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Japan Presents Opportunity for Foreign Startups

Addlight Inc.’s Mirai Salon 6 event was held at the EGG Japan space in central Tokyo in December 2017. Mirai Salon events bring together experts in the field of Open Innovation, who share use cases in such areas as robotics, automobiles, and next-generation tech. On this occasion, three forward-thinking corporates and a cutting edge retail automation startup made presentations before an enthusiastic full-house.

Yuuki  Kuriyama from the Technical Planning Division at DENSO Corporation ( top-tier carmaker) told that to meet the modern challenges, there is a need to work across organizational barriers, advance Open Innovation across industries, and enhance collaboration between large companies, SMEs, and startups. To this end, DENSO invested in the Innovations and Future Forum Inc. (Mirai Souzou), an entity tasked with supporting research in technology and new business creation, while exploring ideas emerging from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The company also holds industry events and engages other organizations while enhancing its network of collaborators, Kuriyama added. In early 2017, DENSO established a special department to promote Open Innovation.

The next speaker was Takashi Uehara, the CEO of Japan Digital Design Co., Ltd. (JDD), a FinTech company and spin-off of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc’s (MUFG’s) Innovation Lab.  JDD, he continued, has created an environment where innovation is built on two pillars. The first is to ensure the company’s independence. The second is to streamline reporting lines by reducing the number of presentations to C-level staff to 5 people every three months. Uehara advised that there is no need to create new organizational structures. JDD, Uehara added, has implemented a flexible employment system which allows employees to work part-time on a project-by-project basis, in part because finding talented workers who can commit to full-time work is hard to achieve.

Miho Tanaka, the Business Innovation & Planning Manager at Nihon Unisys Co., Ltd., a company that serves the B2B systems integration market, followed. Some four years ago, Nihon Unisys began promoting Open Innovation under its marketing division. Led by the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), the company’s executives participate as mentors, share information on startup trends, and make themselves available for periodic breakfast meetings where staff discuss externally-driven needs and solutions.

Nihon Unisys is working to create new businesses in collaboration with several accelerated companies, tech startups, and university research institutes. The company has established its own corporate venture capital (CVC) fund, as well as a Real Tech Fund collaboration and investment strategy with partners with which it has found a synergy. The Todai to Texas initiative, which brings companies from The University of Tokyo to the SXSW conference in Texas, and a lab for the promotion of bioscience business in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture, are examples of their projects.

The last speaker was Representative Director at UsideU Co., Ltd., Junji Takaoka. Takaoka introduced a collaborative robot (Co-Bot) called Ayadoroid. The co-bot operates in an “Odd Bar”—an automated bar where it acts as a retail representative to visitors. Such AI-enabled co-bots, Takaoka noted, can learn human facial expressions, and automatically correct for their own unnatural expressions and movements. They can be used in unattended customer service stations, without a noticeable decline in the quality of service. Automation via co-bots and their ilk may actually enhance customer services, he noted.

After the panel discussion, an enthusiastic Q & A session followed. The wide-ranging questions covered such areas as the limitations of Open Innovation, the danger of wholesale importation into Japan of Silicon Valley business models, and the comparative strength of Japanese startups.


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