that it has recently raised 36 million yen (about $324,000) from Primal Capital and Skyland Ventures.

The platform allows companies to manage the profiles of their foreign employees. It will notify the personnel department when their visa expiration timing comes closer, then tell them automatically what kind of visa will be needed and take them into an automated visa application flow. Users can download forms in need for their visa application simply by asking questions, or can even ask a paralegal to conduct the entire process through the platform instead of doing themselves.

According to the company, there’s an increased demand in managing visa applications for foreign employees at Japanese companies as the population of foreign visitors and residents in Japan are on the rise. About 1.6 million visa applications were made in Japan in 2015, which is 6% higher than its previous year’s stats, while we also see a 18% increase in the number of foreign employees in Japan. There’s also the Japanese Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry’s predication that the population of foreign workers in Japan will hit 2.06 million by the year 2020.

Meanwhile, the visa application process requires expertise in application procedures and selecting a relevant visa type, as well as preparing relevant documents to attach for submission, while language barriers are also a huge obstacle in this process. It usually takes several weeks for preparing attaching documents only, and is likely to force applicants to wait for long hours at the immigration office.

The One Visa platform is now being used as closed beta by about 10 companies from restaurant chain operators and Internet service companies to financial institutions. Going forward, the team plans to enhance the service that will even allow users to report the employment status of foreign workers to the Japanese Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry.

Albert Okamura, founder and CEO of Residence, is an entrepreneur in his 20s, originally from Peru. Following his work experience at the Japanese immigration office where he has processed 20,000 visa applications, he made up his mind to tackle this issue.

Albert Okamura, founder and CEO of Residence, is an entrepreneur in his 20s, originally from Peru. Following his work experience at the Japanese immigration office where he has processed 20,000 visa applications, he made up his mind to tackle this issue.

Translated by Masaru Ikeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

Smart stethoscope startup AMI wins KDDI’s Mugen Labo accelerator 11th Demo Day

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See the original story in Japanese. Japanese leading telco KDDI (TSE:9433) held a Demo Day for its incubation program KDDI Mugendai Labo last week. Among the four teams newly allowed to participate in the three months-long program, AMI developing smart stethoscope won the KDDI Mugen Labo Award, and Warrantee won the Audience Award (refer to this article for details about Warrantee). The following introduces the content of the pitch competition by the four teams that joined the program from the 11th batch. Watcha Korea-based Watcha, supported by Toppan Printing (TSE:7911) and KDDI, is tackling the problems of the content search system. For conventional search methods, in particular for entertainment content, recommended information, advertising, review and query are provided with the search results. On the other hand, Watcha provides better recommendation utilizing machine learning and tag analyses. Analyzing the degree of each user’s preference based on rating data, it constructs patterns for machine learning. By combining tags extracted from content outlines and the results of user analysis, Watcha realized the high-accuracy recommendation. Due to joining the program, Watcha obtained a good result in development; the number of posts with important rating was increased six-fold. Watcha’s rating data is going to be…

Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

See the original story in Japanese.

Japanese leading telco KDDI (TSE:9433) held a Demo Day for its incubation program KDDI Mugendai Labo last week. Among the four teams newly allowed to participate in the three months-long program, AMI developing smart stethoscope won the KDDI Mugen Labo Award, and Warrantee won the Audience Award (refer to this article for details about Warrantee). The following introduces the content of the pitch competition by the four teams that joined the program from the 11th batch.

Watcha

Watcha’s Jaeok Lee
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

Korea-based Watcha, supported by Toppan Printing (TSE:7911) and KDDI, is tackling the problems of the content search system.

For conventional search methods, in particular for entertainment content, recommended information, advertising, review and query are provided with the search results. On the other hand, Watcha provides better recommendation utilizing machine learning and tag analyses. Analyzing the degree of each user’s preference based on rating data, it constructs patterns for machine learning. By combining tags extracted from content outlines and the results of user analysis, Watcha realized the high-accuracy recommendation.

Due to joining the program, Watcha obtained a good result in development; the number of posts with important rating was increased six-fold. Watcha’s rating data is going to be introduced in a video streaming service Videopass provided by KDDI from June 1st.

