With permission from Venture Café Venture Café: Japan’s Innovation Hub Celebrates 100 Events 2020-04-28 Tue 2020-04-28 Tue Every Thursday, innovators across Tokyo; entrepreneurs, business people, students, househusbands, and housewives, wake up with a sparkle in their eye. They know that come 4 PM, they’ll have powered off their PCs, rolled up their grand designs, and be on the way to join fellow trailblazers to learn, connect and share about all things innovative. That’s because Thursday evening is when Venture Café Tokyo, the community at the heart of Japan’s burgeoning innovation ecosystem, holds their weekly gathering. Thursday, April 16th marked the 100th event, a special Rocket-Pitch night which went ahead, even with COVID-19 fueled bans on public gatherings in place, thanks to (no surprises) a little digital innovation. I attended remotely to bring you the scoop on Japan’s next big ideas. What is Venture Café Tokyo? During the Heisei era, the neon-lit, Sony-branded, robot of innovation that was Japan in the post-war economic miracle years slowly fizzled out and rusted. Meanwhile, US-based Big Tech companies, notably GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple) and other startups like Uber, have risen to prominence to shape and reshape our daily lives. Japan’s conspicuous lack of innovation has drawn attention recently, with critics clamoring for the government to spur startup funding and reforms that foster entrepreneurialism. This is where Venture Café comes in. Venture Café Tokyo is an NPO community whose purpose is “connecting innovators to make things happen”. To do this, they hold a weekly “Thursday Gathering” event in Tokyo which offers a space to get together, learn, and network. The event is free to attend, with a packed program of keynote speeches from leaders in innovation, networking spaces, mentoring sessions to support fledgling startups, and last but not least, free beer. The inaugural Thursday Gathering was held back on March 22nd, 2018 in Tokyo’s spectacular Toranomon Hills tower. Since then, they have held a gathering every week with a steadily growing community of attendees descending on the same venue to innovate and connect together. The event is a quintessentially social experience. It relies on the collaboration of organizers, speakers, and guests to mingle, mix, share ideas, and ultimately make the connections that birth innovation. You would imagine then that this experience would be hampered by current bans on social gatherings imposed to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. You certainly wouldn’t expect them to hold a 40 person startup pitch event with fully functioning networking spaces and audience interaction mid pandemic. But for Venture Café, lockdown is when innovators need bringing together the most. What is Rocket Pitch Night? A pitch for Rocket Pitch Night The purpose of the event is “to give budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their ideas in front of an audience and panel of industry experts so they can get social attention and feedback”, according to Takuo Urushihara, Director of Operations at Venture Café Tokyo. “We saw that the Japanese startup scene lacked an opportunity for young entrepreneurs to shout out their vision and get social attention. We wanted to create a pitch competition that anyone could participate in and use as a first step to get their ideas heard”, added Ryusuke Komura, Program Director at Venture Café Tokyo. With permission from Venture Café Tokyo Pitchers have only 3 minutes and 3 slides to concisely convey their startup idea and vision in front of the panel of judges and a live audience. In doing so, the entrepreneurs get practice pitching and their ideas get major publicity. For the judges and the audience, many of whom are either investors or startups themselves, the pitches are a platform for potential investments or talent to collaborate with. “Really though, the most important thing is rule number one of Venture Café’s community credo, “Have fun! とにかく楽しもう!”, Takuo reminds me. This time round, 40 entrepreneurs got the opportunity to pitch their business ideas. They were spread across 5 categories: Work & Lifestyle/ Education Healthcare & Science Real Tech AI/ IoT/ VR & AR Social and Other The entire program of pitches can be viewed here. For each category, first place and second place prizes were awarded based on votes from the audience. First place prize resulted in earning a prestigious 6-month space in the Tokyo branch of the Cambridge Innovation Centre, set to open in summer 2020. Member of the Venture Café team running the pitches | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo Pitch Perfect As an audience member, choosing between participants was difficult, however; with the quality of each pitch being so high. