Japan's Robot Revolution Is Attracting Venture Capitalists

Nao Robot Clerk

A NAO humanoid robot, developed by Softbank Corp. subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics SA, performs during a demonstration in Tokyo, Japan. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Venture capitalists who have long avoided investing in Japan may think again as startups in the country develop a new generation of robot technology, according to consultant Koichi Hori.

While Japan has little chance of catching up to the U.S. in digital media, the next phase of technological innovation will be in robotics with artificial intelligence, said Hori, who headed Boston Consulting Group Inc.’s Japan office before founding Dream Incubator Inc. in 2000. That plays to Japan’s strengths in engineering, he said.

“Digital media will only be in the mainstream for about three years, or five years at most,” Hori, 70, said in an interview in Tokyo on May 27. “From that time on, robots and robotics will be the eye-catchy industries. Japan has a good chance, particularly in the area of hardware for robots.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for a “robot revolution” to help reclaim the dominance of Japanese technology after companies such as Sony Corp. lost ground to Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. With venture investment less than 3 percent that of the U.S., Japan has struggled to replicate Silicon Valley’s success as a hub of innovation.

During a trip to California in May, Abe lamented the reluctance of Japanese businesspeople to take risks and champion entrepreneurs. He announced a program to send people from 200 Japanese companies to Silicon Valley in the next five years to “absorb the culture.” Abe plans to more than quadruple the nation’s robotics industry to 2.4 trillion yen ($19 billion) by 2020.

Soften Stance

Japanese are beginning to soften their stance toward startups, Hori said.

“In the U.S., people who start their ventures are to a certain extent respected by society, and in contrast in Japan entrepreneurs have been considered as those who couldn’t become bureaucrats or employees of big corporations,” he said. “It’s been changing here, especially in the past three to four years.”

Squse Inc., a Kyoto-based maker of robotic hands, won as much as 500 million yen in funding from the state-backed Innovation Network Corp. of Japan in February 2014. Mujin Inc., a Tokyo-based developer of software for industrial robots, in August raised 605 million yen from Jafco Co. and University of Tokyo Edge Capital Co.

Google Acquisition

Google Inc. bought Tokyo-based Schaft Inc. in 2013 after the robot venture was turned down for investment by 10 Japanese firms and ultimately got funding from the U.S. government. In turn, Schaft co-founder Takashi Kato opened a fund to invest in technologies from Japanese startups and universities that have been overlooked by investors, he said last year.

Investment by Japanese venture capitalists totaled 144 billion yen in 2014, dwarfed by about $48 billion spent by their U.S. counterparts, data from the Japan Venture Enterprise Center and the U.S. National Venture Capital Association show.

Dream Incubator has invested an undisclosed sum in car-robotics venture ZMP Inc., which is working with DeNA Co. to aim at offering a driverless car by 2020, according to a document prepared by Hori’s firm.

Hori founded Tokyo-based Dream Incubator after a two-decade stint at Boston Consulting. The company, which listed in 2002, manages private-equity funds and offers mergers and acquisitions advice and consulting services.

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