Interview
2019.08.30

“Nihonbashi as a Mecca of Entrepreneurship for
Grown-Ups.” The continued efforts by ProtoStar to support startups.

“Nihonbashi as a Mecca of Entrepreneurship for
Grown-Ups.” The continued efforts by ProtoStar to support startups.

There are more activities in the startup business of Japan than ever before. The total amount of domestic funding raised in 2018 was 6 times the amount compared to 6 years ago, and with many new startup support programs being provided one after another by the government and local municipalities, there are even major companies that are entering into cooperative partnerships with startup companies. When you imagine startups, many will imagine them to congregate mostly in the western Tokyo area such as Shibuya. But did you know that there is a recent trend of entrepreneurs gathering in Nihonbashi? Today we interviewed Mr. Yusuke Kurishima, representative of ProtoStar Inc., a company located in Nihonbashi that operates an information retrieval service that links together entrepreneurs and communities with investors. We listened in on just why Nihonbashi has become a hotbed for startups and what we can expect in the future.

The Real Pleasure in Supporting Startups is the “Feeling of Slightly Evolving Humanity”

- First of all, please tell us the story of how ProtoStar came to be.

Before I founded ProtoStar, I was at a company called Villing which was specifically involved in seed funding the area of education of Asia and Europe. While working there, I always felt that there was not enough support towards fields with complex issues such as education, aerospace, and the agriculture, forestry and fisheries of Japan. I always worried that if this kept up, the growth of the country will eventually reach the limit. So in order to find a solution to these issues, I founded a support community as a predecessor of ProtoStar especially for entrepreneurs who wanted to revolutionize difficult (hard) fields that required breakthroughs in the industrial structure by utilizing technology (hard-tech).

- What kind of activities do you take part in currently?

In addition to a media called the “Startup LOG” that provides information towards entrepreneurs, we operate the largest information retrieval service in Japan for entrepreneurs and investors called the “STARTUP LIST,” as well as the entrepreneur community focused in the field of hard-tech called “Star Burst.” The community name for “Star Burst” is an astronomical terminology that points towards a phenomenon where large volumes of stars take shape over a short period of time. We named it in hopes that this will lead to the “birth of many bright, star-like entrepreneurs.” One issue that I personally feel that surrounds the situation of entrepreneurs is that whenever you begin a startup, the necessary information are not properly provided. In fact, there are many entrepreneurs that have not been able to properly retrieve information, and that most of the information gets concentrated in a certain section.

So I began my current activities to make sure that anybody who wants to startup a company can retrieve the proper information, and also to create an environment that is conclusive for all to challenge themselves.

To be more specific on one example, the “STARTUP LIST” is a service with the main purpose of matching entrepreneurs with investors. We currently have 1700 companies being involved. We provide investor-searching services for entrepreneurs who have no idea on how to find investors. Currently, we have seen approximately 10,000 matches over the course of the past year.

- You are engaged in various activities, what do you find is appealing about supporting startups?

It is the fact that many people come together because of the passion of the founder of a certain project, resulting in a completely new type of value. Compared to previous consultant services that supported companies, I think that I get a kick out accelerating the evolution of humanity. (laughs)

- Did you always have this kind of thinking?

I think that having the opportunity to see a startup called “WHILL” that brought forth a new type of wheelchair up close greatly influenced my sense of values. I met the founding members of “WHILL” at a business contest that I was involved in the operation side. Although they were all each working at famous companies, every night they gathered at a garage to create various interesting gadgets. It was there that this new type of wheelchair was made. (https://whill.jp/)

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An electric wheelchair with the concept of being a “new type of car to entertain your daily life”( Cited from WHILL )

They faced the issues revolving wheelchairs head-on. The issues being; 1) poor functionality that will even forgo a trip to a convenience store located 100 meters ahead just because of a small bump in the street, and 2) poor design flaw that instantly labels as being a “disabled person” and make others turn away. In order to find a solution to these issues, they took part in creating a personal mobility device, or a wheelchair, that even a non-disabled person would want to ride on. It was an innovation. The disabled person no longer was thought of as being “disabled,” but rather a “person riding a cool- looking mobility device.”

Interesting people will gather around a person who is passionate about his/her project, leading to the creation of innovative products. Having a tangible output lead to funding, which in turn lead to more participants, of which gradually expanded to being introduced in America. This project came about because of this dynamic flow that could even move the world through its community at the center.

When I saw this from the sidelines, I began thinking that it would be interesting if the same thing could be done on a much larger scale.

