Inside decades-old school buildings in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, that had been used by Waseda Jitsugyo High School until a year ago, university students and entrepreneurs work around the clock to realize their dream of launching successful startup businesses.
Some people bring their own computers and other high-tech equipment into the former classrooms, now equipped with air conditioning, a local area network and cable television lines.
Some have brought their own bedding to sleep in the “offices,” while others installed a refrigerator and a blender to develop fresh health drinks as potential products.
During the day, most of the occupants are out talking business with potential partners, investors and consultants, working part-time jobs or attending university lectures.
Since Waseda University set up the “incubation” complex to support startup ventures and would-be entrepreneurs — the first ever run by a Japanese institution of higher education — in October, 10 student-entrepreneurs and five startup companies run by graduates of the university have established business footholds in the facilities after being approved by the school’s screening committee.
“Many people may associate the term ‘incubation’ with high-tech enterprises undertaken by academic researchers,” said Izumi Ikeda, an official of Waseda University’s Incubation Projects Promotion Office.
“But our incubation facilities also open the door to students and graduates who plan to market fruit juice and clothes of their own making, as long as their businesses look profitable in the future.”
During their tenancy, which can be extended up to two years, students pay monthly rent of 20,000 yen for a 12.6-sq.-meter partitioned space, and corporate tenants pay 110,000 yen for a 37.6-sq.-meter room.
To give entrepreneurs free guidance, from basics such as how to map out a business plan to complex matters involving taxes, financing and fundraising, experts dispatched from four venture capital and consultant firms as well as the governmental Japan Small and Medium Enterprise Corp. have also moved into the complex.
Thirty-two other companies back up Waseda’s incubation project from the outside, providing entrepreneurs with consultation, seminars and various other assistance.
“We’re happy about the facilities being open around the clock, and the staff here provide such a homey atmosphere,” said Hideshige Hashimoto, the 37-year-old director of the venture firm Self Wing who acquired a master’s of business administration at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University.
Established in March 2000, the provider of online educational programs to nurture entrepreneurship in children has enjoyed steadily increasing sales, he said.
Haruaki Takamoto, 25, representative director of Mypost Japan, developer of a database on pets, moved into the complex, knowing little about business and half skeptical of the university’s incubation projects.
“I just thought a university would lack the experience and knowhow to support startup businesses,” said Takamoto, a postgraduate student of politics at Waseda.
With the help of experts and through interaction with student-entrepreneurs majoring in science, however, Takamoto has crafted business plans and is now seeking partners who can provide funds.
Waseda’s incubation projects are part of the university’s effort to promote new businesses through its Intellectual Property Center, one of the nation’s 27 authorized technology licensing organizations aimed at transferring intellectual property like patents from academia to industry for business use.
In the background lies the nation’s ongoing effort to create new businesses and revamp Japan’s industrial competitiveness through the collaboration of academia, industry and the government.
“The trend certainly runs in favor of us academics, who used to keep to the world of ivory towers,” said Katsuya Matsuo, an official of the intellectual property center.
“It encourages universities to come up with new undertakings as they face competition” with other institutions to remain attractive and relevant amid the rapidly changing socioeconomic environment, characterized by an aging society and dwindling number of youths, he said.
While the government has pledged to increase the number of new enterprises originating from university campuses from about 130 at present to 1,000 over the next three years, Waseda aims to create more than 100 businesses from the campus.
That way, the university can also help promote the Waseda-area community by serving as a hub of new business, information and people, according to Takayasu Okushima, president of the school.
But there is a long way to go before such ambitions on the part of academia are totally acknowledged by Japanese industries, which tend to take the potential of entrepreneurs lightly, according to Seiji Adachi, president of venture consulting firm Seibunkan and one of the experts helping the occupants of the Waseda facility.
To make the most of university facilities for creating new businesses, industries must work together with these institutions to tap the human and technological resources, Adachi said.
“Entrepreneurs for their part must have an indomitable spirit to carry out their undertakings and convince their potential business partners,” he said. “For now, we must make as many success cases as possible, so that industry will become aware of entrepreneurs’ potential value.”
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