Each April, when Tokyo is bathed in the soft pink and white of the cherry blossoms, heads of state, tech titans, media moguls, and of course, startups, gather at the New Economy Summit (NEST) to spark discussion about disruptive innovation.
What is disruptive innovation? In a nutshell, it is an idea that changes how we do things for the better.
One of the most popular items on the agenda at NEST is its annual Startup Competition, where aspiring startups are given 6 minutes each to present their take on disruptive innovation in front of a live audience and a judging panel made up of some of the biggest names in innovation and investing. This year saw Andy Rubin, Logan Green, SaeMin Ahn and David Chao all taking part in a panel that also included Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani. A lot is at stake, including prize money of over 1,000,000 yen (roughly US$9,000) and the chance to create a lasting impression on the judges and the general public, something that can lead to new investment and valuable buzz.
On to the competition. To summarize the pool of competitors in a word: diverse. Startups ranged from a social GPS tracking app aimed at hikers to a biometric authentication payment service to a heavy equipment marketplace.
Everyone made their best pitch, but the strongest initial impression went to Gatebox, the holographic communication robot. They’d already generated some buzz online when they released their demo video, which garnered 100,000 views in its first day upon release. Expectations were high and they did not disappoint. Andy Rubin, the father of Android and someone with a deep background in robotics, was enthusiastic about Gatebox, saying “It’s Amazon Echo with a face”, comparing it to a breakthrough IoT device. In terms of audience response, Gatebox was the winner but that was not enough to sway the judges and they took third place.
In second place was Cross Helmet, the smart motorcycle helmet. Founder and CEO Arata Oono outlined some startling numbers: nearly half of all traffic fatalities involve 2-wheel vehicles, of which nearly half again are related to head injuries. Motorcycles are also notoriously loud, especially for the rider. Cross Helmet’s solution is a motorcycle helmet that incorporates a rear-facing camera and heads-up display on the inside of the visor to expand field of vision. It also has noise-cancelling technology to drown out distracting engine and traffic noise and a number of other special features. Peter Bell from Highland Capital commented that Cross Helmet had taken a very thoughtful approach to a social problem. This was seconded by Rajesh Sawhney, cofounder of tech accelerator GSF, who said it would address a tremendous need in his home country of India.
But in the eyes of the judges, none of these great startups could outdo AgriBus-NAVI, the GNSS/GPS guidance system for agricultural machinery, who earned the title of NEST 2016 Startup Competition Champion. DCM Ventures co-founder Katsujin David Chao summed up the judges’ enthusiasm when he said, “Agritech has the potential to change the world… (AgriBus-NAVI) have identified a subtle, non-obvious problem with a strong value proposition.”
Saemin Ahn, Rakuten Ventures Managing Partner, said “Agritech seems like a static vertical but the approach Agribus takes is very interesting. They have strong roadmaps towards autonomous vehicles and context-specific work activities that are not only mission-critical but provide huge potential economic impact.”
An attendee at the Summit, George Kellerman, General Partner at Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory, believes “There is a myth in Japan that startups are the exclusive domain of the young and unemployed. Aspiring entrepreneurs should be inspired by AgriBus-NAVI, whose founder is a 45-year old former public servant at the Ministry of Agriculture.” He added, “Not all startup founders look like Mark Zuckerberg.”
Commenting on the unique advantages enjoyed by startups in Japan, Saemin commented “Access to capital is good and the various investment entities, from VCs to private equity to investment banks, communicate with each other better in Japan, providing a more straightforward path to an IPO than in some other markets.”
So, based on the NEST 2016 Startup Competition, innovation is alive and well in Japan. Congrats to AgriBus-NAVI on their big win and best of luck to all of the competitors!