Organised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), the inaugural UNLEASH TOKYO summit 2021 aimed to promote Tokyo’s innovation and entrepreneurship landscape, and attract foreign startups to expand their business into Tokyo. Held across 9 – 11 March, the online event saw leaders in Japan’s CVC scene, global startups and investors as well as other influential guests discuss and celebrate Tokyo as the next, big innovation hub, welcoming foreign startups to consider Tokyo and Japan as their next market.
Here are some of the highlights from the 3-day event:
Day 1 — The appeal or expanding into Tokyo
Introduction of UNLEASH TOKYO & Tokyo Metropolitan Government Policies and Services for Foreign Companies
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Director General, Hisaaki Terasaki and Director, Rieko Tagawa opened the event by sharing both the vision of UNLEASH TOKYO as well share highlight the free support services the TMG provides for foreign startups as they expand into Tokyo.
Hisaaki shares that Tokyo is a city that attracts many visitors with its quality of life, food culture and more. Yet barriers to entry remain for foreign companies, such as differences in business practices and language. In the light of the attractions and challenges of Tokyo, the TMG hopes to share the ‘current’ Tokyo with foreign companies interested in expanding into the city.
Rieko introduced how the TMG can support foreign startups get started in Tokyo. The free support services provided range tackle the entire spectrum from initial interest to officially setting up an office in Tokyo. These services include strategic consulting to adapt to the local market, guidance through administrative procedures, and even assistance to find a suitable office location in the city.
Startup investment in Tokyo: Opportunities and Environment for Foreign Startups Entering Tokyo
Experienced investors Koh Soo Boon of iGlobe Partners, Gen Isayama of World Innovation Lab and Heang Chhor of Qualgro weighed in on the upcoming trends they were anticipating to see from Japan and advice for foreign startups in tackling the local market. This panel was moderated by Phillip Seiji Vincent of Plug & Play Japan.
Heang expressed his anticipation is seeing more life sciences and biotech startups emerge from Japan, furthering the strong heritage of scientific research in the country. Gen shared the example of Salesforce and Toyota’s partnership as instrumental in Salesforce’s successful entry into the Japanese market, emphasising the importance of finding a business partner who can reinforce credibility in local market.
Soo Boon chimed in with her interest to see more regionalisation and globalisation from Japanese startups themselves, a point to which her fellow panelists strongly agreed and encouraged. Heang ended the panel on an energetic note, urging startups to be more confident in approaching the Japanese market, highlighting that it’s a market of great demand and available capital.
Exploring life in Tokyo: Tokyo, a city of ever-evolving food culture
The last dialogue featured one of Japanese’s most popular characteristics, it’s food culture. Editor-in-Chief of Time Out Tokyo, Lim Chee Wah spoke with Zaiyu Hasegawa, the owner and chef at Den. Den is a 2 Michelin star restaurant that was ranked 11th in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, in 2019.
Unassumingly, Mr Hasegawa provided a rather poetic end to day 1 of UNLEASH TOKYO. When asked what his definition of innovative cuisine was, he spoke of understanding the basics of Japanese cuisine and respecting the traditions passed down from generation to generation. Taking that and marrying it with what he thinks local and international customers will enjoy, all the while gaining feedback from them and sourcing ingredients from all over the world. He also emphasised the importance of working in a team to produce the best ideas.
A startup and a restaurant doesn’t seem too different after all.
Day 2 — Businesses in Demand in Tokyo
Business development and market opportunities for foreign startups
Oliver Tan of Visenze, and Timothy Yu, of Snapask, were invited as panellists to impart their know-hows on expanding into Japan. Oliver piqued that the most noticeable difference in the local business culture, compared to that of neighboring markets, lies in the strong emphasis on cultivating long-term relationships and delivering quality goods and services. He stressed on the importance of patience—a virtue one must intentionally develop, particularly for those accustomed to efficiency-focused partnerships.
Timothy, who concurred, added that the Japanese care deeply for their partners and always seek win-win outcomes, despite being on the other side of the fence or in the face of competition. There lies a preference for the community at large to grow alongside one another.
On the topic of market outlook, Oliver talked about the increasing desire and sense of urgency to learn from the successes of neighbouring countries such China. This translates into an openness towards different strategies and approaches.