Smart Stethoscope by AMI

Shimpei Ogawa, CEO of AMI
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

AMI, behind a smart stethoscope Cho-Choshinki (literally meaning ‘super-stethoscope’ in Japanese) supported by Toppan Printing and KDDI, won KDDI Mugen Labo Award. Shimpei Ogawa, CEO of AMI, is a practicing medical doctor. The firm developed a stethoscope having an auto-assist function for diagnosis, aiming to find out particular heart diseases by analyzing digitalized heart sounds and combining this data with electrocardiogram.

There is no advanced medical instrument in medical care at disaster sites or remote places. Stethoscopes are useful medical devices especially in these situations, seen everywhere and remaining unchanged since invented in France 200 years ago. The firm focused on this point and aims to establish a device-linked type medical service in order to support home, remote and preventive medicine. The firm has been carrying out verification tests for the device and negotiating with medical organizations.

TeNKYU

Hideki Kan, CEO of TeNKYU
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

The TeNKYU team has been supported by Softfront Holdings (TSE:2321), Dentsu (TSE:4324), Hitachi (TSE:6521) and KDDI during the program.

TeNKYU is a light bulb-shaped IoT device capable of automatically notifying online information such as weather forecasts by blinking the light; the device shows whether it will rain or not by the color tone of the light using its motion sensor and color LED. The device can also cover pollen information, rate of exchange, garbage day or lucky color, and is switchable via app, so that users will no longer need to search these information with internet communication devices like smartphone.

VRize

Hideyuki Shoda, CEO of VRize
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

VRize has been supported by Supership, Dai Nippon Printing (TSE:7912), Microsoft Japan and KDDI. The firm offers CMS (content management system) under the same name for development of apps available for VR (virtual reality) platform, enabling distribution of 360-degree videos or 2D videos optimized for VR. This system improves work efficiency of VR app development, shortening a process requiring three months into one-tenth of that.

The firm carried out a test operation of VR videos at lounges in an airport and obtained positive feedbacks in which more than 90% of users answered they would like to use this service again. The firm will commence sales of the product via sales agents and plans to develop its business along with its advertising platform which will also be launched soon.

See also:

Participant startups graduated from the previous 10th batch

Katsunori Shimomura, CEO of Enowa
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

As for participant startups of the previous 10th batch, namely, Axelspace, Xshell, Enowa and Mamorio, they have been continuously supported and been performing verification tests with partnered companies over half a year.

Axelspace, which is behind a satellite image service, conducted various demonstration tests jointly with KDDI, aiming to turn satellite images into meaningful data available for business utilizing deep learning. For example, the firm has been carrying out tests analyzing images of parking spaces photographed by satellites and utilizing the data for research activities required for setting parking charges, in collaboration with Mitsui Fudosan (TSE:8801).

See also:

Xshell, behind an IoT (internet of things) device development / management platform enabling web service-like management, succeeded in funding and it is the first case to succeed in doing so during program participation.

Makoto Takahashi, Executive Vice President of KDDI
Image credit: Takeshi Hirano

Adding TDK (TSE:6762) and Seibu Railway (TSE:9002), the number of partner companies to jointly develop business with startups will reach 36 from the next 12th batch. The 12th batch will be held over one year from this August to the end of July 2018 and accepts primary applications to entry the program from 18th May to 19th June. It can accept applications after this period but the support term may be shortened.

Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

Meet 8 startups on inbound travel from IBM BlueHub program’s latest batch in Tokyo

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See the original story in Japanese. IBM Japan held the Demo Day event for their BlueHub open innovation program last week. The latest batch features startups focused on inbound travel businesses. A number of companies offering inbound travel services participated, with four big corporates: NTT Docomo, Zenrin, Zenrin DataCom, and Softbank, and eight startups: Andeco, Crea Japan, Fesbase, Pretia, Mybase, Metro Engines, Rich Table, and Realista. Presented services and companies were: Fesbase: chatbot platform focused on serving Chinese visitors to Japan (by Crea Japan) Quippy for Restaurants: Marketing and product development support tool for restaurants (by Rich Table) Sakevel: Sake brewery tourism and personal sake sommelier service (by Mybase) SnapGo: AR(augmented reality)-based navigation service (by Pretia) Miccossy: Mobile app curating Japanese local festivals (by Andeco) Travel experience sharing platform (by NTT Docomo) 1Minute Japan: Video-based service for helping foreign visitors to Japan solve problems (by Realista) Metro Engines: AI (artificial intelligence) tool that helps hotels determine competitive pricing In late February, teams composed of a mix of the companies carried out kick-off meetings and held six workshops throughout the three month planning phase. Following the Demo Day they will begin to work on firm plans for commercialization. In the spirit…

See the original story in Japanese.

