Charting market pathways and collaboration opportunities in Japan for start-ups

NUS Enterprise’s first-ever market immersion programme in Japan saw five start-ups from Singapore and Indonesia embark on a transformative experience in entrepreneurship in Tokyo and the Aichi prefecture. The five-day programme from 11 to 15 September 2023 was organised by BLOCK71 and supported by East Japan Railway Company (JR East) and the Aichi prefectural government.

To gain a better understanding of the Japanese business environment, representatives from the participating start-ups attended lectures by Japanese business experts and visited an exhibition where companies showcased their innovative products to get feedback from potential customers, a manufacturing plant and retail outlets. In addition to gaining an overview of the local economy and start-up ecosystem, they also learned how to create effective proof of concepts, the process of incorporation and how to deliver a persuasive business pitch. The immersion programme also provided business matching opportunities with around 20 corporates in Tokyo and around 10 Aichi-based corporates.

NUS Associate Vice President (Enterprise) Associate Professor Benjamin Tee, said, “We are excited to be able to work with Japanese companies and government stakeholders to help grow their startup ecosystem through our efforts at NUS Enterprise. We look forward to having more companies participate in our programmes and go global with us.”

Mr Yutaka Oba, Senior Manager for BLOCK71 Japan who co-organised the immersion programme with the Japanese stakeholders, noted that many start-ups struggle to expand into Japan due to language and cultural barriers. This is despite Japan being the world's third-largest economy at around S$5 trillion and its plan to increase start-up investment to S$100 billion by 2027. “This immersion programme was designed to bridge this barrier by helping start-ups better understand the local business environment and to help them network with key stakeholders who can help them with their business ventures”.

Important takeaways from Japanese business experts

Participants interacted with business leaders from the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) Tokyo, energy resources company ENEOS, marketing platform LikePay, Google for Startups, and Nozomi Sogo Attorneys, gleaning valuable insights into how to succeed in the Japanese market.

For example, they learned that building personal relationships is the first key step to building business trust as there is no clear separation between private and business relationships. This was exemplified by the fact that most of the Japanese presentations during the immersion programme started with a self-introduction of the presenters.

Describing how this insight was useful, one of the programme participants, Zaid Ahmed Khan, co-founder and CEO of M.I. Cloud Tech, said, “I have learned that the Japanese way of business is very unique and that hierarchy is also very important in Japanese corporations. Decision-making is usually slow as there is a strong focus on scientific validation. In working with Japanese corporations, we need to build friendship and trust, and also follow up through with detailed emails as written is typically preferred over verbal communication”.

Building on the positive feedback by the participating Japanese corporates, JR East, NUS Enterprise’s collaborator for this programme, said it will continue to “provide high quality programmes that will foster even closer ties between Japanese companies and BLOCK71 start-ups, especially at the Takanawa Gateway City,” its spokesman said.

JR East will open the Takanawa Gateway City, one of the largest local urban development projects, in 2025. Under a joint Memorandum of Understanding signed on 19 September 2023, they will partner NUS to establish a global startup ecosystem based at the Takanawa Gateway City.

Visits to prominent Japanese companies

As part of the programme, representatives from the five start-ups also visited key Japanese institutions including Tokyo Station and the Tokyo Stock Exchange, as well as leading industry players such as B8ta and the Nagoya factory of the UACJ global aluminium group, where they attained a better understanding of Japanese customer behaviours and how some local manufacturing companies run their operations. Through the visits they witnessed first-hand the cutting-edge technologies and sustainable practices that are at the forefront of Japan’s business world.

Mr Adi Reza Nugroho, Co-founder and CEO of MYCL, a start-up that participated in the programme, shared, “I had the opportunity to meet with several business units and subsidiaries of Toyota, which was a remarkable experience. It was especially noteworthy because, as a biotech startup, we had not previously engaged with the automotive industry. What struck me most was their receptiveness to exploring new innovations that could aid in their decarbonisation efforts and enhance operational efficiency. This has opened up exciting possibilities for collaboration, and I am hopeful that we can work together to create Proof of Concepts (POCs) that align with both MYCL’s sustainability goals and Toyota’s commitment to innovation and sustainability.”

Useful networking sessions with Japanese start-ups and companies

The immersion programme also ran several business matching sessions with around 20 corporates in Tokyo and around 10 corporates in Aichi, such as Mega-Bank, automotive maker Telcom and Shosha, a trading and investment company, which were attended by local investors as well. By pitching their business ideas at the matching sessions, the start-ups could better understand the needs and concerns of the Japanese corporates.

Explaining why they were happy to support these sessions, an Aichi prefectural government spokesperson, shared that the direct interaction with Aichi companies can help BLOCK 71 start-ups expand their business in the prefecture by facilitating potential collaborations.

This view was also echoed by one of the start-ups who participated in the immersion programme. Ms Sabrina Farah Salsabilla, Chief Operating Officer of ReservoAir, a start-up that offers comprehensive solutions for better water management, said, “The business matchmaking segment was particularly enjoyable! [It] afforded us the opportunity to engage and establish connections with both start-ups and established companies in Japan, and explore potential collaborations.”


By NUS Enterprise