Japan’s annual New Economy Summit (NEST) is a forum for new ideas, new ways of thinking and new forms of entrepreneurship. But the 2017 summit’s Startup Challenge was won by two companies trying to change one of humanity’s oldest industries: agriculture.

The 1 million yen ($9,048) grand prize was shared by Agribuddy and Pocket Marche, two startups that are dedicated to innovating the way food is produced and distributed.

Delivering modern tools and science to traditional farming

Some farmers in developing countries have to rely on lengths of rope and other primitive tools to try to understand how large their plots of land are. Agribuddy tries to solve the issues by bringing modern tools and data science to bear. Established in Cambodia by Japanese entrepreneur Kengo Kitaura, the company puts grassroots farmers together with funding and research institutions by getting agents, known as “buddies,” to register farmers, map their land with mobile devices and determine cultivation area and yield. The survey results can also be used to figure out what’s needed in terms of inputs such as seed and fertilizer; Agribuddy can also offer such materials at a discount. The survey data, meanwhile, helps generate a credit score, which can then be used by lenders.

“The farmers are getting knowledge and they’re giving us data,” Rajesh Paleth, chief strategy officer of Agribuddy, told Rakuten Today. “I believe in grassroots models – there has been too much ivory tower, Silicon Valley mentality. This prize will help us with exposure and propagating our idea.”

Bringing farmers and consumers closer

Pocket Marche, meanwhile, is a Japan-based smartphone app for iOS and Android that lets consumers communicate with farmers and fisheries workers. It’s aimed at building up a rapport between the two sides that have traditionally been separated by distributors, retailers and other middlemen. Over 300 items, including oysters from Mie Prefecture, Japanese scallions from Okinawa and onions from Hokkaido, are available through the service.

“We would like to make both producers and consumers happy by connecting them through food,” Hiroyuki Takahashi, head of Pocket Marche, said in an interview. “We only have five people in our startup so we’ll use this prize money for operations.”

Startups motivated by a desire to improve society

The two winners were among 11 startups selected by partner accelerator groups from Japan and overseas that delivered pitches to a panel of 12 judges. The other hopefuls included Aba, a Chiba Prefecture-based healthcare startup that has developed a sensor that can tell when bedridden patients’ diapers need changing, saving caregivers time and effort. Also pitching was Smart Parking, based in Nagoya, an app that connects drivers with parking space owners to maximize their use, and ComQuest Ventures (CQV), which develops software that can be used to design and simulate drones in flight. The startups’ broad range of solutions and the desire to improve society was noted by the judges.

“A lot of the companies are trying to solve issues such as healthcare and aging society – and I think that is an unsexy business but it’s much needed at this point,” said judge Rachel Lau, cofounder of RHL Ventures, a private investment firm. “I like the fact that they are venturing away from sexier things like ridesharing to solve these issues.”


Read more reports on NEST 2017 here.