IBM Japan held the Demo Day event for their BlueHub open innovation program last week. The latest batch features startups focused on inbound travel businesses.

A number of companies offering inbound travel services participated, with four big corporates: NTT Docomo, Zenrin, Zenrin DataCom, and Softbank, and eight startups: Andeco, Crea Japan, Fesbase, Pretia, Mybase, Metro Engines, Rich Table, and Realista.

Presented services and companies were:

  • Fesbase: chatbot platform focused on serving Chinese visitors to Japan (by Crea Japan)
  • Quippy for Restaurants: Marketing and product development support tool for restaurants (by Rich Table)
  • Sakevel: Sake brewery tourism and personal sake sommelier service (by Mybase)
  • SnapGo: AR(augmented reality)-based navigation service (by Pretia)
  • Miccossy: Mobile app curating Japanese local festivals (by Andeco)
  • Travel experience sharing platform (by NTT Docomo)
  • 1Minute Japan: Video-based service for helping foreign visitors to Japan solve problems (by Realista)
  • Metro Engines: AI (artificial intelligence) tool that helps hotels determine competitive pricing

In late February, teams composed of a mix of the companies carried out kick-off meetings and held six workshops throughout the three month planning phase. Following the Demo Day they will begin to work on firm plans for commercialization. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was asked to participate in this event as a judge. The following are introductions of the seven services that gave presentations.

Fesbase: chatbot platform focused on serving Chinese visitors to Japan (by Crea Japan)

When planning vacations overseas you may often rely on TripAdvisor and Yelp, but it is hard to tell the atmosphere of a place and whether it is suitable for kids or not. It is easy to imagine the same situation occurring during the expected boom in inbound tourism to Japan. Many tourists from China come to Japan for the cuisine. They may be left wondering how to make a reservation in such situations. That’s where the Yoyaku app uses chatbot and AI to come to the rescue.

Users select the category of restaurant they want to reserve and input details like the area they hope to go to. The app supports voice input so it is easy for travelers to use, and recommended information is delivered leveraging IBM Watson.

Since Fesbase already has an existing project that offers a human concierge, there is a large amount of training data, so it is possible to provide accurate recommendations. If, due to the contents of the question, the bot cannot answer, it is possible for AI to sort and select a human concierge who can. They are currently in negotiations with the Chinese media and also looking into acquiring users before their arrival in Japan.

In terms of business, they are thinking to charge a fee to restaurants based on driving user traffic to them, and in the future, once the number of users increases, they are planning to offer a platform for restaurant searching services to businesses.

Quippy for Restaurants: Marketing and product development support tool for restaurants (by Rich Table)

The Quippy app

Quippy provides a restaraunt searching tool on Instagram. It offers users with the chance to discover (even the unexpected) restaurants via searching. When the user launches the app, information linked to the location information of the restaurant and the picture pulled from Instagram is displayed. Since the app will learn what content the user has browsed, it will recommend additional restaurants later on.

For the service geared at restaurants, the tool will show them posts in English on social network sites and restaurant review sites as negative or positive. If a specific dish receives a negative review, it can recommend Instragram examples from another shop to the restaurant to improve. The searching service is free, while the service for restaurants will be offered based on a monthly subscription model.

Sakevel: Sake brewery tourism and personal sake sommelier service (by Mybase)

Takashi Kageyama, CEO of Mybase

88 of the 100 foreigners questioned at Narita International Airport said they want to drink Japanese sake. On the flipside, they don’t really have any information about sake breweries. Moreover, more than 99% of such breweries are mid-sized or family run so they may not be able to fully support foreigners who show up unannounced, but even before that 60% of consumption by foreigners visiting Japan is in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The idea behind Sakevel is to utilize tourism resources to awaken the small sake breweries that sleep in unknown areas, thus promoting regional development.

