As one of the world’s major technology powerhouses, Japan cannot rest on its laurels when it comes to pioneering new technologies and joining the global startup ecosystem’s fast-moving culture of innovation. Although Japan has a long way to go before fully embracing startups and the risks involved, a definite shift in attitude is starting to emerge, as evidenced by several recent trends. Venture capital (VC) funding raised between $1 billion and $2 billion between 2014 and 2015. Recent college graduates are more willing to work for startups, rather than established corporations, and attitudes toward startup communities are becoming more positive than ever before. Below, Tractica highlights a few notable startups that may help provide the catalyst needed to further boost Japan’s startup phenomenon.
Founded in 2008 and based in Tokyo, Axelspace is developing microsatellite technology and is associated with the University of Tokyo and the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The company plans to construct a monitoring platform to cover the entire globe on a daily basis at an extremely low cost for applications related to agriculture, forestry, and geo-targeted marketing. Axelspace successfully launched the world’s first commercial microsatellite, the WNISAT-1, in 2013 and plans to launch the next generation of remote sensing microsatellites, the GRUS (under design phase), by the end of 2017. After that, the company will gradually add more satellites to the constellation, aiming for completion by 2022. Recently, Axelspace announced a new collaboration for the use of “Space Big Data” with Dentsu Inc. and Dentsu Digital Inc. The company raised $15.8 million in Series A funding with participation from ITOCHU Technology Ventures Inc. and Weathernews Inc.
Founded in 2007, Spiber is an advanced biomaterials company based in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. The company is engaged in researching spider silk fibroin proteins and developing synthetic spider threads that mimic spider webs in strength and versatility. Unlike nylon and polyester, synthetic spider thread is not derived from petroleum and does not release a large volume of carbon dioxide in the manufacturing process. Spiber’s synthetic spider thread is called Qmonos. In collaboration with The North Face, Spiber created the outdoor apparel prototype for the Moon Parka, an insulated jacket designed for extreme polar expeditions with a shell made entirely of Qmonos fiber. The company uses genetically altered microorganisms to mass produce Qmonos. Apart from the apparel industry, Spiber plans to develop Qmonos applications for the automotive and medical device industries. Spiber is one of the most funded startups in Japan.
Based in Tokyo, SORACOM is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that provides an Internet of Things (IoT) platform for data communication. The company claims that its platform has signed over 2,000 clients since it launched in September 2015. SORACOM’s services include SORACOM Air and SORACOM Beam. SORACOM Air provides Air SIM, which is a data transmission SIM card tailored for IoT devices that can be managed through an API dashboard where users can change the settings, monitor the data traffic, and configure IoT device data communication. SORACOM Beam enables high-load processing on IoT devices, including encryption and configuration of connection destinations to be offloaded to the cloud. The company has plans to enter the U.S. market and has raised funding from Pavilion Capital, Infinity Venture Partners and World Innovation Lab.
Founded in Japan in 2012, WHILL is a personal mobility company that aims to make transportation enjoyable for everybody. The company has been active in the Japanese startup scene for some time. WHILL develops powered wheelchairs and plans to expand into more areas of transportation. Its latest wheelchair, the Model M, includes clinical features such as adjustable arm and back support, a Varilite seat cushion, and pressure relief handles for functional operation. The product was recently cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). WHILL has a base in the United States, as well as in Japan, and has raised over $30 million in funding.
Looking to the Future
While once famous for its giant corporations at the forefront of the race for cutting-edge technologies, Japan has struggled recently to keep pace with the competition it is currently facing from China, the United States, and Korea. The startups highlighted above have global ambitions, show serious potential, and could be the answer Japan needs to address both a shrinking domestic market and an increasingly competitive global market.