In line with our mission to shed light on the many investment opportunities popping up across Asia and Australasia, FinanceAsia is showcasing the entrepreneurs who are leading the wave of technological disruption in different countries and across a range of sectors.
Their companies range in size and maturity, but these people share a common drive and vision to compete against established institutions, whether in financial services, retail, energy, robotics, or logistics, to name just a few of the industries featured.
Following our methodology, we have selected five entrepreneurs from each of Asia Pacific's largest economies. Japan is the focus of today's edition.
Known for its rigid work culture, Japan’s startup scene remains embryonic despite high national levels of technical innovation and usage.
Fear of failure and a tendency to stay within a comfort zone have held back many entrepreneurs. We believe the founders listed below will be important pillars in the Japanese startup ecosystem of tomorrow.
Year founded: 2013
Prominent backers: World Innovation Lab, Globis Capital Partners
Yamada is the founder and chief executive officer of e-commerce website Mercari – which means “to trade” in Latin.
The Waseda University graduate interned at Rakuten in the early 2000s and went on to work for a San Francisco gaming company. In 2012, at the age of 34, Yamada quit his job and spent half a year travelling around the world.
The entrepreneur saw that people in both rural and urban areas around the world had telephone access. This observation spurred Yamada to found Mercari in 2013 to capitalise on modern connectivity. Today, users can buy, trade and sell at the press of a button a range of items from household goods and appliances to jewellery and books.
Mercari was the first Japanese startup to reach unicorn status when valued at $1 billion in 2016. In June last year, the flea market operator completed its initial public offering on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and now has operations in the United States after a brief foray into the UK market that ended earlier this year.
Mercari’s payment branch, Merpay, is leading a wave of cashless payment conversions in Japan. These transactions currently make up only 20% of all payments processed in Japan according to consultancy group Deloitte. But the strategy could be successful in the long run, given the ease with which consumers can now spend money earned through Mercari to shop at stores across the country.
Year founded: 2013
Prominent backers: euglena Co.
Takahashi is the founder and chief executive of DNA-testing service Genequest. The entrepreneur founded the company in 2013 while studying for a doctorate in molecular bioscience at the University of Tokyo.
Her studies involved using genome mapping to build a blueprint of human DNA. When Takahashi hit a dead end due to the unavailability of samples in Japan, she realised that a company could fill the information gap while also offering gene-based health services to customers.
“I wanted to establish a system that creates synergy between my studies and business,” Takahashi told the audience of her TEDx talk in 2016. “We provide individual genome mapping services and use the collected data in our research.”
Genequest analyses saliva for risks and predispositions related to diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. The price of gene testing has dropped significantly since 2016, and this has contributed to Genequest’s rapid growth in recent years.
The next step for the company is to use the data gathered through customers to refine the development of Genequest’s genome mapping. This, in turn, will make it easier for researchers to study – and potentially to cure – diseases passed from parent to offspring.
Retaining Takahashi as chief executive, Japanese algae researcher euglena Co. acquired Genequest in 2017. On the international stage, Takahashi has been recognised by the World Economic Forum and was named in Forbes Asia’s 30 under-30 list in 2016.
Company: Healios K.K.
Year founded: 2011
Industry: Health, Technology
Prominent backers: Nikon, Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma
Kagimoto is a trained ophthalmologist who worked at Kyushu University Hospital for several years before founding his first biotech company in 2005. This was the first iteration of Healios, which launched six years later.
The company takes an innovative approach to regenerative medicine by focusing on stem cell research. In particular, Kagimoto has targeted age-related macular degeneration.
Year founded: 2011
Prominent backers: None
Mera founded crowdfunding platform ReadyFor in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japanese coastal regions.
While ReadyFor launched within days of the disaster, this project was years in the making and the Keio University graduate had been inspired by a visit to Silicon Valley in 2010.
ReadyFor is the first Japanese website for small project financing and its users range from small business owners and the sick and needy to social entrepreneurs.
Company: Kirirom Institute of Technology
Headquarters: Phnom Penh and Singapore
Year founded: 2011
Prominent backers: Samurai Co.
Izuka is the founder and president of Kirirom Institute of Technology in Kirirom National Park, a four-hour drive away from Phnom Penh. The school currently has 118 students – all young Cambodians on full scholarships with room and board.
Kirirom is partly funded by revenue from an adjoining tourist destination created by Izuka. The institute also connects local students with Japanese technology firms which sponsor their education and offer employment opportunities. In 2017, Kirirom featured on Deloitte’s list of fastest-growing companies in the Asia-Pacific region.
For his part, Izuka is an experienced businessman with political aspirations. He worked for consultancy group Accenture Consulting before running an unsuccessful national election campaign. Ultimately the entrepreneur hopes to create a Southeast Asian version of California’s Silicon Valley in the area.