Startup co-creation of a major financial institution
Yuta Kurimoto, who represents the Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group addressed the misconception towards working with Japanese firms. Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) has established an extensive innovation network across the globe, including innovation centres and partnerships with several industry players, accelerators and VCs from major city hubs. SMBC taps on this network to engage startups, in order to find promising technologies and solutions to introduce into Japan.
The bank has recently deployed a conversation AI tool by a startup called Allganize, which helps the customer service team react to enquiries faster and more accurately. Consequently, this increases customer satisfaction and boost employee productivity. SMBC seeks to expand the use cases across the SMBC group and hopes to introduce the solution to their clients as well.
Day 3 — Visualize Concrete Business Development in Tokyo
Collaboration and Innovation with Startups in Asia
Kicking off the last day of UNLEASH TOKYO 2021, was the Chief Investment Officer of Sony Innovation Fund, Gen Tsuchikawa.
As introduction to Sony Innovation Fund, Gen shared that they currently run three funds: Sony Innovation Fund financing early stage startups, the Innovation Growth Fund financing growth middle to late stage startups. Most recently, the Sony Innovation Fund (Environment) was launched to harness the company’s efforts in Impact Investing. Over the last 4 and a half years, Sony Innovation Fund invested in over 80 companies.
The Sony Innovation Fund (Environment) in particular ran a recent project name Synecoculture in Burkina Faso, Africa, successfully turning dessert into arable land. Besides aligning themselves with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Sony Innovation Fund also champions diversity. Gen highlighted the company’s desire to continue supporting female founders and CEOs in making their mark in the world.
The Sony Innovation Fund is interested in collaborating with a diverse range of startups, including AgriTech, FoodTech, BeautyTech, EdTech and Sports powered by 5G. Recent efforts in innovation also comprise gaming, entertainment and automobiles.
Diversity and Tokyo — New Values
Moving on to the panel hosted by Robyn Tan, Managing Director of KrASIA, guests speakers Maria Li, COO of Tech in Asia and Mariko Nishimura, CEO and Pollinator of HEART CATCH Inc. shared their thoughts on the growing awareness around gender diversity in Tokyo.
Maria noted the attraction of incredible talent in Tokyo for foreign entrepreneurs, with the very long history in hardware and software engineering. Mariko chimed in to say that large corporations are increasingly open to collaborating with foreign startups. With the pandemic’s recent push to use online communication tools, pre-existing cultural barriers have been dissipating, creating a more equal playing field when communicating with traditional Japanese corporations. Maria also shared her hope that working women could be viewed through the value of their quality work as opposed to pure symbolic gestures.
Additionally, there seems to be a new period of re-balancing the perception of gender duties with remote working. In the case of working parents needing to telecommute from home, it seems to have welcomed more fathers to be more active in child-caring activities. Mariko recalled that she was very encouraged when she had a few zoom calls with fathers and saw that they were watching their children while taking the call.
In spirit of International Women’s Day, Maria made a nod to choosing to become an ally for gender diversity and empowerment as the important first step in enacting change. Mariko as a female business leader herself shared her hopes to continue supporting and encouraging other younger female leaders and workers. She also highlighted that setting an example for those around her through her own professional attitude is something she actively works on. This mirrors the TMG’s will to continuously align themselves with gender diversity and empower the many talented women in Tokyo.
Why Global Companies do Business in Tokyo, What Makes it Attractive, and How to Succeed
Joshua Barry, founder and CBDO of ZAIKO, shared the story of how Amazon Web Services (AWS) helped his startup scale. The white label ticketing company specialized in offline events and had seen steady growth since its founding years. Alas, COVID-19 hit the events space hard. Recovery for the meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions (MICE) industry at large remains to be seen.
With events getting cancelled back to back, they quickly pivoted to the online realm. As a tech company at heart, ZAIKO was able to build an online event streaming platform within five days. Nonetheless, it had leveraged on an external partner to develop the platform, so he soon turned to AWS which allowed ZAIKO to create and retain ownership of their intellectual property (IP), and scale quickly, particularly in countries where AWS has a presence.
James Miller, Head of Public Policy at Amazon Web Services Japan piqued that the success of ZAIKO’s streaming platform reflects the uniqueness of the local culture and that Japanese customers have set several trends that permeated across the globe. Joshua added that the locals are strong in creative thinking and cited an example he witnessed during the early days of the pandemic outbreak. When the government mandated a lockdown in Japan, countless of F&B establishments were impacted. To negate the impact of dampened traffic, the regulatory agency swiftly worked out a licensing system to permit the sale of alcohol via take outs.
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