Innovation in Japan

Japan is on a drive to be more innovative. This may sound strange as for many of us Japan is synonymous with high-tech. It’s a country where the word “drive” is as likely to refer to piloting a giant robot as much as it is a car. However, this futuristic image belies the fact that Japanese innovation has been lagging behind other nations like the US, China, even India, for over 20 years now.

Japan ranked 32nd for innovation out of 60 countries in Toyo University’s Global Innovation Ranking 2019, with the US and China at 9th and 15th respectively. Many metrics comprise this ranking, but Japan scored particularly low in the Startups category; coming in at 52nd for numbers of newly registered businesses and 39th for ease of starting a business.

That’s not to say Japan has no entrepreneurs. Innovators remain alive and well-ing up with big ideas.. In fact, chief amongst the myriad oft-cited reasons for Japan’s innovation latency is a failure to connect innovators so they can realize new ideas together. Google for Startups Japan’s head, Tim Romero, speaking at Stanford University, stressed building a network of people that can enable innovation as key to the future of innovation in Japan. These kinds of networks are often credited with the standout success of booming startup hubs like Silicon Valley.

Fortunately, there is a lot of activity going on in Japan to build such networks and communities. Some of the most prominent and exciting is being done by Venture Café Tokyo, a nonprofit that has been busy building a community of innovators in Japan since 2018. Using a weekly social gathering as their core platform, Venture Café operates with the same agility and innovation as the startups they hope to inspire. We sat down with the Directors of Venture Café Tokyo to find out more about how their social innovation is inspiring innovators across Japan.

What is Venture Café Tokyo and how do you guys direct it?

“Our mission is connecting innovators to make things happen!”, both Takuo Urushihara, Director of Operations at Venture Café Tokyo, and Ryusuke Komura, Program Director at Venture Café Tokyo, tell me enthusiastically!

Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

Their mission is accomplished using Venture Café’s core platform: a weekly Thursday Gathering event. This free event boasts an exciting program of inspiring talks from acclaimed innovators, networking sessions, and mentoring opportunities for attendees to get startup advice.

With over 100 events now under their belt Takuo and Ryusuke have the basic structure of their event down.Yet, their approach to managing Venture Café has always been to ensure the event stays flexible and adaptive to their audience. For this reason their community of innovators continues to grow year on year in number and diversity. Though ‘evolve’ may be a better term for a community which is largely being engineered to grow organically. When asked how they ensure the program stays fresh and accessible to engage captivating speakers and a captivating audience, Takuo had the following to say:

“Our community is all about innovation, so we need to be innovative in the way we run things”!

This begins with organizing a changing line up of often high profile speakers each week. Talks are varied and always interesting; ranging from a Zen monk discussing the connection between Zen and innovation, to an entire program promoting life science innovation in Japan. To serve their multilingual community, these presentations are in English, Japanese or both. Machine translation systems and multilingual moderation ensures the audience can understand, and participate actively in Q&A. Even if you’re not interested in the topic, the quality of the ideas on display and thier accessibility make participating easy and enjoyable.

Takuo and Ryusuke work hard to ensure attendees can get involved during the talks because this ease of participation is central to Venture Café’s community mission. Participants get most from an event whey they can engage in dialogue with speakers and each other; a community is at its best when it’s (inter)active after all.

Paraphrasing Takuo and Ryusuke, Venture Café Tokyo is a learning community and learning is about much more than just sitting and absorbing information. Far from being passive, genuine learning is an interactive process that results in self transformation. This meaningful growth requires interaction. It requires participation.“We try to create opportunities for people to truly learn which we believe will foster entrepreneurship”, says Ryusuke.

Ryusuke engaging the audience. | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

Outside of highly interactive sessions, there are plentiful opportunities to participate in networking also. Dedicated networking spaces at each event ensure attendees can mingle with speakers and each other to make industry and personal connections while enjoying free drinks. Every event begins with a 30-minute networking masterclass from Ryusuke (or a Venture Café Tokyo staff member) aimed at helping attendees breakdown language and cultural barriers that would ordinarily slow the process of making connections.The overall effect is that, whether you’re there for business or just to meet people and share thoughts, participating in the community feels easy and enticing.

Takuo facilitating a discussion session. | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

It’s clear that Takuo, Ryusuke and the community have created a strong formula for the Thursday Gathering. It comprises a strong program as a base, whilst harnessing fresh ideas and faces each week so that the outcome always offers something new and engaging. While they attribute everything to their community members, the Director's own innovation is definitely a contributing factor to their success.

Takuo and Ryusuke | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

What are your backgrounds and how did you get into Venture Café?

The Directors are well suited to building a community of innovators with career histories intertwined with entrepreneurship and startups. Takuo’s career history includes being a key member of a drone education startup, work for nonprofits, government entities, and major sports teams. Ryusuke launched cloud services as part of one of Japan’s major IT companies and authored numerous business cases in entrepreneurship as a consultant for GLOBIS, Japan’s largest business school.

However, it was studying an MBA at F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College that was a key influence in their current roles as community builders.

Babson College is the world’s leading college for entrepreneurship. Whilst studying here Takuo and Ryusuke met not only each other but also Dr. Yasuhiro Yamakawa, a leading academic in the field of innovation and current Executive Director of Venture Café Tokyo. Dr. Yamakawa, impressed by Ryusuke and Takuo during their studies, headhunted them as directors for Venture Café Tokyo a few months before its launch in 2018.

