Last week, a select group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs traveled to Tokyo to learn about Japan’s tech sector and new opportunities. What they found was a country in transition, a few surprises, and a group of Japanese entrepreneurs itching to plunge headfirst into the international marketplace.
The goal was to “build bridges — geographical, cultural, and topical” between Silicon Valley and Japan, said Ellen Levy, VP of corporate development and strategy at LinkedIn and founder of Silicon Valley Connect, the organizing body for the trip. Participants certainly learned a lot from each another, and one of the biggest surprises for the Silicon Valley contingent was how the Japanese tech community had to fight just to get the Net established in their country.
Entrepreneurs Get No Respect
Most Americans think of Tokyo as a high-tech Mecca, filled with gadgets and neon lights, but there was a time when Japan’s political and financial establishment questioned the very necessity of offering Internet access in the country.
To help the Net take hold, Jun Murai had to move like a samurai and cut through strong opposition to the Information Superhighway. Murai, now known as “the father of Japan’s Internet,” represented to the group what many young Japanese entrepreneurs aspire to be: rebels in search of a better path.
Joi Ito, one of Japan’s most prominent entrepreneurs and global connectors, as well as a co-organizer of the event, explained to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that there are two types of young people in Japan: “those who value legacy and those who want to be entrepreneurs.” The problem is that in Japan, being an entrepreneur isn’t very popular.
Only around 8 percent of Japanese entrepreneurs say they are respected for their job choice versus more than 80 percent in the United States, Ito said, citing numbers from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Such data reflects a cultural difference that creates barriers for smart Japanese looking to start hot new tech firms. This mindset can also pose barriers to outside entrepreneurs, like those from Silicon Valley.
There are two sides to the country, said Bunnie Huang, whose WiFi device company, Chumby, just weeks ago launched a product in Japan. One is a more traditional and insular group composed of dominant firms like NTT Docomo, and the other is made up of smaller startups working to branch out and internationalize. Figuring out how to avoid the pitfalls of the first and work with the second will be key for anyone doing business in Japan. Of course, the smaller firms don’t wield the same power or influence as the big guys.
Nintendo has surpassed the century mark and Sony is more than 60 years old, but “no Japanese companies under 30 years have made global success,” lamented Tomoko Namba, founder of mobile e-commerce company DeNA. This led the group to wonder out loud, “Where are the Japanese Googles?” Indeed, no one could name a single young Japanese company that can boast success on a Google-like scale. While the group was somber about that reality, at least one of the big companies offered some welcome surprises.
Sony Corporation’s Hiroaki Kitano, PhD., inspired the Silicon Valley crowd with his plan to apply the famous long tail of economics to genomics research. While some of his research plans were kept under wraps, he told the group that his goal was to find “long tail drugs” for diseases like cancer.
Most pharma companies are looking for drugs that target a few silver-bullet genes, but Kitano’s goal is to look for multiple genes, those that big pharma ignores, that might also do the trick. How does such biotech research have any relevance to Sony Corporation? The answer is at least two-pronged.
Officially, such spending is part of Sony’s community service, and if it winds up making money, that’s great. A possible unstated answer is that many tech companies are now entering the biotech field in an attempt to find new markets and speed up the race to achieve true artificial intelligence.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the cancer Sony’s group was investigating happened to be focused on the brain. Other companies, like IBM, are already attempting to reverse engineer the brain using biological data, so a Sony venture into the area only makes sense.
From an understanding and networking point of view, the visit between Silicon Valley Connect executives and Japanese technologists and entrepreneurs proved fruitful. There are no current Japanese Googles, but that could change — especially if smart people from the two countries connect and work together.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.