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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Searching for a Spark

May 11, 2015

Entrepreneurs from across the world got together recently in Tokyo to showcase their ideas and look for support. Japanese startups face many challenges as they strive to turn new concepts into viable products. We examine the state of play and why young entrepreneurs are eager to shake things up.

A live concert kicks off the Tokyo edition of one of the world’s largest start-up events. Slush Asia brings together more than 250 entrepreneurs from 23 countries and territories. It’s the first time the event has been staged outside Finland, where it originated.

Among the main attractions is a contest involving 50 pre-selected startups. Representatives take turns to pitch their ideas, and investors evaluate their potential.

"I’m sure this is the first trial in the world," says Nobu Okada, Founder and CEO of Astrocale.

Astroscale has developed a technology to clean up space debris, from spent rockets to broken satellites and other types of junk orbiting the Earth. The debris is captured with a special adhesive, and dumped in the stratosphere for instant incineration. The concept has already caught the attention of space agencies, and even the United Nations.

"We want to make the ecosystem over here more global,” explains Antti Sonninen, CEO of SLUSH ASIA. “We want to take Japanese companies and Asian companies to the world."

SLUSH took off in Finland in 2008. Last year, it attracted about 14,000 entrepreneurs and investors from 80 countries. Several leaders also attended, including British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The scale of the Tokyo event may be smaller, but it’s enough to draw some high-profile investors from Silicon Valley. One of them is Dave McClure, a founding partner of investment fund 500 Startups: "It’s great. It’s looking like a lot of folks are excited about startups and entrepreneurship. I’ve been to some conferences here in Japan, but this one seems a little bit different."

Still, Japan has a long way to go. According to the World Bank, it ranks 83rd in terms of how easy it is to start a business. One of the main problems is the amount of red tape needed to register a company. The Japanese government has just started to address this matter. In late April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Silicon Valley and pledged to nurture startups as part of his growth strategy.

"One of the main characteristics of Silicon Valley is the speed of change,” said Abe. “I believe it’s crucial for Japan to introduce this type of culture."

Yuka Kojima started her career as a programmer in a major Japanese gaming company. Now she heads a venture that develops head-mounted displays for virtual reality games.

"I’m hoping to meet good investors," says Kojima.

Kojima employs an international staff of six. Initially, she launched her company in Japan. But the difficulties she faced led her to move the headquarters to San Francisco.

One of the key features of the head-mounted display is the integration of eye-tracking technology. Gamers can zero in on a target by just looking at it. Kojima’s venture is applying the same concept in other fields. For example, it allows people with a physical disability to play the piano by blinking at a special interface. She regrets that in Japan, the potential of a technology is not enough to clear administrative hurdles.

"In the United States, a proposal written on a single piece of paper is enough to secure anywhere between 10, 100 or even one million dollars,” she says. “But in Japan, applying for a grant is a complicated process that requires a lot of documents, for just a few tens of thousands of dollars."

Kojima scored third in the Slush Asia contest thanks to the technological quality and business potential of her venture’s head-mounted display. Entrepreneurs like her hope Japan will do what it takes to let them turn a bright idea into the next big thing.

For more on this story, we’re joined by Mr. Antti Sonninen, CEO of Slush Asia. He moved from Finland to Tokyo two years ago to start the office of a venture company…

To watch the interview, click on the video above.