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire event was hosted online so I could watch every pitch, and I stayed hooked through them all. Some of the more memorable participants proposed ideas such as ocean-borne islands covered in solar panels to power nations, a recruitment app for fashion store assistants, and a sake service designed to introduce nascent fans to Japan’s signature beverage. Far from needing sake, I was intoxicated by innovation - purely from listening to 4 hours of diverse ideas. Equally engaging to listen to was the feedback from the judges, each of whom is a world leader in their field. Their comments, while specific to each contestant's business, were dappled with industry insight and personal experience; each one a pearl of wisdom that everyone could learn from. Pitches by the people for the people For participants, however, more so than winning their category, the opportunity to get feedback and share their ideas with others was most important. Interviewing with me after the event, Funky Jump Co., a startup who pitched their community management knowledge sharing platform, said: “It was so exciting to share my idea over Zoom...An entrepreneurs’ role is to change the world…(so) pitching my idea to such a large audience was a really great experience”. This sentiment was also echoed by Taku Nakahara, CEO of Megaten Therapeutics Co. Ltd and Rocket Pitch Night judge, who said: “Having spent a lot of time in Cambridge, Massachusetts (home of Cambridge Innovation Centre and home to many thriving startup communities) I realize the importance of community for startups. Japan needs that too for startups to flourish here...” Taku Nakahara | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo Mr. Nakahara’s comments hit home on the reality of global startups. In 2015-17 16% of all venture capital investment was done so in Silicone Valley. In fact, 4 out of the top 5 spots on that percentage breakdown are held by U.S. cities, including Boston. The communities that surround innovation in cities like Silicone Valley and Boston are well established. Their networks enable innovation, be it through sparking ideas or connecting entrepreneurs with investors. Fostering such communities of innovators is essential to reigniting Japan’s place as a global leader in innovation. Rocket Pitch Night, and Venture Café Tokyo’s Thursday Gatherings are all about creating opportunities to expand such a community in Japan. With 40 pitchers and over 600 attendees at the April 16th event, it’s clear Japan has a lot of parties interested in innovating. They just need a space to connect. According to Ryusuke Komura, Venture Café is all-important in this respect, now more so than ever: “Venture Café is a significant social experience. We cannot show our social presence more than now. In this crazy COVID-19 world, most international and even inter-city transportation has been suspended or regulated. Certainly, now it is a difficult time for people to connect. But for innovators and innovation, we need to keep creating opportunities for people to collaborate and I see there a vast social significance that Venture Café Tokyo could & should have”. Ryusuke’s comment brings home that the real value of Venture Café’s community is in the opportunity it offers to connect. Sharing ideas with others, networking with key people in your industry, finding a mentor; all these seeds of innovation are born from connecting with others. Venture Café then is vital for Japan’s burgeoning community of innovators. Fortunately, they are very committed to their community, as evidenced by the impressive operational feat of moving their Rocket Pitch Event entirely online! The Lockdown Logistics “The event pulled in over 600 participants from across the world”, according to Takuo. “This was our biggest turn out yet and it was all managed digitally; the first time for a Rocket Pitch event”! “Three weeks before the Pitch Night, we thought we’d still be holding a physical event”, reveals Ryusuke. Pulling it off required the kind of innovation and flexibility that only startups can provide. The Rocket Pitch Night event was hosted entirely online using a combination of Zoom, a web meeting software, and a cloud-based networking platform called “Remo”, itself a startup product. Zoom All pitches were presented and managed using Zoom. Pitchers were effectively invited into a large meeting, attended by Venture Café staff, the panel, and audience members. The staff meticulously passed screen time between pitchers, judges and themselves to manage the 40 3-minute pitches in a 4-hour time frame. After each pitch, the audience could submit online “constructive” feedback forms which will later be shared with the participant. Viewers were also invited to vote on who they thought was the best pitcher following the end of each section. Venture Café Ambassador doing a great job managing time in Zoom | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo Ryusuke, Venture Café’s Program Director gave