Creating a Better World by Eliminating Waiting Time When You Have to Go

Tokyo Sogyo NET Interview
Kawano Takanobu, Vacan, Inc.

App Shows When Toilet Stalls are Vacant

Our company name VACAN comes from "vacant" in English. We began our business in 2016 with Throne, a service that provides real-time information about toilet congestion. We believe that by visualizing various types of vacancies and eliminating the need to wait, we can reduce frustration, optimize our use of time, and contribute to making the world a bit more compassionate.

VACAN is an app that can show where to find nearby toilets that are vacant.

I have always loved Japanese toilets. Japanese toilets are clean and free of charge. In contrast, in some other countries, public restrooms are sometimes fee-based. Just by considering restroom facilities, Japan stands out as a very visitor-friendly country. My desire to share Japan's wonderful culture with others was a significant motivation for starting my own business, and this passion was further fueled by an experience I had when visiting a commercial facility with my family.

It was enjoyable to go out with my family to commercial facilities, but sometimes the restaurants and restrooms were so crowded that my children would start to feel uncomfortable while I was searching for an available spot. As these experiences accumulated, I began to develop a dislike for going out. To address this time-wasting issue, we created Throne, which has since evolved into VACAN AirKnock. This innovative solution displays users' usage time on signage to encourage them to leave voluntarily. We also introduced Unveil, a restroom signage media, and other products that utilize sensors and IT to expand their applications. The use of sensors and IT is expanding, and these applications extend beyond restrooms to include commercial facilities, department stores, train stations, airports, tourist attractions, hotels, and more.

Bringing Vitality to Japan: A Business Venture

I am from a rural area in Kyushu, a region in southern Japan, and I have a deep affection for this region. However, it faces the challenge of growing desolation. As Japan's population continues to decline, I foresee that places like my hometown will lose their vitality, leading to an accelerating increase in poverty. With this in mind, I have been aspiring to make a positive contribution through entrepreneurship.

Silicon Valley, home to world-class companies like Apple and Google, is not a metropolis; it thrived because individuals with dreams gathered there and worked diligently. I believe that if rural Japan can emulate Silicon Valley, with a succession of entrepreneurial endeavors shaping the future, it will revitalize the entire nation. If an ordinary individual like myself could launch and succeed in a business, it might inspire others to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations.

Since my student days, I had made a commitment to start my own business within a decade of entering the workforce. I even informed the company I joined as a new graduate that I intended to leave within five years. They found my determination intriguing and supported my growth. I am genuinely grateful for their support, and I am presently engaged in a collaborative effort with that company in my entrepreneurial venture.

Unveil is a toilet display that shows ads and the time elapsed since usage began.

Lifting Our Gaze: The Power of People

When embarking on a business venture, the initial crucial steps involve earning trust in your service and garnering support and collaboration from others. From this perspective, our selection for ASAC (Aoyama Startup Acceleration Center) in June 2016 held great significance. With the backing of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), we had the opportunity to refine our pitches alongside fellow entrepreneurs at similar stages in their growth, engage in discussions about challenges, and get introductions to companies and financial institutions. Among these invaluable experiences, the connections forged with fellow entrepreneurs have been particularly beneficial.

As we gradually gained recognition through such activities and expanded our network of partners, the turning point for us was when we had the opportunity to meet angel investors, receive support from established companies, and connect with other seasoned professionals in the business world. When starting a business, the challenges evolve rapidly depending on the company's phase. Having experienced individuals who can offer precise guidance during these critical moments is both reassuring and invaluable. While I started the company, I realized that if one becomes too engrossed in the immediate tasks and circumstances, one can lose perspective. Older, more experienced people can broaden my horizons. I firmly believe that the presence of reliable mentors who provide constructive guidance and encouragement is indispensable for a company's growth.

Photo: iStock

Shifting from Convenience to Prioritizing Safety and Security

Our service initially began with a focus on convenience, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated its adoption, driven by concerns for safety and security. In August 2020, we signed an agreement with Nichinan City in Miyazaki Prefecture, located in western Kyushu, to utilize VACAN for the purpose of disseminating information about the capacity status of each evacuation center on their website in the event of a disaster. Just two weeks later, a significant typhoon struck Kyushu.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been instances where the capacity of storm shelters was limited to ensure social distancing, resulting in displaced residents. During emergencies, a herd mentality often prevails, leading to overcrowding in a single evacuation center. This is stressful for residents and challenging for local government officials. However, the introduction of VACAN decentralized the evacuation process, alleviating confusion. Nichinan City, with approximately 50,000 residents, experienced around 10,000 website visits, suggesting active use of the solution.

From November 2022, we conducted a two-month demonstration experiment of a toilet map service that visualizes the facilities and occupancy information of toilets in Tokyo. This initiative was part of the Tokyo Data Platform Case Study Project, overseen by the TMG. The catalyst for this experiment was its prior adoption by POC Ground Tokyo in September 2020, which provided a significant boost to the project's momentum. While we achieved a certain level of success in the demonstration experiment, the fact that it was a project of the TMG played a crucial role in ensuring that both facilities and users of the Toilet Map service felt at ease as they used the service.

As we continue to enhance collaboration with local governments, our goal is to establish services like these as the norm, expanding their reach not only within Japan but also on a global scale. Our vision is to create a world where individuals can utilize the No More Waiting platform to create space in their hearts for others and extend kindness to one another.


Message to Aspiring Entrepreneurs

In the past, if someone asked me for advice on how to start a business, I would say, "Let's start a business!" However, starting a business is not without its difficulties. It often doesn't yield immediate profits, and many individuals become disheartened and end up closing their businesses along the way. I've learned through firsthand experience that embarking on an entrepreneurial journey is far from simple. Yet, despite the challenges, I still believe that starting a business is incredibly rewarding. If you have the ambition to start your own business, I encourage you to embrace the challenge and pursue your entrepreneurial aspirations.

The reason I am able to persist despite the challenges is due to the support of individuals who are actively engaged, including team members and investors who bring their own perspectives. Additionally, my unwavering passion for what I do has been instrumental in my ability to launch and sustain my business. It's crucial to identify what truly ignites your passion and what you can maintain that passion for as you embark on your journey.

PoC Ground Tokyo

The TMG's Project "PoC Ground Tokyo" offers valuable support for conducting demonstration experiments to test and validate hypotheses related to social implementation. This support is designed to meet the needs of startups with innovative business ideas that aim for substantial growth in emerging business sectors.
Learn more about PoC Ground Tokyo

*Japanese language site

Aoyama Startup Acceleration Center

Through a five-month acceleration program, Aoyama Startup Acceleration Center (ASAC) offer opportunities and a nurturing environment for startups to evolve into leading companies. This journey is supported by accelerators, seasoned entrepreneurs, and a network of ambitious mentors. The primary focus of the program is on entrepreneurs engaged in Tokyo's policy matters, including female entrepreneurs and growth industries. It also targets startups and potential startups in sectors typically perceived as challenging for venture capitalists to invest in.
Learn more about Aoyama Startup Acceleration Center

*Japanese language site

Kawano Takanobu Vacan, Inc.

Kawano earned his graduate degree from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. In 2008, he began his career as a researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc., specializing in financial areas such as market risk management and algorithmic trading. In 2011, he joined GREE, Inc., where he contributed to business strategy, business management, new business launches, and finance and accounting in the United States.
Following his tenure as the head of the corporate planning office at a venture company and the establishment of a joint venture company in Singapore, he founded Vacan, Inc. in 2016. He is a certified member of the Securities Analysts Association of Japan.
Vacan, Inc. website
*This article was originally published on "Tokyo Sogyo NET."