Business

Akihabara outfit aims to become a hub for hardware startups

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Clustered electronics stores, maid cafes and the home of idol group AKB48 — Tokyo’s Akihabara district is famous for many things.

And the list of unique spots may get even longer, as the district now has a large-scale facility for hardware startups to create innovative products.

The shared space, called DMM.make AKIBA, opened in November. Tokyo-based DMM.com, which runs online malls and video streaming services, launched the facility to offer pretty much everything that people need to start manufacturing hardware. The facility not only boasts ¥500 million worth of state-of-the-art equipment, but also offers technical support, consulting services, office space and a chance to garner funding.

While Internet venture firms can create services through one computer, becoming a hardware manufacturer from zero is tough, said Kenzo Yoshida of DMM.com, who oversees the DMM.make AKIBA facility.

“Running hardware startups costs a lot. You’ll need space and manufacturing machines, so you can’t do it with one computer,” Yoshida said in a recent interview. “We think we can help in that sense.”

DMM.make AKIBA has two main floors. While one is dedicated to office space, the other, called Studio, is like a jack of all trades for hardware startups.

Studio looks like a small factory, boasting more than 100 manufacturing machines and tools for hardware-makers to create a variety of things, including metal molds, prototype gadgets and robots.

Some of the more expensive machines would normally be difficult for a startup to access.

For instance, it has a five-axis CNC (computerized numerical control) machining center, which is capable of automated precise machining of complex designs using materials like steel, based on data entered into a computer.

Studio also has other cutting tools, including a laser cutter and drill press to fill different needs for cutting processes.

It offers 3-D computer-aided design systems along with a 3-D printer, too.

If customers want to check the durability of their products there are machines to test, for instance, if the products can withstand shaking and other impacts that could occur when they are packed and shipped. Other equipment can test waterproofness, and durability for water pressure and drastic temperature changes.

In addition, there are tools to paint and print designs on the products.

There is technical support available on how to use the machines, business strategy consultations and the prospect of gaining financial backing.

“I think people who want to provide hardware products find themselves unable to get many things, no machines and no money,” Yoshida said.

“Our concept at this facility is that you can’t make excuses here.”

DMM.make AKIBA can provide a wide range of services because DMM.com has teamed up with ABBALab, a Tokyo-based venture capital firm, and Tokyo-based electronics company Cerevo Inc.

ABBALab offers financial support for hardware startups, while Cerevo has know-how and offers technical assistance in using machines and creating hardware products.

Since the launch of DMM.make AKIBA in November, many aspiring hardware-makers have been frequenting the facility and products are already emerging.

The startup exiii Inc., which is based at the Akihabara facility, has introduced handiii, a prosthetic arm made using a 3-D printer. It connects to smartphones and picks up electrical signals from the brain to move the arm. The firm participated earlier this month in South by Southwest, one of the biggest IT and gadget trade shows in the United States.

To use the Studio facility, people have to pay a one-time ¥30,000 fee up front and then ¥15,000 monthly, while the shared office requires a ¥40,000 one-time fee and ¥20,000 monthly. If clients want to use both the shared office and the Studio facility, they pay ¥60,000 up front and ¥30,000 monthly.

The members also need to pay to use some machines depending on how long they use them.

Yoshida said there were about 170 members as of the beginning of March and the firm aims to attract 300 to 500 during its first business year, which started in November.

By providing much of the support needed by hardware startups, Yoshida said DMM.com hopes the facility will attract people from different backgrounds.

“There may be people who are straight-up hardware entrepreneurs and there may be fresh graduates from engineering colleges. If they collaborate with each other, they might come up with an interesting product,” Yoshida said.

If innovative products are created at DMM.make AKIBA, DMM.com can sell them through its fairly large online shopping site, Yoshida said.

Some people might wonder why DMM.com, which is mainly known for its Internet-based services, is operating a facility for hardware startups.

Yoshida said the firm had long wanted to engage in manufacturing-related businesses, and since it started its 3-D printing service in 2013, DMM.com is focusing more in this area.

In that context, Yoshida said DMM.com wanted to have a physical place for people to create hardware. And he said the firm thought Akihabara would be the best place for it.

“Akihabara attracts people who are interested in new products. At the same time, people who want to make electronics products come here, too,” he said.

“There are not many places like this in Japan.”

As Silicon Valley in the United States is known for attracting young Internet firms, Yoshida said DMM.com hopes Akihabara will someday become famous as a mecca of hardware startups.

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