The Sakevel app

As for the sake itself, the Sakevel app recognizes the images on labels and provides that information in multiple languages. It also introduces personalized sake recommendations for tourists based on information gathered from past posts on social media sites. Since breweries cannot attract customers alone, Mybase plans to offer sake brewery tours along the same lines as a winery tour. Services are set to begin in October this year.

SnapGo: AR-based navigation service (by Pretia)

The SnapGo app

SnapGo will take you where you want to go without GPS by specifying your location with a mobile picture. This solves the problem of the numbers of foreign tourists who get lost due to lack of multilingual signage in Japan.

The company receives a photo of the place from its premise owner, creates an algorithm from it, and makes it possible to identify places from photographs taken by users through machine learning. As a result, users without GPS on their devices or who experience language difficulties can get to their destination by simply taking pictures.

In order to develop the algorithm it appears they need about forty 360-degree images. Additionally, it is assumed that the destination is input using images or text.

Miccossy: Mobile app curating Japanese local festivals (by Andeco)

Simply put, it is a festival information service for foreign tourists in Japan. It is difficult for users to acquire real-time festival information even if they refer to guide books, etc. People outside of Japan search for “matsuri (literally festivals in Japanese)” on YouTube as much as “Mt. Fuji” so there is a demand. Moreover, the company expects that there are 310,000 festivals all over Japan.

The Micossy app displays festival information in the surrounding area and provides related information like how to participate, and so on, in multiple languages. Their business model is the sale of “happi” or traditional clothing to be worn at the festival. Initially they plan to start by offering information on 100 festivals.

1Minute Japan: Video-based service for helping foreign visitors to Japan solve problems (by Realista)

1Minute Japan is designed for travelers to Japan who come on their own, not as a tour. It provides help to travelers before departure on topics like SIM cards and Wifi in Japan, and once they begin their journey, the company offers transportation and ticket information, as well as a restaurant reservation service. Using Watson to analyze the information learned from these tasks, it can analyze sentiments and classify what kind of problems people in various countries experience. Then they release video content to solve these problems.

The service can be used in this way: the example that, “an American traveler in their 20’s doesn’t know how to eat at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant”, guides them to create video content to help this person. They started test marketing in April and have acquired around 5,000 followers on their Facebook page.

Metro Engines: AI tool that helps hotels determine competitive pricing

Metro Engine

Metro Engines can optimize revenue for hotels and inns. The tool targets the 35,000 facilities throughout Japan, with 1.2 million rooms. Many of the rooms were priced using an individual’s expertise. Some chains use tools, but set their prices based on past performance and competing room prices. However, it can be said that this method will become ineffective as the supply-demand balance collapses due to access to private residences, etc.

That is where Metro Engines comes in. It predicts the reservation behavior of guests, and then set room prices through data analysis peppered with budget information, reviews, and furthermore, information on renting private homes and rooms, as well as guest room photos. In addition, It has also visualized human behavior based on mobile behavior data from NTT Docomo, Zenrin, and Softbank and included it.

Based on the big data obtained through these measures, they can tangibly present how a room should be priced. The service was announced on the 25th of last month and is currently under evaluation at 50 facilities. When they link up with the individual systems of hotels and inns, they can verify that the price setting was appropriate.

Watson’s unique open innovation program and future issues

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Yuta Hagiwara, CEO of Prevent. His team won the previous program batch last year.

Followed by the previous batch focused on automotive and healthcare verticals, this was the second edition of the IBM BlueHub open innovation program. Prevent, one of the grads from the previous program batch last year, is a startup spun off from Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine. The team presented a solution preventing lifestyle diseases, which was collaboratively developed with a health insurance company.

Based on his research experience having succeeded in lowering the recurrence rate of high blood pressure, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease and other symptoms to less than 30%, he has developed an online consultation service. He claims that they will aim to gain the consultation efficiency by implementing the Watson technology into a chat-based consultation service.

In the latest batch focused on the inbound travel topic, participating companies were trying to create new values by combining with the unique strength of the services, technologies and resources that they have had.

Metro Engines was highly evaluated because of not only telling hotels optimized room pricing leveraging big data analysis but also predicting details and suggesting ideas about how to improve. The team is outstanding with having already 50 companies as potential clients.

