Phillip Seiji Vincent on Sparking Innovation and Fostering Successful Businesses in Tokyo
—What's your background and how did you come to lead Plug and Play Japan?
I was born in California and raised mostly in Japan, with an educational background predominantly in English, and went to university at San Diego State University in California. My first career opportunity was with a Japanese trading company and I was hired in Silicon Valley. I did trading, sales, and marketing, and looked for new startups and technology in the U.S. to introduce to Japan. Through that I met Plug and Play, which was a hub for new startups and opportunities, and we used to listen to startup pitches and decide which companies could fit our Japanese clients. However, because of the difficulty of getting clients to work with these startups, I was looking for something new, faster-paced and more impactful, so I joined Plug and Play in 2014.
The business model is a couple of different things: supporting startups through three-month accelerator programs divided among industries like healthcare, mobility, and working with large corporate partners to select the best startups and pair them every six months to hopefully create the next big business. Globally, we invest in over 200 startups per year. We also provide corporate consulting on innovation strategy throughout Plug and Play's open-innovation value chain, and call ourselves an innovation platform. Hopefully we have become a one-stop shop for startups looking to grow, and for corporations looking to incorporate such a platform in their innovation strategy.
—Why did you found Plug and Play Japan?
We were working with a couple hundred large corporations in Silicon Valley, most being American and the second-largest being Japanese. Many Japanese companies were visiting to study the ecosystem. There were some Japanese companies with offices in Plug and Play, and myself being there and speaking Japanese, I was able to help many companies soft-land in Silicon Valley and update them on trends. That grew into a large Japanese community within Plug and Play, and this helped me gain insight into the potential opportunities in Japan. Part of my reason for eventually deciding I wanted to do this was seeing the large opportunity, and part was my own background, since I grew up in Japan. I mentioned it to my CEO and he was very keen. So I came here in 2017 and set up the first office.
—What distinguishes your Japan business model?
Our business model in Japan is very similar to that in Silicon Valley. We offer eight industry-based accelerator programs, in fields such as Fintech, Insurtech, Mobility, Health, Energy, Smart Cities and Food & Beverage, in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Our unique value proposition is having this industry-based community in which we gather top corporations and startups not just in Japan but around the world, based on our 45 global offices. That global aspect is also a differentiator. We can use case studies from all over the world, and mirror them in Japan, as well as our knowledge of open innovation to add value to the Japanese ecosystem. We have accelerated over 800 companies so far in Japan; about half are local Japanese startups and half are from abroad. One success story for us is TBM, a company that makes recyclable products from limestone under the LIMEX brand—it has now a valuation over one billion dollars and is one of the few unicorn companies in Japan.
—What's unique about Tokyo's startup ecosystem?
Japan has a unique ecosystem, and it can be a challenge in terms of culture and language barriers. That being said, its economy is still the third-largest in the world, with dozens of companies in the Fortune 500/Fortune 2000 and large global corporations with very high-level technology—these are great partners for startups and international corporations. Even five years ago, the startup movement was very young in Japan but the national government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) have shown a huge urgency to push startup innovation locally and get companies from abroad to come here. Corporations and universities are also pushing entrepreneurship programs, and overseas investors are also showing interest in investing in Japanese startups. This is catapulting the Japanese ecosystem to a global standard, and that's seen in things like the Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking by Startup Genome.
—What is Plug and Play Japan's Be Smart Tokyo partnership with the TMG, and why is it important?
The Be Smart Tokyo project was created under the TMG's vision to make Tokyo a smart city. It will involve us sourcing and scouting startups that will fit this vision. Tokyo will be used as a proof-of-concept ground for these companies to use data and locations to test out their solutions and add value to this vision. So we're going to facilitate, orchestrate and execute these pilots throughout this program. For the government to provide this opportunity to test solutions in a major city like Tokyo is a huge win for startups. It will help Tokyo become a smart city and show the rest of Japan how cities and startups can work together to create better solutions.
—Any tips for entrepreneurs looking to establish themselves in Tokyo?
There are now many resources available for entrepreneurs such as government subsidies or programs that can support your business localization. Before you make the move, it's essential to research this or connect with someone who has this information. If you want to create a business here, you have to have an office, the local culture, language, your team and partnerships. If you think it's a good opportunity and can commit, and you can invest the resources, hire out a team, create a strategy, fully enter the market and create the right partnerships, then I think it could be one of the best markets you could be part of.
Phillip Seiji Vincent
Photos by Tonomura Seiji