I had the fortunate opportunity to attend TIA Tokyo 2015 last week. Organized by Asia’s tech media powerhouse TechinAsia, TIA Tokyo 2015 not only turned out Japan’s burgeoning tech ecosystem, but also brought out a strong contingent from around Asia and further afield. Here were some big takeaways and highlights for me from this year’s edition:
Interested in Asia? TIA’s events are well-worth the investment
One thing that is impressive about their events is how international they are. As such, their conferences (they do 4 editions across the region each year) continue to be great events for local and international startups and other attendees to connect with investors, potential partners and media. This means that those from further afield who are interested in entering multiple markets in Asia, can make solid contacts from across the region.
Many entrepreneurs in France and elsewhere in Europe continue to debate whether they should take a leap of faith and expand into Asia. Attending a couple of these types events, especially in markets that are brand new to you, are a smart and fairly inexpensive way to get immediate feedback and make invaluable contacts. As the leading pan-Asian tech news source, TechInAsia’s events (of which Tokyo is only one of three) are a great place to start, although there are several others as well that have descended on the region (SLUSH Asia, Web Summit’s RISE, E27’s Echelon, etc).
Ben Horowitz and The Hard Thing about Hard Things
Without a doubt, the big highlight of this year’s edition was an hour long one-on-one talk with Ben Horowitz. TIA scored a big coup in getting him on-board to speak this year. His book ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ has also been a big hit in Japan and elsewhere across Asia, so it goes without saying that he spoke to a very packed house. While he spoke quite a bit about his experiences as an entrepreneur and, particularly, the fall-out of and eventual redemption from Loudcloud’s ‘IPO from hell’, much of his talk centered on his invaluable tips for entrepreneurs and how he approaches his job as a VC. Here are some of his most memorable words of wisdom and quips:
- “There’s great risk in telling the truth, but you need to” : Embracing honesty with yourself and others will be a challenge and take time to master, but ultimately will but also make you a better leader in the end
- “My job as a VC isn’t to tell entrepreneurs what they should do, but rather help them to have the confidence to do what they think they should do” : There will always be a knowledge gap between the VC/investor and the startup. (Particularly strategy and product), only the founder and his or her team really know the business well enough to run it.
- “The only worse than being in startup hell is startup purgatory”
- “Don’t start a company because you want to be an entrepreneur. Start it because you feel you would be letting yourself and the world if you didn’t launch your idea”
You can’t have a tech conference in Japan without talking about hardware
Benjamin Joffe, from what’s rapidly becoming known as the world’s top hardware accelerator, Shenzhen-based HAX, was on hand to encourage hardware startups to view forging partnerships with Shenzhen as an opportunity, rather than a threat. As the world’s manufacturing hub, the road for hardware startups will inevitably lead through Shenzhen at some point, so better to find ways to leverage Shenzhen’s strengths to their advantage. Of course there is a lot of anxiety about the, as Joffre calls it, the ‘Xiaomitization of hardware’ (namely, the holy grail of affordable and high-quality). But he stressed that the only way startups can effectively compete in this environment is to continually raise the bar in terms of innovation.
Finally, he also touted several examples of startups that are getting it right in terms of their collaboration with Shenzhen. One of the most interesting was South Korea’s BBB, which is currently launching a mobile blood testing device called Elemark that not only tests for chronic diseases such as diabetes (lots of devices now do this), but with the ability to test for up to 50 biomarkers, can also test for conditions such as cancer, obesity, malaria, and more, all in under 60 seconds.
Meanwhile in the Startup Alley, there were also several other hardware startups exhibiting. One that generated a lot of buzz was EYES Japan, who plans to take the connected bike to the next level with their Fukushima wheel (incidentally, they are also a part of Orange Fab). The wheel draws on sensors to measure environmental data, including temperature, humidity and radiation (an idea that undoubtedly arose from the needs of their still-recovering home town). It also can deliver information to riders about carbon emissions, exercise levels, time and location. Finally, it also aims to innovate the business model around connected bikes through enabling the display of advertisements on the wheel itself as the cyclist rides.
The future of Asia’s startup scene looks bright
Irrespective of the recent economic hiccups plaguing China, Asia, and particular its tech sector, continues to be a hotbed of growth and promise.
As a result, investors continue to bet big on the region. 500 Startups’ Dave McClure underscored this as he was also on hand at TIA to not only talk about their active expansion in Asia, but also to announce that they will be returning to Japan after a short hiatus, this time with a $30M fund.
Although Japanese startups were out in force at TIA Tokyo, with Japan’s Mana.bo taking the top prize at the Arena pitch battle, there were also numerous startups from across the region exhibiting and even a few from further afield hoping to capitalize on the opportunities the region offers (Belgian citizen engagement platform CitizenLab, was just one example). In addition to the startups mentioned earlier, some of the ones that caught my eye were:
- Foodingo (Singapore): An app that assess food outlets around you and gives you useful information on the healthiest places and dishes to eat
- Prott (Japan): A powerful rapid prototyping tool for designing and developing mobile app that enables developers and designers to continually improve their designs without re-writing code.
- Linqapp (Taiwan): With German and French founders, Linqapp gives users real-time feedback to language and culture related questions (via text, picture or audio) by drawing on global community of users