In Tokyo, start-ups and venture capitalists converge to challenge workplace norms.
In many ways, Japan remains a land of big corporations. Young graduates still aspire to join a large company and climb the ranks. Yet for two days last week, there was a vivid glimpse of how things could be different.
Start-ups and venture capital firms converged at Tokyo’s Belle Salle Shibuya Garden for Tech in Asia Tokyo, one of three annual conferences—the others in Jakarta and Singapore—organized by the regional publisher.
With the Japanese venture capital sector going through what some see as a golden age, technology services look poised to transform stodgy legacy businesses. “Now when you release an app, it is no longer easy to get instant followers and users,” said James Riney, managing director of 500 Startups Japan. “Growth is in the legacy industries such as insurance, where IT hasn’t had much reach yet.”
Particularly in Japan, health care, nursing care, architecture, and real estate are industries that are ripe for start-ups with new ideas, said Hogil Doh, investment manager at Rakuten Ventures Japan Fund. “It’s like waiting for Christmas,” said Doh.
Until Christmas, here are the top innovations from the event, from Japan and beyond.
Wearable 360° Camera
FITT360 is a hands-free, hairband-shaped 360° camera that fits around the back of your neck. Launching in January next year, the wearable camera is aimed at leisure travelers and made by Linkflow, a spin-off of South Korea’s Samsung.
“You can be camping and cooking and the camera will follow your wife and kids running around you,” said Kevin Kim, CEO of Linkflow. The FITT360 is priced at $399. An earlier version, FITT360 Security, aimed at security companies, retails for $1,200.
Missile Incoming App
The Japan Early Missile Warning App, available starting next month, taps into the national J-Alert system, an emergency broadcast system designed to quickly warn the public of threats.
It then adds other services including a way to share your location with family and friends, a PDF manual of evacuation routes and nearby shelters, and an offline Bluetooth chat that allows communication across a distance of 300 meters. After an initial free release, the app maker plans to charge a subscription of about ¥1000 ($9) per year.
Payke allows foreigners shopping in Japan to scan a barcode for an instant translation of the product description into English, Chinese or Korean. Payke barcode scanners are found in 70 pharmacies and grocery stores in Hokkaido, an island of Japan home to popular ski resorts.
Japanese manufacturers pay Payke a fee to input their product details for translation. In the last two years, the free app has been downloaded 2.3 million times.
Mystery Green Tea
Yunomi connects small Japanese tea farmers with tea enthusiasts around the world. CEO Ian Chun has signed up about 125 tea producers, mostly family farms of no more than a couple of acres each, with a goal of increasing exports of what he calls the champagne equivalent of tea.
For the adventurous, Yunomi’s “Mystery Green Tea” program allows consumers to customize a level—daily, luxurious, and so on. Based on that, Yunomi will select and ship 100 grams of green tea to their homes.
LaFabric is a suitmaker that lets repeat customers order online without having to come in.
Customers do have to walk in to one of LaFabric’s five stores in Tokyo and Yokohama to be measured. After that, they can order subsequent suits and shirts online, choosing from 300 kinds of fabric and multiple styles of collars and pockets—assuming, of course, that they have not undergone drastic changes in weight or shape.
LaFabric plans to add three more stores in Tokyo in 2018.
Getting a loan from a Japanese bank can be tough, especially for small, quirky real estate projects.
Last December, Crowd Realty used crowdfunding to raise ¥20,000,000 ($177,000) to invest in five or six homes in Estonia. Why Estonia? “It’s easy to do business there,” said general manager Yoshinori Tanaka.
Buoyed by that success, in June 2017, it raised ¥72,000,000 in three weeks for a traditional wooden townhouse in Kyoto, to be converted into a luxury guesthouse.