Five Japanese startups that are making real impact
apan is home to a growing number of innovative companies creating positive economic, environmental and social impact. Meet five startups that are making a difference on both a local and global scale.
Home to an incredible mix of traditional culture and cutting-edge technology, Japan has long been a leader in innovation. In recent years, the country’s startup ecosystem has grown rapidly and it now includes a number of companies focused on tackling finding solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.
More than Tokyo, Japan has examples of impactful new thinking in all of its major cities and the regions beyond, which you’ll find profiled alongside expert insights, practical tips and more in Startup Guide Japan. Let’s take a look at just a few examples of startups that are making a difference.
Maiko Ishikawa knows what it’s like to struggle in life. Financial difficulties forced her to drop out of university, and she found employment as a contract worker. But she grew tired of hopping from job to job and began to think about how she could earn a living with just her computer and an internet connection. She hit upon web design and spent the next three years teaching herself, launching her own web design company in 2008.
After having a child, Maiko reflected on her background and how one out of seven children in Japan lives in relative poverty. She decided that teaching programming would give children greater access to future education and prepare them for life in a society where technological skills are becoming increasingly indispensable.
In 2016, Maiko founded Kids Code Club to provide a platform where children can learn programming. She collaborates with Seattle IT Japanese Professionals (SIJP) to run workshops in which US-based Japanese engineers at large tech companies such as Google or Microsoft give computer science lessons to children in Fukuoka and Kumamoto through online seminars.
“Many people want to make a difference but don’t know how,” says Gochiso cofounder Philip Nguyen, whose desire to have a positive impact on society has influenced much of his life.
While trying to launch an education nonprofit, he noticed two key issues: Japan has a low level of charitable donations compared to the US, and young people especially want to make a difference but are the least able to contribute financially. He thought about how to address both issues and hit upon an activity that almost everyone does occasionally: eating out.
Gochiso began as a platform that allowed people to donate to nonprofits of their choice at no extra cost, simply by dining at certain restaurants. This enabled restaurants to better utilize their marketing expenses to fill more seats while allowing socially conscious diners to enjoy a meal knowing that 10–20 percent of their bill would be put to good use.
After encountering difficulties in scaling the number of restaurants to match the many use cases of their diners, Gochiso refocused its growth strategy on corporate dining. This allows companies to put their business dining expenses toward impactful causes.
Kento Hoshi was no stranger to discrimination due to his sexuality. He was bullied so badly at middle school that he dropped out for one-and-a-half years.
But through an online gaming community, he came to feel accepted for who he was and regained his confidence, eventually entering university and founding an LGBTQ group. However, he again witnessed discrimination when his close friend was rejected multiple times during job hunting due to her identity.
Wanting to take action, Kento initially founded a website where people could review LGBTQ-friendly companies, but he soon realized there was demand for a job-search tool. In 2015, he won a pitch contest, receiving mentoring from former McKinsey consultant Yuji Akabane, who helped him formulate his business model.
During his final two years at university, Kento ran JobRainbow on the side, but, upon graduation, he made a snap decision to pursue it full time.
A friend who worked at successful startup Sukedachi introduced him to the company’s CEO, who was impressed and in turn introduced him to Genesia Ventures. In a relatively short space of time, JobRainbow received ¥50 million in investment, allowing Kento to recruit his first employee.
Having undertaken summer internships at large firms, he leveraged his connections to bring big names on board. Microsoft Japan was among the first, which helped attract tech companies such as Rakuten, IBM and Facebook. JobRainbow now offers training and consulting services for companies that want to be more LGBTQ-friendly.
Metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) might not be an everyday term but this new class of porous solids that can store and distribute gases is poised to transform several industries ranging from energy to pharmaceuticals.
Atomis founder and CTO Masakazu Higuchi was an assistant professor at a lab headed by Professor Susumu Kitagawa, who discovered MOFs. In 2015, he decided to commercialize this technology.
Atomis is currently developing several MOF-based products, including CubiTan®, a compact cube-shaped gas cylinder designed to replace conventional thick-walled high-pressure tanks. It also acts as a smart device that transmits usage and location data, making gas distribution more efficient.
The company is investigating the potential of MOFs for gas delivery in the human body. As a pioneering business, the company’s challenge is to get its products recognized in an industry that has remained unchanged for decades.
Shigeki Moriguchi and Hiroyasu Togo cofounded Brain Innovation in 2018. The biotech venture is run in partnership with Tohoku University and utilizes intellectual property for the development of medicine specialized in treating brain-related illness.
Its business model involves evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medicines by carrying out clinical trials in order to file patents. With a patent, medicines can be licensed to pharmaceutical companies.
Brain Innovation’s first medicine, which treats the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, is in the preclinical trial phase at locations overseas. The company is also working on its second pipeline as well as on the development of its own independent research institute.
Shigeki, a pharmaceutical scientist, got the idea for Brain Innovation while working on Alzheimer’s disease therapies and decided to start the venture with Hiroyasu, an experienced entrepreneur.
Within six months of founding the company, the pair had secured a lead venture capital to fund the startup. Six months later, additional venture capital and private companies invested. So far, the startup has received about ¥400 million in funding.
Written by Phoebe Amoroso and Kathryn Wortley.
Repackaged by Hazel Boydell.
To discover more of Japan’s impactful startups, pick up a copy of Startup Guide Japan.