The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


March 2014
Emerging talents
Contest honors Japan’s new wave of pioneers
By Patricia Bader-Johnston
Photos by Antony Tran

The Entrepreneur Awards Japan (TEAJ) 2014 ceremony, hosted by US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy on January 29 at her residence, honored those showing growing talent in entrepreneurship and innovation in Japan over the past year.

In the four years since its founding, TEAJ and the Entrepreneur Mentoring Initiative (EMI) programs have seen an increasing number of resources become available to talented individuals who are the force behind many new emerging ventures.

Through these efforts, the word “entrepreneurship” is gaining new meaning here, and many of the best and the brightest in the market are joining their ranks.

The commitment of past and present EMI mentors, as well as the passion of their mentees to improve their skills and succeed, are causing a dynamic new force to emerge. This is expected to help drive new business, and expand career opportunities in Japan.

Encouraged by Abenomics, this trend is also shaping working environments that are more woman- and family-friendly, helping to reinvent the future of work for many here.

Entrepreneurial businesses are proving to be both competitive and sustainable, while bringing mutual benefits to communities.

The TEAJ is focused on encouraging graduates and alumni of the TEAJ/EMI programs to stay connected and contribute their valuable insights to help improve the prospects for new entrepreneurs. Their collective successes will create a new context for game-changing innovation and sustainable businesses in the future.

With the support of the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo—which provided essential secretariat support—a group of dedicated committee members (including vice chairs Thomas Shockley and Jeff Char) and I have guided the continuous development of the initiative.

Supporters include the ACCJ, Venture Generation, and the US Embassy, as well as affiliated organizations including the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ), Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC), MIT Enterprise Forum Japan (EFJ), the TOMODACHI Initiative, the U.S.–Japan Council, and EY’s Winning Women Network, as well as Dell’s Women Entrepreneur Network, UnitedSucces, and Impact Japan. Further, award and program sponsors include Dell Inc., J-Seed Ventures, Inc., EY Japan, and Silverbirch Associates KK.

It isn’t easy being an entrepreneur. For men and women alike, there are ups and downs—and sometimes even failures—along the road to a successful business venture. However, the TEAJ ceremony was all about celebrating the pearls of the thriving entrepreneur community here.

The efforts of the best and brightest of Tokyo’s entrepreneurs of 2013–14 were honored in the company of a who’s who of senior officials and successful entrepreneurs, including Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi, as well as Minister of State for Science and Technology Policy Ichita Yamamoto.

The program began with Kennedy and Motegi recognizing the work accomplished by the US–Japan Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council, whose members worked tirelessly over a two-year term to create more fertile ground for entrepreneurs in Japan.

Next, the awardees of four leading entrepreneurship organizations—JMEC, MIT EFJ, the BCCJ’s British Business Awards, and the TOMODACHI Tohoku Challenge—were applauded for their achievements.

Outstanding entrepreneurs such as Steve Crane of Business Link Japan, as well as teams of enthusiastic newcomers, were recognized for the inspiration and leadership they have shown over the past year.

The program was crowned with the presentation of a suite of four EMI awards, presented by Kennedy and the respective sponsoring organizations.

These awards include the (Dell) Groundbreakers Award, for a promising female entrepreneur based in Japan; the (J-Seed Ventures) Venture Generation Award, for an entrepreneur with an early-stage venture reflecting global aspirations; the ACCJ Director’s Award, for entrepreneurs whose venture has global content or aspirations; and the US Embassy’s Award, for a globally minded Japanese entrepreneur whose risk-embracing attitude best embodies the spirit of Silicon Valley.

“[The level of interest shown in the program is] almost overwhelming,” said Janie Ikegami, winner of the Groundbreakers Award. Ikegami’s company, Shinshu KornuKopia—located in Nagano Prefecture—is the first and only company in Japan to have introduced applesauce and apple butter to the Japan market.

KornuKopia uses all-natural ingredients in its products, and is successfully penetrating the higher-end dessert and fresh fruit markets, targeting health-conscious women and mothers between the ages of 20 and 60.

Ikegami will attend Dell’s Women Entrepreneur Network global conference to be held in Austin, Texas, this summer. Like all the awardees, Ikegami’s prize is centered on an experience that will expose her to entrepreneurs around the globe and provide her with hands-on mentoring.

Takako Endo, winner of the ACCJ Director’s Award, founded TWHY TWHY, Co., Ltd. [pronounced “tswee tswee”]. The retail and wholesale business produces traditional Japanese senbei (rice crackers) with non-traditional, innovative flavors (think Camembert and strawberry–chocolate) and caters to higher-end retail and wholesale markets in Japan and abroad.

Sales have soared since its founding in 2008 and the company is planning to expand globally.

“I am proud of my ACCJ award. By the way, this is just my starting point. I plan to do my best for my business!” Endo said.

The Venture Generation Award went to Dr. Yuji Yamamoto, who founded MinaCare Co., Ltd—a data analytics service for health insurance companies that uses patient claims, as well as health and medical treatment data, to identify customer segments that have the highest risk of developing lifestyle-related diseases due to a lack of preventative-care practices.

The data helps insurance companies direct funding for preventative care, thus significantly reducing the higher costs of delayed, long-term treatment and extending overall life expectancy.

The US Embassy’s Award went to Yosuke Tsuji of Money Forward, Inc. The venture is already Japan’s largest online financial management service for individuals and small to medium-sized businesses that simultaneously want to aggregate and analyze financial information based on real-time data from multiple banks and accounts.

The winners as well as the participants of the program have benefitted from taking part in this challenge. According to Lina Sakai, one of the 10 finalists, the program provided many opportunities, including that of meeting new people.

Sakai’s social venture, Fermenstation, helps rural communities in Tohoku while creating unique Japanese rice-based products.

“This was my first experience to participate in a business contest, it made me think and think, and made me notice that I need to think more!” she said.

Perhaps this is the true mission of the TEAJ—to think more about how to effectively foster innovation and create a business environment in which entrepreneurs, equipped with the grit it takes to succeed, can thrive. Just think “pearls”!


DividerPatricia Bader-Johnston is the founding chair of EMI/TEAJ, and advisor to the Tokyo Business Development Center.