Ryusuke, Takuo, Dr. Yasuhiro Yamakawa, Dr. Tomy Kamada | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

“One of the key lessons my MBA taught me was ‘action trumps everything’”, says Takuo Urushihara. “Trying something new is important, if you happen to make a mistake, that’s fine, learn from it and keep moving forward”, agreed Ryusuke Komura.

Takuo Urushihara | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

Takuo and Ryusuke apply this proactive mantra by managing Venture Café itself like the startups it aims to support. This means being flexible in the way they operate their events and always trying new things. Big changes like their Rocket Pitch night event that shake up their entire program, to small changes like introducing weekly idea boards where attendees can add answers to innovative questions on post-its, are all born from the spirit to keep trying something new.

Ryusuke Komura | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

“Our business is a community. It’s full of people and people are always changing. We have to be flexible and always changing too so we can keep people involved”, says Ryusuke Komura.

Who inspires you as community builders?

Keeping up pace with a thriving community of curious innovators is, of course, no easy task. Fortunately, Takuo and Ryusuke have some great sources of inspiration and support.

“Venture Café is not a single entity. It’s a movement that’s part of a whole network of global Venture Cafés. The group is a major source of inspiration for us and each other”, explains Takuo.

Venture Café was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts by the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in order to connect curious innovators and their ideas to organizations and mentors who could help them realize their visions. Today there are 11 Venture Café’s dotted around the globe, all holding a weekly Thursday Gathering. The 11 Café’s have the same core concept and goal but operate in their own way. This creates a rich network of inspirational activity that they can share with each other.

In addition to a network of community builders, Venture Café Tokyo are also heavily influenced by their own community.

Ryusuke and member of community and support staff | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

“Our community itself is our other big source of inspiration. From our ambassadors and support team to our partners, speakers and guests, everyone inspires and enables us to build a better community”, says Takuo.

Takuo and Ryusuke spend a lot of their time actively engaging with their community. Chatting to attendees during the events, discussing with their support staff, and consciously seeking and applying feedback is undoubtedly a key reason to their ongoing growth. The value of a community is in its people after all.

“Like startups, we are a very flat organization. We don’t care about titles, so we have very open, honest discussions amongst ourselves and our support team. In this sense we take a humble approach to community building”, explains Ryusuke Komura.

Venture Café Tokyo team | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

Takuo and Ryusuke recognize that honesty is essential in being able to operate and adapt Venture Café flexibly. They actively cultivate a culture where everyone is encouraged to get involved and share their opinions and ideas, irrespective of seniority. In doing so they create a community where innovative ideas can be shared easily and executed quickly. It’s a community where people feel respected and empowered to take part.

“We get some of our best ideas from our community like suggestions for speakers or new things to try out at events!”, says Ryusuke.

Venture Café Tokyo team interacting with community | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

The way they manage the Venture Café Tokyo organization actively embodies what they need to achieve their mission: barrier-free and open communication between people so they can easily share ideas and make innovation. In this environment, entrepreneurship can thrive.

It’s great that you guys have facilitated such an engaged and thriving community. But I’m curious how you are building the community in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic?

The future of innovation in Japan appears promising with Venture Café on the scene and networking a thriving community of innovators. But you would assume that the global COVID-19 pandemic poses a barrier to barrier-free, open communication, and collaboration. How is Venture Café continuing to connect innovators in a time when human interaction cannot exist beyond the four walls of our own homes?

When asked, Takuo and Ryusuke were both optimistic about Venture Café in a world under COVID-19 lockdown.

“Venture Café Tokyo is incredibly relevant to the world, especially right now. There are so many barriers to social interaction (and by extension innovation) these days. At a time when it’s physically hard for people to collaborate, the world needs Venture Café to bridge isolated people and communities”, says Ryusuke Komura.

Due to the national state of emergency in Japan which restricts large gatherings and advises residents to remain indoors, Venture Café Tokyo has been operating their events online since late February. Presentations are live-streamed over Zoom, the popular online meeting app. Networking is managed through a cloud-based platform called Remo which creates a top-down view of digital networking rooms that attendees can click in to and enter video or voice chat with those in the room.

The online events are working well so far and Venture Café even held their Rocket Pitch Night 2020 digitally, which you can read more about here. An impressive feat that entailed facilitating 40 different pitches in a 4-hour window with live judging and audience participation. The event attracted over 600 participants, Venture Café Tokyo’s highest turn out so far.

Venture Café Tokyo team at digital event | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

“Because of the way we work like a startup: flexible, fast, flat, you know, we didn’t miss a beat. In anticipation, we digitalized our event before the state of emergency was declared, without disruption to our schedule. And, everyone is still working their butts off, the ambassadors, the staff, the’s thanks to everyone that we can still make things happen under challenging circumstances”, explains Takuo Urushihara.

From talking to Takuo and Ryusuke it’s clear that for Venture Café, it’s still business as usual. The environment may have changed but thanks to the strength of their community, they have adapted quickly to ensure innovators still have a place to connect and make things happen.

For this writer at least, Venture Café is sending out a promising message to the world about innovation in Japan: contrary to critic’s assertions, Japan is full of innovators. They just needed a space to get together, a space where they could be empowered to share and create ideas. This space is Venture Café Tokyo, itself an innovator in the field of community building. As its community and members continue to flourish, so too will entrepreneurialism and innovation in Japan.

Venture Café Tokyo team dressing up for Halloween | Photo by Venture Café Tokyo

Venture Café Tokyo Details

  • Website
  • Event Details: Every Thursday, 16:00 - 21:00

And because Venture Café Tokyo is better when you show up, why not check out their next event info and join in?

By - Toby M.