Startups rapidly emerging from Central Japan - local entrepreneurs explain why

Startups rapidly emerging from Central Japan - local entrepreneurs explain why

ANTARA/ACN Newswire

JETRO and Central Japan Startup Ecosystem Consortium organize a media tour

Central Japan, Dec 2, 2022 - (ANTARA/JCN Newswire) - Central Japan, the region in which the new anime-themed park famous for its sci-fi fantasy machines and vehicles debuted earlier last month, is quickly becoming the homeland of startups paving the way towards the future of mobility. Earlier this week, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), together with the Central Japan Startup Ecosystem Consortium, organized a tour to show the media how this lesser-known part of Japan, compared to Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, was rapidly giving birth to local entrepreneurs - as the result of education, collaboration, and homegrown determination. The century-old industry and network of suppliers in Aichi, Nagoya and Hamamatsu is also opening up to collaborate with startups from all corners of the world.

1. Education

Yukiko Konishi, vice director of the Startup Promotion Office at Nagoya University, or NU, explained how rival universities in the Central Japan region started to join forces to form the Tokai Network for Global Leading Innovation Platform (Tongali) in 2015. Today, 18 universities stand behind a vision to "cultivate human capital that creates and delivers value leading to the future and enriching people, society, and earth" through entrepreneurship education. In 2020, over 4000 high school students to scholars and graduates participated in Tongali's educational events and programs. As a Tongali co-founder and Startup consortium member, she noted NU was a staple in the outcome of this endeavor. 67 entrepreneurs (as of November 2022) who took flight from NU including Optimind, a Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2020, and Acompany, a Forbes 30 Under 30 Japan 2021.

Three NU startups shared their stories. Deep-tech startup Tier IV's chief strategy officer, Ko Miyoshi, explained their world's first open-source software for autonomous driving, which runs on multiple platforms and provides full-stack solutions for the commercialization of intelligent vehicles. Called Autoware, its the equivalent of "Intel inside" for autonomous driving, adopted by over 500 companies across the globe. Toyota's battery-electric shuttle buses and Robo Taxi also partner with TIER IV, while Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn has agreed to a joint development project for autonomous personal cars with a precondition of Autoware in future EV platforms.

On the Delivery Robot front, we turned the spotlight on Dr. Jude Nwadiuto from Nigeria, a postdoctoral fellow at Nagoya University. Receiving a Ph.D. in autonomous driving and robotics from Nagoya University, the founder and CEO of Fainzy Technologies demonstrated how the warm and cute-looking Mira X and ZiBot models were more seriously gun-ho than meets the eye, going beyond just delivering the payload. Mira X's artificial intelligence (AI) can avoid getting stuck by predicting its path and detecting when food is taken, with a 3D Holographic fan for advertising quality. And ZiBot can make highly accurate decisions from AI-based demand forecast data collected through 360-degree environment sensing.

Another lab-born startup, PotStill's demonstration was a fine blend of technology and psychology. PotStill was established in August 2020 to develop a "driver agent that promotes the improvement of driving behavior", and elemental technology for reducing accidents of elderly drivers based on human interaction research. PotStill director Takahiro Tanaka Ph.D., a designated professor at the Institute of Innovation for Future Society at NU, took participants on a test drive with an adorable 8-inch-tall robot alerting for speeding or stop signs in a relatively narrow residential area.

2. Collaboration

The City of Nagoya's Innovation Department stressed Central Japan's startup ecosystem provides everything a startup needs. On top of the local government's generous support, the region has everything from startup hubs and venture finance to business matching sessions with highly trained workers in many specialized fields, such as mobility. Representatives from Aichi prefecture and Japan's largest incubation hub-to-be, STATION Ai, added that "the region invites entrepreneurs and capitalists from all corners to facilitate state-of-the-art open innovation by infusing new ideas with local craftsmanship." Participants witnessed a few examples:

Home-grown startup SkyDrive's Hiroyuki Murai, chief strategy officer, showed renderings of their new SD-05 two-seater flying car scheduled to fly at the 2025 World EXPO. His team comprises industry specialists from diverse backgrounds, including Bombardier and BAE Systems. But he also stressed that they would not have come this far without the partner ecosystem supporting them in mass production, flight control, charging facilities, parts procurement, leasing, and port architecture.

Koji Ishizuka, senior director of the Electrification Systems Business Group at DENSO, praised Urban Air Mobility (UAM) startups for accelerating technological advances, which would take far longer with larger established enterprises. Ishizuka described how their alliance with Honeywell led them to develop a propulsion solution for German air taxi startup Lilium's All-Electric Jet. DENSO and Honeywell have global project teams in Japan, the EU, and the United States, to expand their Electric Propulsion Unit supply for a growing UAM market demand.

In addition to the collaborative nature of the local business community, Dr. Yoshihiro Takiguchi, president of The Graduate School for the Creation of New Photonics Industries (GPI), described how the city's location, landscape, and climate, made it a microcosm of the nation. "The unique environment, combined with close ties between academia, industry, government, and finance, makes the region a perfect testing ground for startups, regardless of where they are headquartered," added Hamamatsu City officials.