credit to everyone involved. “We owe the success to you”, he said. “You” meaning participants, the audience, and of course the support team. “We pulled it off because of everyone’s hard work”. “It’s all thanks to the team and the community”, echoed, Takuo. A few of Venture Café’s team members during Rocket Pitch Night | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo While Zoom’s connection stayed strong to deliver the innovative pitches, the Remo app worked well for connecting people so they could “make things happen”. But what is Remo? Remo Remo is a top-down view, 2D map comprising interactive meeting rooms. The app uses video, audio, and chat to enable users to interact with each other after they tap and join one of the rooms. Remo is browser-based and was used in parallel to Zoom so that attendees could watch the pitches and also use the virtual networking space to chat with each other at the same time. Remo Floor Plan | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo The app itself is a Hong Kong-based startup that aims to create more realistic virtual immersive spaces. This, according to Takuo, Venture Café’s Director of Operations, is why Venture Café chose Remo, because it gives a more visceral networking experience. “Connecting people is at the heart of what we do in Venture Café so we needed something to simulate the real experience of Networking”, says Takuo. “In Remo, you feel the space, you notice people out of the corner of your eye, you can track down someone you really want to talk to by “stalking” between rooms”. Remo Meeting Room Video Chat | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo True enough, we spent an enjoyable time between pitches flitting in and out of meeting rooms in Remo. Being able to survey and actively choose a room before joining was freeing, especially as a journalist wanting to interview pitchers and judges. What’s more, as I hopped around Remo’s “physical space”, between rooms and floors, I found myself giving multiple introductions and sharing warm moments of conversation, just like networking in the real world. Venture Café Tokyo will continue to host their Thursday Gatherings using Zoom and Remo until the state of emergency in Japan ends. For readers yet to take part, we recommend stopping by to say “hi”. With the event currently being held online, now is a great opportunity to mingle with Tokyo’s innovators wherever you are in the world. You’re almost guaranteed to get lost in a fascinating talk or in Remo’s bustling corridors getting to know Venture Café’s great community. The Venture Café Tokyo Team Live on Zoom | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo Venture Café Tokyo’s 100th event and the future From the pitches to the presentations and of course down to the people involved, the entirely online Rocket Pitch Night really came together. From my perspective as a participant anyway. So, I sat down with the Directors to get their perspectives on this achievement. Venture Café’s Takuo Urushihara | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo “Everyone involved: our ambassadors, interns, the community, the amazing judges, us, you, put in a ton of work to make this happen. It’s thanks to everyone involved that we could pull this off. That feels great”, said Takuo Urushihara, Director of operations. Venture Café’s Ryusuke Komura | With permission from Venture Café Tokyo “The event was great because it showcased what we’ve built these last 3 years. A real tangible community”, echoed Ryusuke Komura, Director of Programming. Venture Café built their community from an average turn out of 120 people per week in 2018, to 270 in 2019, and the Rocket Pitch Night attracted over 600 participants, Venture Café Tokyo’s largest turn out ever. For the Directors, the impact of their 100th event is about the impact they’ve made collectively as a community. I asked both Directors about the future of Venture Café. Speaking separately on different calls, they gave the same tongue in cheek response: after an event finishes, come 12:01 AM, boom, they’re already thinking about next Thursday. And, while 100 is a monumental achievement, and I know they feel proud, for them, it’s not about the numbers. That would be turning the events and the people at the heart of the community into stats. But the events are spaces full of innovators presenting their ideas. The people are entrepreneurs, full of ideas to be shared. There’s no cap on ideas or innovation, Venture Café’s future isn’t target bound. Its future and its past are the same as it is right now: Venture Café, is about the community, it’s about the people. As long as they are there, the innovation will keep on coming. For all things innovation, check out Venture Café’s website and event information below. You’re just a click away from being part of the community. Website By - Toby M. 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