Techstars

Building a startup is an extremely challenging undertaking. Ask any startup founder and each one will tell you stories of the challenges they are facing from fundraising to product development and even finding talent. And that’s discounting the additional layer of difficulties and uncertainties that our current pandemic situation has on the overall business landscape. 

Apart from that, each country presents their own set of challenges for startups — be it in the form of regulations, cultural differences, and even maturity of the market or availability of potential partners for new technologies. 

That’s why it’s heartening to see various programmes supporting startups happening all over the region. In Japan, specifically, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) is spearheading initiatives that aim to guide and bolster Japanese startups towards greater growth.

They have partnered with Techstars to launch two cohorts of the Founders Catalyst Program as part of JETRO’s Startup City Acceleration Program. The startups in the two cohorts — 15 in the general cohort and 11 in the cleantech cohort — are undergoing a series of sessions to help address the issues they are facing specific to their companies to help them build and grow their companies.

A wide range of challenges across various stages of a startup

LThe aim of the program is to provide startups with the support they need to address challenges specific to them. With 26 startups, that could mean anything from figuring out their go-to-market strategy, addressing company growth stalls due to the pandemic, and even finding partners outside of the country.

Such was the case of Water Design Japan, a startup that aims to address the problem of clogged and damaged pipes without the use of chemicals with its Ultra Fine Bubble (UFB) technology.

“[Our product] produces nano-sized bubbles for a unique and natural cleaning effect”, said Natsumi Ito, co-founder of Water Design Japan. “This technology has lots of potential and applications. However, it was hard to find the first customer who was willing to test and use it.” 

And while at present they claim that over 7,000 customers in Japan trust their technology and use their product, they are aiming to expand their business outside of the country. “We have about 70% of business requirements coming from overseas but it is hard to find the right partner,” explained Ito.

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AC Biode, a company that is developing the world’s first standalone AC batteries with special electric circuits for e-mobility and energy storage, faces a different challenge — something that startups developing new technology may be very familiar with. 

Our battery and plastic recycling projects require a lot of funding and R&D,” said Robert Kunzmann, COO of AC Biode. “The main challenge is to find partners to scale our technology from small prototype to large scale operation.”

This is the same challenge that IDDK Co. Ltd. is facing, albeit at a much later stage. The company developed a patented one-chip microscopic observation technology called Micro Imaging Device (MID) that they foresee to be a game-changer not just in the microscope industry but in the various fields and technologies that require it such as space, medical, biotech, and sanitation.

“The main challenge we are facing as we grow our company is to improve MID,” said Kohei Yoshioka, Director and CFO at IDDK. As it is a new technology, they are aiming to meet investors to help them fundraise to further improve their product.

But beyond finding partners to help them scale and develop their products, some companies find that the bigger challenge is bringing their product to the market and finding out if such a market even exists.

“Our challenge is modifying and fitting services that have a long history in Japan to suit the market so that customers can use them in the global market,” shared Daisuke Sasaki, CEO of Kyoto Meditation Center Co., Ltd., a startup based in a 700-year-old Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan, that is developing a package of B2B web apps to offer Japanese tea and meditation to the global market.

Even with such varied challenges, the Founders Catalyst program is able to help these startups address their issues and more.

Leveraging on network, expertise, and community

Running from November 2021 until March 2022, The Founders Catalyst program aims to help the startups in their 2 cohorts to address the challenges that hinder their growth. The main strength of the programme is Techstars’ deep experience of operating nearly 50 accelerators around the world and their vast network of mentors and partners.

Through the programme, the cohorts are not only able to learn from the experiences of the mentors but have the opportunity to connect with potential partners and customers as well.

Regardless of the stage that they are in, the startups of the current cohorts are already seeing the positive effects of being in the program even as it is still running.

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For Kyoto Meditation Center, it provided an opportunity to learn the basics. “The programme is exciting, insightful, and an eye-opener,” said Daisuke. “I can clarify the problem areas surrounding startups. Many founder CEOs and mentors are involved, so I actively contact them to maximise this learning opportunity.”

AC Biode also finds the mentorship and the network they are building via their mentors valuable. “The mentor sessions helped me greatly in preparing my pitch. Secondly, we are now talking to a major e-scooter manufacturer, thanks to the introduction made by our mentor,” said Kunzmann.

Similarly, Citadel AI, a startup that helps teams monitor and test their AI applications, says that the programme has helped them connect with people that they can learn from to grow their company. 

“​​Our market is quite new so there are no similar companies [in Japan], but there are some benchmark companies in the US that we can learn from,” said Hironori “Rick” Kobayashi, CEO and Co-Founder of Citadel AI. “Techstars and its mentors are very helpful in connecting us to key people in these companies.”

For byFood.com, the program is an opportunity to prepare for when Japan’s borders start opening. They are a one-stop food entertainment platform, offering services for before, during, and after a trip to Japan, targeting their customers before they even step foot in the country. byFood.com’s growth halted when borders closed in March 2020 and they focussed on their domestic business, but they are keeping an eye out for their future growth plans.

We meet many global mentors to prepare ourselves for our future global extension,” said Serkan Toso, Co-founder and COO of byFood.com. “The Founder Catalyst program is an excellent bridge for connecting the startup ecosystem outside Japan. We can easily find the right people in our next target countries and learn the situation and strategies for starting a business there. Without this programme, it would be challenging for us to find those people.”

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IDDK also sees the importance of tapping into the network that the programme has. “Founder Catalyst programme gives us the opportunity to get into Techstars’ worldwide ecosystem.” At the beginning of the programme, we were advised to meet a new person every day to expand the network exponentially,” said Kohei. “Even if it doesn’t seem to work in the short term, I can reach out for help when a time comes in the long term.”

The diversity of experience and expertise of the mentors are also helpful for Kohei. “Our mentors are from different industries and different regions with specialised skills and a wide range of experiences, so even if they are not related to our industry or business, we can get some feedback which is useful to consider from a different perspective,” Kohei added.

What’s next for these startups?

The programme concludes with a Demo Day in March 2022 where the startups in the two cohorts get to pitch their products to a regional audience of investors, potential partners, and customers.

For most of them, the demo day serves as a jump-off point to bring their products to the global market. For some, they hope to come out of the programme with a clearer understanding of their business and a solid plan to expand and/or go to market.

What’s definite is that these 26 startups will have gained the mentorship and network opportunities from a programme that has previously resulted in hundreds of business and investor connections, and ultimately seeding countless relationships between participants and mentors.

Interested parties can view the demo day by registering for the two cohorts: Cleantech and Global Scale.

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Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

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This article is produced by the e27 team, sponsored by Techstars

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