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Wanting to create a “town” that continues to give birth to innovation

- What is your worldview that you wish would come to fruition, using the community or the town as its stage.

From the experiences that I have seen in the past, every time a single product is created, the passion and drive seems to be swept away along with the product. As a result, there were many cases where the community ended up in stagnation or just dissolved altogether. But new products and services continues to come out from Silicon Valley. I believe that this is because the entire town is functioning as one big giant community. By creating a large scale environment where passion and drive could be gathered and be participated in, a single product will not be the only thing that drives everything, and will in turn create a town where innovation will continue to be born just like Silicon Valley.

- From the perspective of a startup, what is lacking in a town in Japan compared to Silicon Valley?

In one word, it is “information dissemination.” Information is gathered to those who disseminate information. The strength of Silicon Valley is that many people from many number of countries around the world come to search for a success model, and then later return to expand it in their home country. A place that shows a promise of new trends will in turn gather people who want to be trendsetters. This kind of flow is still lacking in Japan. Japan has so many various materials and interesting things, yet are not disseminating the information as a trend internationally. Of course, you can say that you should just export them to the international market, but unless you have routine interactions with the right people, this may not enter your mind. I do feel that fundamental issues in Japan like difficulties of foreign nationals to secure visas and rent real estate play a part in this, but I do see more and more properties up for rent aimed at foreign nationals and an increase of such is a good trend.

Recently we can see the growing presence of France’s French Tech. But when you think about France, it does not necessarily have a higher GDP, a better technology, or a larger scale than compared to Japan. But they are incredibly skilled in branding and information dissemination. When compared to America or China, we can say we can’t compete due to the scale of the country and population. But now that we are beginning to see cases like France, we can no longer keep giving excuses. I believe Japan will have to put more effort into these areas.

- Japanese startup companies still have room to improve compared to their international compatriots, but out of all the companies that you had supported over the years, which one was particularly noteworthy?

How about I give two examples? One company near Nihonbashi, and another towards Shibuya.

First of all, there is a company called “POL” near Nihonbashi that provides services pertaining to the direct recruiting of human resources in the field of science, in addition to providing a platform for collaborative research between universities and business companies. It was founded by a student entrepreneur from the University of Tokyo. The student utilized the position and merits as a student to directly meet professors in laboratories to conduct hearings on research details and created a database. Based on such data, the student then created a system where a business company could directly recruit students, as well as establishing an R&D platform to link the research laboratory with business companies. By making good use of being a student, the traditionally closed-off world of research laboratories could be traversed, and the company has now grown to have 100 employees in one or two years. (https://pol.co.jp)

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Operates a recruitmentplatform called the “LabBase” (Cited from POL Inc. )

Near Shibuya in Sangenjaya is another noteworthy startup company called “WAKAZE” that deals in Japanese sake. They even own a sake brewery and was founded for the purpose of innovating the sake industry. The company was jointly founded by a former- consultant who was a sake-aficionado, and a son of a 130-year old sake brewery. But since it is very difficult to own a new sake brewery in this industry, they were pretty harshly criticized by people in the same industry at first. However, upon creating a new genre called a “Third Type of Sake,” they were successfully able to own a sake brewery in Sangenjaya. By pushing their individuality in creating original Japanese sake from as small as 100 lot batches, they were successful in raising up to ¥100 million, and are now considered as an influential newcomer in the sake industry.
(https://wakaze.jp)

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Inside an area of about 14.85 m², the “WAKAZE Sangenjaya Brewery” continues to search for new possibilities of SAKE ( Cited from WAKAZE )

So much fascination and possibilities for a startup. Nihonbashi being the perfect town for “Grownup- Ventures”

- Could you tell us why ProtoStar have based their activities in the Nihonbashi area?

Compared to west Tokyo, there are about 6 times the number of companies that are listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in east Tokyo. On the other hand, the number of startup companies for both Chiyoda and Chuo wards combined are only slightly more than Shibuya. We thought that since there are this amount of major companies in east Tokyo, it would mean we will be closer to the customers, and that there will be ample opportunities if we challenged here. East Tokyo is definitely a prime location, especially if you are thinking about a startup in the field of BtoB or R&D.

In addition, if this is your first startup, there is even research data out there that says that the success rate of an entrepreneur in his/her 40s is 14 times higher than one that is in his/her 20s, and we wanted to choose a location that was perfect for “Grownup-Ventures.” Long- established stores and major companies are all gathered in and around the Nihonbashi area, and the entire town has a relatively more laid-back vibe than the Shibuya area. I feel that even this overall vibe of the town makes it perfect to establish “Grownup- Ventures.” If we can create a proper entrepreneurship culture here, it’s possible that we can see many success cases coming out of Japan. Furthermore, when you consider the fact that there are many major companies in various fields such as manufacturing, logistics, real estate, and construction that are the cornerstones of Japan’s GDP, this area definitely has a clear advantage for entrepreneurship.

