Having spent much of his working life flying between the United States and Japan, Nobuhiro Seki decided he would use his knowledge of the two countries to act as a bridge between them. In 2015, he co-founded FabFoundry, a small company based in New York that provides a platform for American hardware startups to meet with Japanese manufacturing firms. One of its main goals is to promote the spirit of monozukuri beyond these shores.
“Monozukuri” is a Japanese term describing the craftsmanship concept held up as something that’s almost ineffable and untranslatable. It literally means to make things, but in reality it goes well beyond that; it’s more like a philosophy with an emphasis on quality, attention to detail and kaizen (continuous improvement).
After the economic bubble burst, there was a hollowing out of the Japanese manufacturing industry, which led to the creation of the Monozukuri Kondankai (consultative council on monozukuri) in 1998 — a government effort to promote the supremacy of locally made products after competition on price with neighboring nations became fierce. Though somewhat successful, Seki believes that from a global perspective, Japanese manufacturers have the potential to spread their wings further to attract more interest from abroad.
“For the past 50 years, many of these hardware manufacturers have focused solely on doing business with top tier corporations in Japan, such as Sharp, Toshiba and so on,” Seki explains. “It’s a protected environment. Trust isn’t an issue; contract negotiations are straightforward and there are no language barriers.”
However, Seki says problems arise when these companies go through economic difficulties, as is the case now.
“The manufacturers could die,” he says. “They need new business opportunities from overseas, but are reluctant because they can’t negotiate in English or any other language. It’s like they are invisible outside of their home country. So I want to use FabFoundry to give them a voice.”
For Seki, who now runs the company on his own, it’s not just about persuading Japanese manufacturers to jump on board. He also needs to convince U.S. startups the value of monozukuri. He says that most U.S. companies won’t think of approaching Japanese manufacturers because they assume “they aren’t interested in startups and that they’re too expensive.”
“In the States you’ve got a growing number of hardware startups with prototypes, but there aren’t enough factories to manufacture their products,” he says. “Many, therefore, turn to Asia and the first choice is often China, as it’s cheap.”
While Seki says that’s understandable, he’s certain Japan is a better option.
“Firstly, it’s well managed and production is faster,” he says. “When you’re a new company coming into the market, speed and good organization can be more important than cost. The quality’s also higher and there’s a lot of idle capacity so there are more opportunities to create new products.”
Seki worked hard to get things rolling. In the evenings after finishing his day job as an executive member for Six Apart, a software company, he would go to startup events. Usually the only Japanese person in attendance, many people were interested in what he had to say, which led to informal meetings.
Going beyond that proved difficult, however, so Seki decided to show them what he meant rather than just talking about it.
He managed to forge a partnership with Kyoto-based Darm Tech Labs, who run Makers Boot Camp (MBC), a hardware startup-focused accelerator, who were prepared to accept new businesses from America. Last year, they decided to have a boot camp to fly people from American companies to Japan to get to know the manufacturing community.
“It was a valuable learning experience and the feedback we got from those involved was excellent,” Seki recalls.
After graduating from the University of Tokyo with a degree in engineering, the entrepreneur went to the U.S. in 2000 to study at Carnegie Mellon University. After receiving an MBA, he moved back to Tokyo, but was visiting the United States a few times a year on business.
“I made the move permanent in 2014, and, honestly speaking, I do find it easier working there. You don’t have to be senior to be a manager, which gives me more opportunities to work with vibrant young people,” he says. “New York, where I’m currently based, is particularly exciting. I think since the global financial crisis of 2007-08, we’ve seen a growing number of startups in the region. It’s one of the most promising cities in the world as there’s so much creativity.”
“The issue,” he continues, “is the lack of manufacturers in the States. Nobody knows where the factories are so lots of time can be wasted. Investors usually suggest China, but this can be risky.”
He says many hardware projects fail because of mismanagement and the inability to locate valuable resources. “This won’t be a problem in Japan. You are paying more for something that’s reliable. You know the work’s going to be done properly and that’s the value of monozukuri,” he says. “It’s important to make more people aware of this and that’s ultimately my chief objective at FabFoundry and as director of MBC.”
In March, MBC, in association with FabFoundry, announced a venture capital fund of ¥2 billion (nearly $18 million) to intensively invest in hardware startups in Japan, North America and Europe with Seki taking on the role of director.
The first company on MBC’s portfolio was Boston Biomotion, an organization offering personalized exercise and rehabilitation experiences through robotics and data analytics. That deal was shortly followed by another one with Hoplite Power, who provide customers with an on-demand charging service when they’re on the move.
Seki’s expecting more investments like this in the near future, especially in the American market — a region he’s very familiar with.
Name: Nobuhiro Seki
Key moments in career:
2000 — Leaves Japan for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
2002 — Moves back to Tokyo with a mobile game business plan
2003 — Joins Six Apart, a San Francisco-based web startup, after giving up the mobile game business
2015 — Starts FabFoundry, a business platform for hardware startups in New York
Strengths: “Interest and acceptance of diversity, commitments and trust, motivation to challenge issues.”
Weaknesses: “A lack of charisma and passionate attitude.”
2003年 サンフランシスコのベンチャー企業Six Apartに創業メンバーとして参加