Regarding aforementioned Predict and Metro Engines, they could unveil clear results through the program, however, the ideas of other teams were still “small” in the potential about their technologies and services or their ideas are still rough and unclear in the potential merit to come out of a collaboration work.

Moreover, we saw some projects which had probably managed to adjust their ideas into Watson in the program, meaning that they have turned a means into a purpose there.

It might sound good if we say a collaboration between resourceful corporates and game-changing startups with technologies. However, if the collaboration become a purpose, I assume that it will not bring a good result because of the gap in expectations and cultures on both sides, or the program host’s egotism.

Where is the problem to solve? Does it require any technology? What kind of businesses should be get together to speed it up? Open Innovation is now trending in Japan, that’s especially why I think these well-considered preparation may be more important.

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda

Japan’s Candee acquires video production company to develop livestreaming platform

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See the original story in Japanese. Japan’s Candee, running an overall mobile video-related media business, announced last week that it has acquired a full stake in Apollo Productions behind livestreaming business and made Apollo Productions into a wholly-owned subsidiary. The deal value was undisclosed. Along with this, Takuro Arai (Executive Vice-president and CCO of Candee) and Shuhei Okawa (Executive Officer of Candee) were appointed as board members of Apollo Productions. Toshiyuki Asada, the founder of Apollo Productions, was known for having established a portal website for students of the University of Tokyo when he was in university. He founded Apollo Productions in 2008 after engaging in video creation works for enterprise advertisement or movie promotion leveraging his experience of video distribution works such as a beauty pageant at the university. Subsequently, the firm started livestreaming business at Nico Nico Douga provided by Dwango (TSE:3715) in 2010. Apollo Productions had lately been taking on livestreaming business based on major distribution platforms including AbemaTV (by CyberAgent), Nico Nico Live and Line Live with about 30 staffers. Owning Apollo Productions, Candee is going to double the number of staffers and plans to arrange the system with 80 staffers just for content creation within…

From the left: Takuro Arai (CCO, Candee), Toshiyuki Asada (CEO, Apollo Productions), Kzuki Furugishi (CEO, Candee), Shuhei Okawa (Executive Officer, Candee)

See the original story in Japanese.

Japan’s Candee, running an overall mobile video-related media business, announced last week that it has acquired a full stake in Apollo Productions behind livestreaming business and made Apollo Productions into a wholly-owned subsidiary. The deal value was undisclosed. Along with this, Takuro Arai (Executive Vice-president and CCO of Candee) and Shuhei Okawa (Executive Officer of Candee) were appointed as board members of Apollo Productions.

Toshiyuki Asada, the founder of Apollo Productions, was known for having established a portal website for students of the University of Tokyo when he was in university. He founded Apollo Productions in 2008 after engaging in video creation works for enterprise advertisement or movie promotion leveraging his experience of video distribution works such as a beauty pageant at the university. Subsequently, the firm started livestreaming business at Nico Nico Douga provided by Dwango (TSE:3715) in 2010.

Apollo Productions had lately been taking on livestreaming business based on major distribution platforms including AbemaTV (by CyberAgent), Nico Nico Live and Line Live with about 30 staffers. Owning Apollo Productions, Candee is going to double the number of staffers and plans to arrange the system with 80 staffers just for content creation within this year.

Arai explains the reason for this acquisition:

The movement of mobile content appears bipolar. One is the distribution of which a large quantity by individual amateurs and the other is the distribution by professionals. The latter will continue to expand since further increase in the number of clients is expected.

In the livestreaming business, the set of equipment, facilities and specialized experts is required. We had worked together with Apollo Productions as a creation partner in the past, but decided to become one in anticipation of future expansion.

The Candee team consists of professionals in the video industry including the founder members ambitiously aiming to create a new experience in the mobile era, and is expected to grow rapidly as fundraising 1 billion yen (about $8.8 million) last December.

So, do they pursue a rapid growth by further M&A activities?

Arai answered, “I cannot say.” This acquisition was not planned carefully in advance but reached agreement quickly and unexpectedly after the large-scale fundraising. There could be this kind of case again, since the firm professes an interest in related business including “girl management” or video experience production, other than content creation. In addition, they started an undisclosed test operation of the original platform of which we heard in the last interview.