- You feel that there is great appeal in the Nihonbashi area.

Yes I do. The area around Nihonbashi is a flatland, so it is easy to move about by bicycle, car, and motorcycle, not to mention the merit of the office and home being relatively close. In addition, the area is relatively quieter than the west side , so it may be perfect for tech- oriented people like engineers and designers. When you think about the overall vibe of the town, if we are to say that the Shibuya area is to “Enjoy,” then the Nihonbashi area would be “Fun.” “Enjoy” is a temporary feeling of excitement, whereas “Fun” means enjoyment being a daily occurrence. To me, I go towards Shibuya as a getaway for enjoyment, but it is not necessarily a place that I would want to live in or to work at. In comparison, the Nihonbashi area is definitely appealing because you would want to live your daily life here.

- Could you tell us a little bit more about the possibilities of Nihonbashi that you are talking about?

I established a project called “E.A.S.T. (Empowering Ambitious Startups in Tokyo) conception” in order to create a culture that continuously fosters more and more grownup-entrepreneurs in Nihonbashi. We have placed the east side area of Tokyo as the largest congregation of ventures in Japan, and are moving forward with the vision of making this area an outlet for global trends continuously. In order to do that, we want to gather challengers here. A study shows that when 1/4 of your acquaintances starts something new, you become inspired too. So with that backdrop, if it becomes normal that the grownups around you begins challenging in their own side projects or new ideas, it is highly probable that you would want to do so yourself. Our hope is that this way of being inspired becomes more commonplace, and if we can properly raise this flag right here, we think we can turn Nihonbashi into a town that gathers highly passionate challengers.

Mr. Kozo Ohsone, the developer of the Walkman, has a saying, “do what you want, but keep it hidden from your boss,” and I truly believe that. I want to create a community where people with regular jobs are constantly doing side projects. Won’t it be exciting if there is a place like a garage project where anyone can challenge in whatever it is that they want to do? You can find solutions to the issues you feel are crucial, then plan a business or service to take it back to your regular job, or create a spin out company. Within the “E.A.S.T.” conception, I am planning on creating an actual community as a place to input and output such ideas and creations. I call this “Swing By,” a astronomical terminology that defines any technology that adjusts the trajectory of satellites. (Scheduled for Announcement by end of August 2019)

- You seem to be extremely conscious of a “community.” Could you tell us what you personally think about a “community?”

This image is completely intuitive, but I imagine community as a furnace or a kiln that heats steel. A furnace or a kiln has an extremely strong wall to heat the steel, and it is important just how much more of the same heat you place inside. Depending on this “furnace/kiln,” the output will change. Creators may be born from it, or a startup. In other words it’s like a chemical reaction. I believe that a community is a process, a process where various things come together and create a reaction.

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“Towns” being multiple in layers. Urban development, originating from the “Mecca of Grownup-Startups.”

- It definitely is exciting when you can imagine such a community being created in a town setting. Are there any startup companies in the near future that you expect will be successful in the Nihonbashi area?

How about Farmship? It’s the world’s largest artificial plant factory. This company is planning to build a plant factory/facility that houses a cafe on the 1st floor near Hama-cho next year. I am especially taking notice of this company due to how it can tackle the food shortage issues that we may see in the future. Although vegetables grown inside plant factories are perceived as being more expensive than at supermarkets and are non-profitable, this company has successfully collaborated with external sources in terms of hardware, in addition to balancing the logistical aspects with their sales contacts. The merits of having vegetables grown inside plant factories are that they can have a stable supply of clean produce. In other words, you can process these vegetables into sandwiches without washing them, and supply them to major bakeries and resorts in stable numbers. Their system is created in advance based on marketing data, so all they have to do is to adjust the pricings per clients to supply and procure. There may come a day in the near future where we can enjoy vegetables made in Nihonbashi, at Nihonbashi.

- That makes me even more excited for Nihonbashi in the near future. One final question. Can Nihonbashi become a “Mecca of Startups?”

I think it will become a “Mecca of Grownup-Startups!”

But that is still only one layer of the town. So in addition to entrepreneurs, we hope we can add more layers such as in food, life sciences, childcare to “urban develop” this town.

Interview and Article: Kei Furuta (Konel) / Photo: Daisuke Okamura

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