There are no signs of slush on the ground in Tokyo in March. But in every other respect this is what one might expect of what has grown into one of the leading startup conventions in the world: an almost overwhelming buzz of excitement, constant flow of wild ideas and endless supply of big-dreaming entrepreneurs.
Slush made its debut in Tokyo in 2015. Organised now for the fourth time, the convention drew some 6–7 000 registered visitors, 600 startups and 200 investors to Tokyo Big Sight between 28 and 29 March.
“The situation here [in 2015] was similar to what it was in Finland,” tells Antti Sonninen, the CEO of Slush Tokyo. “Young people mostly wanted to work for big companies. A startup was not a typical career choice.”
Slush, he adds, set out not only to make entrepreneurship a more attractive career choice for talented young people but also to serve as an interface between the local and international startup scene.
“We wanted to create a community that brings these two scenes together,” he says.
Results are coming
Slush has inched closer to its objective year after year. This year’s participants included an estimated 350–450 local startups eager to create networks and show off their products, as well as a handful of cities eager to showcase the strengths of their business environment.
“This is an amazing event,” exclaims Yasushi Sakita, the chief technology officer at Sagojo, a web-based platform connecting travellers around the world with short-term job opportunities. “I feel like I’m being swallowed up by wonderful technology,” he said, pointing to a massive human-controlled mechanical apparatus next to him.
“Events such as this help to both vitalise the local scene and generate interest abroad,” views Riku Nioka, an engineer at Sagojo.
The City of Sendai has set itself the objective of becoming the most startup-friendly city in Japan. Yuuya Shirakawa, a public connector at Sendai, reveals that the city is seeking to instil an entrepreneurial spirit in young people by developing an environment that encourages them to get involved, be it by setting up their own business or by organising events for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
“We’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of businesses and we want to support and accelerate the growth of startups by creating an ecosystem and, ultimately, a community for startups,” he tells.
“These ecosystems will hopefully create success stories and role models for others.”
As Slush continues – to cadge the theme of this year’s event – to break barriers between various startup scenes and promote a culture that enables entrepreneurs to succeed regardless of age, gender, culture or language, some of its participants are breaking the barrier between reality and make-believe.
“Finnish companies are true trailblazers in the virtual and augmented reality space,” says Marko Salonen, a programme director at Business Finland. “And this is an observation that has been made also outside Finland.”
“[They’re ahead of the curve] partly because the competences needed are similar to those needed in the games cluster. Nokia’s heritage and competences in optics and hardware, for example, are another reason. Nokia’s lessons learnt have trickled down also to our VR and AR companies.”
Japan, on the other hand, is an attractive market for several reasons, its size being one of the more obvious ones.
Ilmari Huttu-Hiltunen, the founder and chief executive of Rakka Creative, estimates that the local population has a willingness to embrace novel contents and technologies in a way that is exceptional compared to almost anywhere else.
“Finns and Finnish businesses are also considered interesting in Japan,” he adds.
“The infrastructure here is great,” Miikka Rosendahl, the founder and chief executive of ZOAN, says, surprisingly referring not only to the technology. “The karaoke box culture here, for example, suggests there’s a readiness to consume AR and VR experiences.”
Word of warning
Galit Ariel, the creative director at the Netherlands-based Wondarlands, reminds in one of the more captivating and thought-provoking presentations of the two-day event that people should also be wary of losing themselves in the midst of the “endless digital noise” the humankind continues to create.
Technology, she underlined, should embrace – rather than ignore – the nuances, complexities and awkwardness of human life and interaction.
“AR can forge fantastic alternative realities,” she acknowledges. “AR will affect the public, private and intimate space of all of us. We need to anticipate the consequences of what we’re making.”
Good News from Finland is published by Finnfacts, which is part of Business Finland.