Rakuten Social Accelerator is not your typical startup incubator. Created to connect social entrepreneurs, NPOs and other organizations with Rakuten resources, the second round of the program kicked off in summer 2019 with five new startups, each dedicated to solving an important social issue.
Startups were paired with volunteer Rakuten employees and tasked to work together over a period of six months. During this time, volunteers shared their expertise with the social entrepreneurs and worked together to accelerate social innovation.
In December, the five groups gathered together to report on their six-month collaboration at an event held in front of Rakuten’s headquarters in Tokyo, Rakuten Crimson House.
Moku-Chin Architecture: Sustainable living spaces in Japan
“In Japan, buildings last an average of just 30 years before they’re knocked down and rebuilt,” Moku-Chin Architecture founder Yutaro Muraji told the audience at the event. “Meanwhile, around 13% of houses in Japan sit empty — one in every eight houses. So much living space is going to waste, yet we’re knocking houses down after only 30 years. This just doesn’t make sense.”
The startup is looking to breathe new life into old wooden rental apartment blocks — a genre of architecture dubbed mokuchin that once made up 40% of all domiciles in Tokyo — by making them easier than ever to refurbish. “We want to take these buildings and transform them into a valuable social resource.”
Through their online design tool Moku-chin Recipe, property owners and real estate agents can plan ways to refurbish their apartment blocks as easily as if they were picking ingredients for a recipe.
Alongside their team from Rakuten, the service refurbished their website to better communicate the startup’s mission. The volunteers also created a membership system, transforming the website into a bustling community hub for people looking to support each other on their transformative journey, and connecting Japan’s hitherto fragmented population of mokuchin landlords.
Antaa: Bringing isolated doctors together
Japan is a chain of nearly 7,000 islands, many of which are home to communities of a few handfuls of people. The medical professionals that take responsibility for the health of these far-flung populations often find themselves isolated from the greater medical community and the support it provides.
“What do you do when you have a dying patient that you don’t know how to save, and you don’t have anyone to instruct you?” posed Antaa founder Shun Nakayama. “This happens all the time in rural hospitals.”
Nakayama — himself a medical professional — built an online platform through which registered Japanese medical professionals can share information and consult with one another in real time, advising and receiving advice on medical issues they may be trying to tackle. “By connecting doctors in this way, we want to use the power of the internet to save lives.”
While Antaa was already producing success case after success case, the company did not have the resources to reach a critical mass of registered doctors required to take the service to its full potential. 27 volunteers from Rakuten leveraged their online marketing experience to double the number of medical professionals on the platform, making improvements to the service through user research and interviews with doctors. Together, the group also developed a business plan to monetize the service in a sustainable way.
Practical education in Cambodia, empowering asylum seekers and reshaping career norms in Japan
Cambodian lifestyle brand Salasusu, a startup founded by Japanese entrepreneurs, gained valuable insights from Rakuten’s marketing teams in reaching a larger online consumer audience for products made in its workshop located in a village near Siem Reap.
The startup empowers undereducated women from the local community by providing them with skilled training opportunities and a safe workshop to earn an income from crafting travel bags, leather footwear and Cambodian kramas sold to customers from around the world.
Volunteers from Rakuten’s various IT teams collaborated with WELgee, an organization that seeks to create a society where anyone can shape their own futures regardless of their circumstances. The Tokyo-based social startup assists asylum seekers with in-demand skills such as web engineering to kick-start their careers and connect them with local communities to ease their transition to a new life in Japan.
Meanwhile, Atteme is on a mission to make bold changes to Japan’s labor market, challenging the accepted norm of university-educated, white-collar careers to encourage more people to build careers from a high school education. Rakuten volunteers helped develop a portal site for job hunting and workplace tours for the highschool-educated, while also assisting with social media marketing to boost the profile of the startup even further.
Global ambitions: Social startups in India
2019 also saw the program expand beyond the borders of Japan for the first time. Rakuten India partnered with three local NGOs to kick off the Indian version of Rakuten Social Accelerator, inviting them to Tokyo to present alongside their Japanese counterparts. The inaugural partners for 2019 included Robin Hood Army, Wildlife SOS and Samarpana Charitable Trust for the Disabled.
New Delhi-based Robin Hood Army is a global social platform that draws attention to the colossal amount of food waste that could be used to solve local hunger issues. Volunteers from all walks of life have served almost 29 millions meals to people in more than 150 cities since it was founded in 2014.
One of the largest wildlife organizations in South Asia, Wildlife SOS is known for their efforts at rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife in distress, preserving India’s natural heritage and create sustainable lifestyles for communities that traditionally rely on unsustainable hunting and other practices.
Samarpana Charitable Trust works for the visually disabled and aims to empower them to use their talent to live independently.
Judging by the passion of Rakuten’s skilled volunteers, India may just be the beginning of the Rakuten Social Accelerator program’s global expansion.