How The TOFU Project Is Teaching Silicon Valley Values To Japanese Entrepreneurs

Japan used to be a leader in tech innovation. But no more. A new program is trying to help young entrepreneurs get their groove back.

Japan used to be a leader in technological innovation. Remember the Sony Walkman? But the country’s gotten sluggish in years of late. That’s why a program called The TOFU Project is hauling young Japanese entrepreneurs to the Bay Area--it's hoping the crash course they’ll get in Silicon Valley-style thinking will help jump-start a culture of innovation back home.

"Japan has a lot of talent," Daisuke Kan, one of the program organizers and a Stanford business school graduate, tells Fast Company. "We need entrepreneurs, innovators, and strong leaders in the next generation."

The goal is to expose the nine entrepreneurs on the one-week program to the ways Silicon Valley goes about innovating "and then bring those experiences back to Japan to spread to other entrepreneurs," Kan says.

Among the stops on the trip: Lessons on design thinking from Adaptive Path and LUXr, learning about agile development from Pivotal Labs and product design from IDEO, and a prototyping session from Google+'s Bradley Horowitz.

Also on the docket: a workshop on pitching angel investors and venture capitalists at 500 Startups' downtown Mountain View penthouse labs.

"You want to make sure you communicate confidence," instructed Kandice Cota, the workshop leader and CEO of IP Franchise, a social game company, as Stanford Unversity's famous Hoover Tower hovered in the distance, beyond 500 Startups' floor-to-ceiling windows.

The TOFU Project is the brainchild of Lisa Katayama, a San Francisco-based journalist who grew up in Japan (and who writes for Fast Company as well as Wired, the New York Times Magazine, and NPR) and Tomo Saito, a designer and photographer who created Betabrand’s Japants cargo pants. Among its advisors are MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, RISD president John Maeda, and Kiva cofounder Matt Flannery.

The entrepreneurs are a mixed bunch, ranging from technologists, to social entrepreneurs, to makers of physical products. One is building a social network to help you discover the interests of the people around you. Another runs a personalized e-commerce site. And a third is building a micro-finance system for Japan.

Following the workshop, they were dumped straight the hot seat and asked to pitch their companies directly to 500 Startups' Dave McClure and four other Silicon Valley luminaries, including brothers Andrew and Marcus Owaga of Quest Venture Partners, which counts Qik (sold to Skype) and Tapulous (sold to Disney) among its investments.

"Japan has been exploding in the last few years in terms of online commerce and social platforms," McClure tells Fast Company.

McClure, who's invested in some Japanese startups, says there’s proportionally less venture capital available in the country compared to the U.S. "Relative to the amount of online commerce and spending, there’s not as much competition [to invest] compared to the opportunity, so we’re bullish," he says.

The entrepreneurs head back to Japan on Wednesday. Satoshi Suzuki, the founder of Wondershake, the app for finding out what the people around you are interested in, tells Fast Company that one of the things Japan is lacking is Silicon Valley's mentorship culture.

"In the United States, there's a 'pay-it-forward' culture" among successful tech entrepreneurs," Suzuki, 22, says. "That's what needs to be brought to Japan."

[Image: Flickr user Lazurite]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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