Travel, tech and food

Tokyo: A startup city on the rise

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Slush Tokyo conference, which like the original Helsinki based event is all about bringing together the local startup community and connecting it with both new ideas and investment in a youth-led event that is both a conference and party rolled into one. Spread over two days, there were plenty of great talks, pitches and demos to enjoy and interesting stories to hear under the theme of “call for action”.

Yuriko Koike speaking

The Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike set the scene with an opening speech that touched on how the city government wants to bring Tokyo’s tech game to a global level. It definitely struck a chord as a foreign engineer working here (for Mercari; we are hiring; end plug) and is a great sign that Tokyo is ready for a change. As the 2020 Olympics approach, it feels like Japan is on the cusp of a great opportunity to welcome the world. The tech industry especially is playing a leading role in bringing more foreign talent into the country, and in the process sparking new cultural interactions and potentially new innovations.

Throughout the event, a lot of discussions touched on the subject of diversity – which can be noticeably lacking in Japan although there are signs this is turning around. I think this a key obstacle to Tokyo growing its startup ecosystem in the way metropolises like San Francisco, London, New York and Shenzhen have. It is difficult to create innovation in a culture where ideas from the outside are rare and often shielded by the vast language barrier.

It was great to see so many startups and founders pitching at Slush offering a glimpse of the entrepreneurial future that could await Tokyo and demonstrate how startups can tackle some problems unique to Japan like healthcare for a shrinking, ageing population or the persistence of cash payments. The winner of the main pitching competition was a startup called Clarity that helps women returning to the workforce find companies with better quality jobs and in doing so avoid some of the endemic inequality and sexism still plaguing corporate Japan.

Of course, there were plenty of startups taking on challenges of a completely global scale and companies coming from outside Japan. Two Tokyo-based companies infostellar and iSpace are excitingly working on a satellite antenna sharing platform and space colonisation respectively. A plethora of startups present at Slush Tokyo latched onto trends in AI, IoT and blockchain.

It was also great to learn more about how domestic venture capital is also on the rise in Japan after years of Yen being ploughed into other markets, (especially the Sillicon Valley). Japan has now produced two unicorns (Mercari, until its IPO last year, and Preferred Networks) and the government aims to reach twenty by the year 2023. Although it is still a grand challenge for Tokyo to become a global start-up hub, sustained talent inflow, regulatory support, and both private & public investment through 2020 and beyond, could be the catalyst for real change in the Tokyo startup community – and it will be great to have a front-row seat.

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