3. Determination

Another recurring theme participants heard throughout the tour was "social purpose." Shunsuke Toya, CEO of ProDrone, explained how a flying mini-truck concept was the answer to their aspiration to solve societal challenges such as aging or inaccessible communities, maritime disasters, and terrorist attacks. Their belief led them to develop a variety of industrial drones specially designed for goods delivery, sea & air integration, long-range heavy-duty, and surveillance. Earlier this year, they partnered with a pharmacy chain to deliver medicines to remote areas of Japan. However, they are determined to go further with a macho-drone that can carry a payload of 50 kilograms over a distance of 50 kilometers.

eve autonomy, founded by Yamaha Motor and TIER IV, is an automated cargo transportation service for factories. Given the shrinking population in Japan, balancing human labor reduction and the safety of the plants is a pressing issue. Business development manager Iwakazu Nishikawa described how their award-winning products outperform conventional AGVs, which had difficulties operating between multiple buildings. Before the joint venture, AGVs, or Automated Guided Vehicles, could neither cope with congested traffic on-premise, maneuver irregularities such as ditches/manholes or slopes nor divert from a fixed guided route.

Director Haruyoshi Toyoda, Hamamatsu Photonics Central Research Laboratory, and his team demonstrated what the microscopic photonic sensing technologies embedded deep inside various daily products do. Autonomous driving would not be without the technology used in high-resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR). It is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by irradiating laser light on objects and catching the light reflected with a photosensor. Furthermore, the team said, "we are committed to continuously improving the performance of our lasers and sensors because it is a vital ingredient to achieve fully autonomous driving."

Participants also learned that the element of sound (or noise) was an unsung hero in driving safety. The operating officer of Yamaha Corporation, Electronic Devices Division, Nobukazu Toba explained how their longstanding expertise in acoustic research is being applied to Electric Vehicles (EVs) available today. EVs are silent. However, noise helps pedestrians know that a vehicle is approaching. Likewise, an accelerating sound helps drivers recognize speed. He also indicated that the company is in discussions with a Finnish startup to equip cars with warning sound signals (ie. bells and whistles in the driver's seat) coupled with vibrating features to discriminate from which direction the danger originates. "Acoustics and vibration have a lot in common."

Keiko Ihara, a Japanese race car driver, and first female driver to stand on the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) podium in 2014, founded Future Inc. two years ago to save her hometown's economy from deteriorating because of the pandemic. The series of carbon-neutral, maximum efficiency, lightweight e-bikes she designed takes many of its cues from racing cars. But her ultimate goal is to create a mobility-sharing service connected to a regional online portal of e-commerce, delivery, clinics, internet banking, and govt services. The grand vision of this new business model will not only revive local resorts and tourist spots, as she initially sought, but may even transform petrol stations into evolving community centers where people come together.

"The funds raised by startups in Japan are small compared to other parts of the world," noted Ihara in her talk. However, she cited Prime Minister Kishida positioning 2022 as the first year for actively fostering the founding of startups. "I believe clusters and pockets of communities all over Japan will start to connect to form an even bigger network of ecosystems. Because," she humbly added, "there is only so much you can do alone."

About the Central Japan Startup Ecosystem

There are 371 startups in Central Japan, of which 150 are university-launched. An estimated 18.615 billion yen (as of July 2022) of funds have been raised, in addition to accelerator programs, financial support systems, and innovative university seeds. Collaborative partnerships with Station F, INSEAD, BLOCK71, Paris&Co, Bpifrance, Venture Cafe, Plug and Play, Israel Innovation Authority, Tsinghua University, China Medical University, National University of Singapore, The University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, North Carolina State University, University of Nebraska and the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad attract a diverse range of entrepreneurs to the region. For more information, please visit https://central-startup.jp/en.

Scheduled to open in 2024, STATION Ai will be a world-first, top-notch global innovation center. The center will provide a one-stop, one-loop link to world-class startup support programs through liaison with leading-edge startup support bodies and universities. Please visit https://www.aichi-startup.jp/english/support/.

About the Central Japan region

In July 2020, Aichi prefecture, the City of Nagoya, and Hamamatsu City of Shizuoka became one of the four regional Startup Ecosystem Global Base Cities groups designated nationwide by the cabinet office. The GDP of this region is 44,093.2 billion yen (as of 2019), mainly attributed to key industries such as Automotive, Aerospace, Machine Tools, Production Machinery, Iron and Steel, Musical Instruments, and Photonics/Electronics. The region's mission is to positively impact society by bringing the future of mobility to our doorsteps as soon as possible. The 6,731 km2 area is currently home to 8.29 million people, out of which over 300 thousand are foreign nationals - and will be a home-from-home for entrepreneurs and startups who share the same will and passion. In addition, various chill-out activities such as surfing, hiking, camping, paragliding, and ski/snowboarding are easily accessible. At the same time, seasonal marathon events and Formula One races are also hosted in adjacent cities. Furthermore, the American Chamber of Commerce, Tokai Japan Canada Society, Chubu Walkathon & International Charity Festival, and Nagoya Vegan Gourmet Festival are opportunities to meet like-minded locals.

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