Domestic entrepreneurs pitch ideas in English at high-profile technology event in Tokyo

Startups test global waters in contest


Staff Writer

In a test of Japanese startups’ global competitiveness, a dozen firms took part Friday in a contest to pitch their ideas — in English — to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Although events like SF New Tech Japan Night are relatively new in Japan, a small but growing number of local entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the opportunities to test their products and meet prospective financiers.

At the event, which is related to similar contests held each month in San Francisco, 15 entrepreneurs pitched products ranging from Web browsers to music-sharing and social-networking services in the hope of creating world-changing technologies like Google and Facebook did.

All of the presenters held a global perspective of the market rather than a domestic one. But for many, the most challenging part of the event was doing the five-minute pitch and followup questions in English — one of the critical skills needed to succeed in the U.S. market.

The judges, most of them Silicon Valley startup owners or founders themselves, evaluated each idea on the basis of the presenters’ English skills as well as their potential to go global and turn a profit.

Although some pulled it off, others ran out of the time or misunderstood the judges’ questions.

“If they can’t survive here, they can’t make it in Silicon Valley,” said Craig Mod, a mentor at 500 Startups and founder of Pre/Post, one of the seven judges.

One of the contestants, Hiroshi Asaeda, 29, founder and CEO of music-sharing service Beatrobo, said he didn’t want to create a product that would only sell in Japan. That’s why he designed everything from scratch in English.

“Japanese businesses are beaten by Apple or YouTube,” Asaeda said. “I’d like to show the world the Japanese can create a service that can be the best in the world again.”

For some contestants, the event offered an opportunity to learn what it takes to tap into the ethos of Silicon Valley.

“This event taught me what American venture capitalists are looking at. I also have to practice my English more,” said Kazuyuki Tokuyama, 25, founder of Peeece, a social shopping community for smartphone users.

This was the fourth time the event has been held in Japan. The six finalists were invited to pitch their ideas at SF New Tech in San Francisco, which draws venture capitalists like Y Combinator and the Sequoia Group.

More than 100 local startups have entered the contest over the past four years, and at least four have made it to Silicon Valley or raised funding from venture capitalists in the area.

“There are great Japanese Web services but they are little known in the U.S. I wanted to introduce them to the American market and wanted Japanese entrepreneurs to get used to the Silicon Valley culture,” said Brandon K. Hill, CEO of San Francisco-based btrax, which organizes the event.

Many startups have sprouted in Japan since 2000, and the recent advent of cloud computing has made it easier for tech-savvy Japanese to launch their own businesses with limited resources. Yet the language barrier, lack of presentation skills and a reluctance to take risk has meant few Japanese make it to Silicon Valley.

Analysts say these factors have prevented them from touting their products to venture capitalists.

“Venture capitalists know what you are presenting is not going to be the final product. They are more evaluating your confidence by looking at your presentation style,” said Matthew Romaine, CTO of myGengo, a Tokyo Web translation service that has raised $5.25 million from Silicon Valley venture capitalists.