Lessons of entrepreneurship from our neighbours / by Tim Mahlberg

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Asian Entrepreneurship Awards (AEA) in Tokyo, Japan. I was there representing the Sydney Genesis Startup Program at The University of Sydney, where I have mentored students for the last few years. Genesis put forward an Australian startup entrant and last semester's winner, Angus McDonald of AirBike, a geo-spatial mapping company specialising in tracking and reporting from various assets, including dockless share bikes.

 I could watch the masters at work all day.  

I could watch the masters at work all day.  

Japan is a country that you need to experience to marvel at. Kind, respectful people, incredible food, a proud and spiritual history. This was my second time to found myself wandering the laneways and connected villages of Tokyo. This is a city that just seems to 'work'.

We were hosted just outside of Tokyo in Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City, a planned town built on a former golf course next to a stop on the Tsukuba Express fast rail enroute to central Tokyo. Whilst initially skeptical about the event being held in an outer-city 'innovation district', I was pleasantly surprised to find a committed consortium of academic (Universities of Tokyo & Chiba), local government, community organisations, and corporates, including Mitsui Fudosan, the urban planner for the area. It all came together in the Kashiwa-no-ha Open Innovation Lab (KOIL), which also hosts one of Japan’s biggest coworking communities.

 Exploring Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City

Exploring Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City

The development framework of Kashiwa-no-ha adopted in true collaboration with public, private, and academic institutions included pillars of environmental symbiosis, fostering health and longevity for people of all ages, and a focus on new industry and job creation. I instantly imagined how we in Australia might adopt a similar approach to create new smart cities leveraging our existing transport infrastructure (or let's just put the VFT in to speed things up!) and start investing in new regional hubs at home, rather than continued focus on our big capital cities. 

Over the 3 day event, 21 technology startups from 15 countries across Asia competed for a range of awards and prizes. From Russia to New Zealand, Turkey to the Philippines, India to Indonesia, and several teams from Japan, we had plenty of opportunities for networking, mentoring and informative sessions on the "state of the startup scene" from many of the countries. I found it fascinating to get insight into the challenges and opportunities across each unique start up ecosystem. For example:

  • Malaysia - dubbed "The Durianscape" has noted a rise in focus on social entrepreneurship vs ambitions of becoming a digital unicorn (as has Japan - an interesting shift)
  • India - the 3rd largest startup ecosystem, has found renewed interest from local corporates in investment and accelerator programs. #StartupIndia has been a recent national initiative to promote startups engagement, and in addition 14 states have developed their own policies for startups
  • Vietnam - At very beginning of developing their startup ecosystem, with some government red tape and cultural barriers still needing working through
  • Philippines - remains a micro-enterprise focus, with a big focus from the scene there to scale impact and become global
  • NZ - our neighbours "across the ditch" were committed to becoming known across the region as a tech country, with technology outputs already representing 10% of their GDP.
 Interesting panel of innovation ecosystem representatives from our region.

Interesting panel of innovation ecosystem representatives from our region.

The nominating national representatives came together on Day 2 for a "speed networking" session with AEA's corporate sponsors in true Japanese style: formal introductions, faultless hospitality, and structured discussions. Whilst I felt incredibly unqualified to represent Australia, I was invited to say a few words, and share my impressions of Japanese business and the opportunities for Japan to deepen relationships with our startup ecosystem.

Firstly, I mentioned the shared challenges of both our countries: a need to diversify our industries, invest in future business, and our ageing populations which are our opportunity to rekindle intergenerational engagement. I really admire how Japanese people respect for their elders.

Secondly, I mentioned how our corporates, universities and governments are starting to invest more in startups recently, although we don't see the level of collaboration that I witnessed at Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City.

 Networking: Japanese business style

Networking: Japanese business style

Finally I shared my observation about Japanese culture, that may ring true for many other Asian cultures: a fear of failure. In Australia, we are beginning to understand that risks reap rewards, and failure should be embraced, particularly when we can glean lessons and insights that we might move forward more enlightened. A culture of innovation is one that recognises that it is a strength to dare to do something with unknown outcomes…courageous even. I feel that we have a head start on our regional neighbours in this regard, with events celebrating the lessons of startup failure such as Startup Grind and the more colourful F* Up nights (I believe originally from Mexico).

I left our Japanese industry colleagues with an invitation. Australia is widely regarded in the Anglo-startup world as a place to experiment; a sandpit for ambitious entrepreneurs to test their technology in a relatively small population with a high disposable income. We are not far from home for them, and an additional opportunity for Japanese and Asian startups to develop confidence in doing business in English, which they mentioned was another hurdle to 'going global'.

The rest of the awards proceeded with series of practice pitches by our nominated national startups, mentoring from sponsors, more networking, and the final pitches. I had the great pleasure to work closely with Angus from AirBike who performed admirably in the face of stiff competition from established startups seeking second or third round investment in Japan.

 If you are looking at the immaculate food display, I don't blame you. It was amazing hospitality! Here with Angus from AirBike.

If you are looking at the immaculate food display, I don't blame you. It was amazing hospitality! Here with Angus from AirBike.

The final AEA top award of 1 million yen went to Claro Energy of India, with their portable solar-powered irrigation solutions to rural farmers, replacing expensive and polluting diesel pumps. All in the room felt the team were well deserving, and also represented a shift in the awards towards rewarding entrepreneurship that goes beyond delivering financial returns to also drive positive social impact. What a great shift to witness!

Wrapping up a great few days, I enjoyed some reflections from Mr Akira Sugawara, GM of 31 Ventures, the startup investment arm of Mitsui Fudosan. He spoke how creating a true open innovation ecosystem must go beyond traditional aims of business or startups alone. It must help people to live happy lives, and ensure there are places that bring people and ideas together, like the 31 Ventures coworking community at KOIL.  Mr Sugawara's vision was to see Japan as an 'innovation facilitator" in the boom of the Asian Century, in which Japan was still trying to find its place.

Finally, one of many comments from Mr Shigeo Kagami, the charismatic chairman of AEA Steering Committee and Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of Tokyo. He said that sometimes we might need to let go and disrupt something from our past to create something new. Certainly this is true for us all individually, but more powerfully as we gaze into the future and imagine something different as communities, nations and for humanity.

Startups challenge us with new, disruptive business models and youthful zest. Innovators and intrapreneurs play on the edges of our institutions, teasing and challenging the status quo. Our elders hold our collective wisdom, and welcome our ears to receive their views on the world that perhaps we miss with the speed of our lives. We are at a unique period in our history where change can come in the hands of few who emerge as if from nowhere, enabled by new technologies.

Like Japan, Australia has the opportunity to play a role in the transformation of our region, and the progress of our neighbours. I believe what this requires goes beyond embracing change and startups, but invites us to rewrite our own national narrative, so we are a part of this story unfolding just over the seas.