• Government-backed investor seeks out most promising startups
  • Nissan executive leads fund in search for driverless car tech

Toshiyuki Shiga is on a $10 billion quest to discover Japan’s top entrepreneurs, who can start companies as globally competitive as Tesla Motors Co. and Apple Inc.

The former chief operating officer of Nissan Motor Co. described the search as an urgent mission for Innovation Network Corp. of Japan, the state-backed investment fund he took over as chairman in June.

Shiga, 62, was brought in to lead INCJ after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited California’s Silicon Valley, where he met Elon Musk and Twitter Inc. co-founder Jack Dorsey. The fund already has dozens of investments from entertainment startups to airlines, Internet companies and water utilities and has been shifting its focus to small manufacturers working on robotics and technology for emerging industries such as driverless cars, Shiga said.

“I want to help create a Japanese version of Elon Musk,” Shiga said. “He’s making electric cars that combine innovations in software and hardware.”

Musk has built a reputation as an innovator and entrepreneur, first as a co-founder of digital-payments provider PayPal and then as leader of Tesla, the maker of electronic sports cars. The 44-year-old also leads rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and energy company SolarCity Corp.

Abe’s Call

Shiga has about $10 billion left from the 2 trillion yen ($16.8 billion) set by the economy ministry as the fund’s total capacity. INCJ has agreed to invest about 800 billion yen in 92 deals so far. Among those, 70 are with startup or early-stage companies. The funds biggest stakes are in Japan Display Inc. and Renesas Electronics Corp., display and chip manufacturers it helped rescue.

“Japan needs more funding from venture capitalists who can take risks in order to breed more innovative technologies from this country,” said Koichi Haji, executive research fellow at think-tank NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. “It’s important that state funds back up those private venture capital firms.”

Abe has joined the calls for more support for entrepreneurs as part of a broader effort to move past two decades of stagnant growth and deflation.

‘Impending Crisis’

Investment by Japanese venture capitalists totaled 143 billion yen, or about $1.2 billion, 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. Japan has struggled to replicate Silicon Valley’s success as a hub of innovation.

Shiga joined Nissan in 1976 after graduating the Osaka Prefecture University. Shiga became Nissan vice chairman in 2013 and has kept the position as he leads INCJ.

The government holds a 95 percent stake in INCJ, while 26 Japanese companies including Toyota Motor Corp., Canon Inc., Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. and Panasonic Corp. own the rest.

“I have lived in the auto industry for 39 years,” Shiga said. “Now is the time for me to help Japanese firms boost their global competitiveness through incubating innovative technologies. Japan’s state debts are accumulating and social welfare costs are rising. I am feeling a sense of impending crisis.”

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