Arai explains the vision of Candee:

We have no intention to create contents just being extreme or ones like downgraded TV shows. The project we are currently testing is to develop ‘video experience which cannot be accomplished by individuals’ focusing on the individual distribution field.

Sometime we may take on sudden projects, but mainly focus on projects based on community, such as the way how users are linked or the challenge to the limit of livestreaming.

Can these professional video creators cut into and step over the video platform business provided by top players such as Nico Nico, Line or Abema? The result of this acquisition will be checked in the official announcement of the new platform.

Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

Japan’s SmartDrive, car telematics startup, nabs $9M series B to ramp up big data analysis

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See the original story in Japanese. Japan’s Smart Drive, offering the DriveOps vehicle management platform utilizing big data, announced last week that it has fundraised a total of 1 billion yen (about $9.0 million) in its series B round. The details as to the pay-in date or investors were undisclosed but investor names will be made available in accordance with the announcement of business partnerships. Coincidentally, the firm revealed that it has been developing a drive recorder app for smartphones. This app can detect crucial moments related to dangerous driving or traffic accidents from an enormous amount of video data inside / outside of commercial vehicles, shot using mounted cameras for big data analysis use, and acquire video images for several seconds before and after the incident, to support easy search. The firm is to launch this app around summer, and will enable more accurate real-time video analysis / search service regarding driving. See also: Japan’s SmartDrive unveils vehicle analytics solution, poised for operational testing Japan’s SmartDrive unveils DriveOps to help optimize work efficiency with automobile big data Resulting from big data analysis for 10,000 vehicles It was February of 2014 that I heard the concept of Smart Drive or…

See the original story in Japanese.

Japan’s Smart Drive, offering the DriveOps vehicle management platform utilizing big data, announced last week that it has fundraised a total of 1 billion yen (about $9.0 million) in its series B round. The details as to the pay-in date or investors were undisclosed but investor names will be made available in accordance with the announcement of business partnerships.

Coincidentally, the firm revealed that it has been developing a drive recorder app for smartphones. This app can detect crucial moments related to dangerous driving or traffic accidents from an enormous amount of video data inside / outside of commercial vehicles, shot using mounted cameras for big data analysis use, and acquire video images for several seconds before and after the incident, to support easy search. The firm is to launch this app around summer, and will enable more accurate real-time video analysis / search service regarding driving.

See also:

Resulting from big data analysis for 10,000 vehicles

It was February of 2014 that I heard the concept of Smart Drive or vehicular big data from the current CEO Retsu Kitagawa who had been studying traffic-related big data analysis at his university then. His attractive story made me imagine the future of its service which was under stealth development.

On the other hand, it had been still unclear what kind of effect would be produced from the vehicle data acquired via the OBD-II port (conventionally used for maintenance) and what type of business this technology would lead to. Over three years since then, the firm kept acquiring and analyzing detailed vehicle data, such as stop-and-go, steering angle, speed or distance from 10,000 vehicles and eventually reached conclusive results. For example, it can roughly predict how much fuel efficiency there is for a certain driving style by using these analyzed data.

Noteworthy is the fact that “driving style” can be defined even with rough information.

Smart Drive had been conventionally acquiring vehicle behavior data mainly from the maintenance port. With this method, accurate data can be obtained but there is a risk in terms of security that vehicles could be hacked remotely. Of course, it was not welcomed by vehicle manufacturers. However, as an environment to determine vehicle behavior by Smart Drive was improved, a high-accuracy analysis of driving situation such as whether a vehicle turned or not became available even with data acquired from sensors in smartphones.

Thus, the coverage range of vehicle type for driving analysis expanded significantly. That is, a chance for the firm to expand its business had increased as well. The unusage of the OBD-II port may be one of the biggest factors that the firm succeeded in partnership with multiple companies and in realization of the large-scale funding this time. The service has gradually been introduced into telematic usage-based insurance products under tie-up with Axa General Insurance in Japan or in driving situation management of delivery trucks for major chain convenience stores.

According to Kitagawa, the Smart Drive team takes on the service development with 30 members and plans to enhance this human resource by taking on more engineers specialized in analysis or big data processing while paying close attention to the video image analysis service which is scheduled for launch this summer.

Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by “Tex” Pomeroy

Japan’s Seak gets $2.7M series A, turning more people into farmers with all-in-one platform

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See the original story in Japanese. Tokyo-based Seak, the Japanese startup behind the Leap farming support platform, announced this week that they have received funding from Gree Ventures, Warehouse Terrada, and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital. This was a series A round for the company, with Terrada and Mitsibushi UFJ Capital continuing their support from the earlier seed round back in September last year. Together with loans provided through the Japan Finance Corporation’s Young Farmer’s Fund, the total amount of funds raised this round was about 300 million yen (around $2.7 million US). The company plans to continue the strengthening of the Leap platform’s cultivation verification and developing the necessary systems for their franchise model. Along with this announcement, it was revealed that they are the first corporation to succeed in obtaining certification as a new farming company in Tokyo’s suburb of Fujisawa City. In doing so, it becomes possible for the company to provide preferentially secured agricultural land to their registered users. The goal of Seak’s modern tenant farming: Profitable farming Since its launch back in September of last year, the Leap platform has moved smoothly to the next phase. Seak’s CEO Hiroshi Kurita has experience in startups, previously working at…

Image credit: Seak

See the original story in Japanese.

Tokyo-based Seak, the Japanese startup behind the Leap farming support platform, announced this week that they have received funding from Gree Ventures, Warehouse Terrada, and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital. This was a series A round for the company, with Terrada and Mitsibushi UFJ Capital continuing their support from the earlier seed round back in September last year.

Together with loans provided through the Japan Finance Corporation’s Young Farmer’s Fund, the total amount of funds raised this round was about 300 million yen (around $2.7 million US). The company plans to continue the strengthening of the Leap platform’s cultivation verification and developing the necessary systems for their franchise model. Along with this announcement, it was revealed that they are the first corporation to succeed in obtaining certification as a new farming company in Tokyo’s suburb of Fujisawa City. In doing so, it becomes possible for the company to provide preferentially secured agricultural land to their registered users.

The goal of Seak’s modern tenant farming: Profitable farming

Seak’s plastic greenhouses cut costs by nearly 40% by securing their own materials
Image credit: Seak

Since its launch back in September of last year, the Leap platform has moved smoothly to the next phase. Seak’s CEO Hiroshi Kurita has experience in startups, previously working at Tokyo-based business incubator Archetype, and he subsequently served as a senior executive at Japanese personal mobility startup Whill. I get the impression that he made this next move with great care.

But, he deals with agriculture. Not only is it far from the Internet, but as a business there is an indispensable necessity for tangible assets such as greenhouses, land, fertilizer and so on making it that much more disparate from Internet businesses which are forced to employ net-specific management tools. Kurita cited two driving forces behind the funds procured this time around; they are to “establish KPIs for cultivation” and “prepare a franchise model.”

Tomatoes grown using Leap. KPIs are set for each crop, with earning over 2,000 yen (about $18) an hour.
Image credit: Seak

First, with regards to establishing KPIs for cultivation, the figures were set down to the smallest detail, such as the harvest amount per unit area of 600 square meters, and depreciation expenses like the equipment cost, the cost of the crop, the cost of the greenhouses, etc., and the goal was to keep the final personnel expenses at a fixed level from this point on.

There is a tendency to have a low cost of labor in the field of agriculture, and there have been cases of laborers working at the significant level of hundreds of yen less per hour than the wage dictated by law.

The Leap platform aims to raise this wage from 2,000 yen (around $18 US) to 3,000 yen (around $27 US) by setting the hourly wage as a major parameter and improving the cost and efficiency of harvesting. Furthermore, soil science research expert Dr. Nakhshiniev Bakhtiyor was appointed as the Chief Development Officer, and a system is also in place to develop and verify the platform’s unique soil and cultivation solution management method.

Second, in order to establish a franchise model, the company is constructing a platform system that utilizes information technology such as online content for operational learning, a chat system that can communicate with cultivation management headquarters, and sensor cooperation that can acquire data from inside the greenhouses in real time. By linking up with the ID of a registered farm this will be useful in unifying the management of information.

According to Kurita, in correlation with the funds secured this round, the company plans to expand the Leap team to 20 people, and in particular are searching for responsible, talented individuals to help develop the platform, thereby promoting the strengthening of their management foundation for future business expansion.

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda