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Venues for Openly Sharing Ideas Bring Out the Essence of Innovation

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Tokyo, Japan
Akihiro Shimura at Dentsu and Phillip Vincent of Plug and Play Japan discuss the future of innovation

Dentsu’s Akihiro Shimura discusses the future of innovation with Phillip Vincent, president and representative director of Plug and Play Japan.

Plug and Play Tech Center (‘Plug and Play’) accelerates programs together with over a thousand startup companies around the world every year. Its president and representative director in Japan, Phillip Vincent, met with Akihiro Shimura of the Dentsu Kyoto Business Acceleration Center, one of Plug and Play Japan’s partners, and discussed the essence of innovation for businesses from various perspectives. Their discussion was held at Engawa Kyoto,* Dentsu’s innovation space in Kyoto.

* Dentsu established Engawa Kyoto in July 2019 for the purpose of creating a venue for facilitating networking among individuals and companies while supporting creative projects that could bring new vitality to Japan in the future. Plug and Play, a global-leading accelerator, has set up Plug and Play Kyoto in Engawa Kyoto as its second location in Japan. Expectations are high for Engawa Kyoto to serve as a co-creation hub that can connect users with Kyoto’s unique business culture.

From left, Phillip Vincent, Plug and Play’s president and representative director in Japan, and Akihiro Shimura, a leading member of the Dentsu Kyoto Business Acceleration Center


Networking opportunities and a platform for realising them are necessary for sparking innovation

Shimura> Now that you have set up an office here, I would like to know how Plug and Play has become a creation partner for Engawa Kyoto. We have known each other since first meeting about two and a half years ago, which was before Plug and Play Japan was established, but I still don’t really know what kind of company Plug and Play is?

Vincent> Plug and Play is regarded as an innovation platform, but perhaps it could be better described as a company that implements industry-specific accelerator programs for ventures and startups worldwide. Each year, we provide three-month programs that we call “batches” to more than one thousand companies globally and almost 200 in Japan. We also have business partnerships with over 300 firms. Basically, we provide networking opportunities for the purpose of sparking innovations.

Shimura> Plug and Play selected Engawa Kyoto, which was established by Dentsu, as its second co-creation hub in Japan. Why did you choose to locate in Kyoto?

Vincent> In Japan, innovation tends to be concentrated in Tokyo for various reasons. In contrast, Kyoto has a good balance of industries, governmental organisations, and academic institutions. Many global companies have offices in downtown Kyoto. Collaboration with government agencies is relatively easy. Most importantly, local universities, particularly the University of Kyoto, are a key factor.

Shimura> That’s because in Europe and North America, startup firms often collaborate with universities, right?

Vincent> Right, and if you think about it, you can imagine how people here who aspire to launch a startup can make connections with major companies through a three-month batch program. 

Shimura> I see. You are not only providing a networking venue for enabling innovations, but also creating a broad platform for collaboration among industries, governmental organisations, and universities.


Taking innovation to big business more effectively through collaboration among industry, government and academia

Vincent> After providing a platform for collaboration with industries, government agencies, and academic institutions, it is essential to create a category. 

Shimura> By that you mean providing the industry-specific accelerator program that you talked about from the start?

Vincent> Yes, and in Kyoto, it has been easy to set up categories for carrying out the batches. For example, after teaming up with Engawa Kyoto, the first program we implemented was based on the theme of “hard tech and health.” We designed the program with a view to have companies and industries concentrated in Kyoto become involved, but not just those in the healthcare industry.

Shimura> So, by broadening the scope to hard tech, it was easier to attract companies that are not obviously related to the healthcare industry at first glance, such as technologically advanced BtoB companies, real estate firms, insurance companies, and so on. In that way, you could attract more interest from people from a wide range of fields, irrespective of their backgrounds in the sciences or humanities.

Vincent> For businesses, too, there are numerous merits. For instance, by participating in a program with students, a company can show them its strong points. It can also network with other companies from different industries.

Shimura> So, unlike training courses or job search seminars, when people participate in a Plug and Play program, there are already good prospects for the creation of a new business.

Vincent> Yes, that’s exactly right.

Shimura> To carry out such programs, Kyoto’s unique culture must be important. Specifically, I mean the robustness of businesses in the city that have operated for one or two hundred years. That robustness is maintained by the city as a whole.

Vincent> When expressing ideas about the city’s history, culture, and atmosphere, discussions inevitably lead to the question of how those factors are significant for businesses in the future. It’s clear that there is something that attracts people to the spirit of the Kyoto, like a magnet. Kyoto’s magnetic force attracts many people, and that is creating a global format for new businesses.


Plug and Play’s expectations for Dentsu and Engawa Kyoto

Shimura> If I could come back to my earlier question, what is the role of Engawa Kyoto for Plug and Play Japan?

Vincent> It is an essential networking venue for conducting our programs. That allows us to spark an explosion of innovations, going from zero to one, then one to 10, and 10 to 100. Within that process, the one-to-10 stage is Plug and Play’s forte. In other words, we help the sprouts grow. Engawa Kyoto is the place for planting the seeds until they sprout—the zero-to-one stage. Then, when Plug and Play has cultivated those sprouts up to 10, we expect Dentsu to grow them to 100 by broadening the business scope.

Shimura> By handling different things well, Dentsu was able to win your trust with its production capabilities in both creative and acceleration projects.

Vincent> At a place that enables connections with innovation players, the seeds that sprout there can be grown through programs and then developed into a big business.

Shimura> The important thing at each stage is communication, wouldn’t you agree?

Vincent> Yes, that is an important point. When we think of innovation, we can imagine a really bright young person suddenly being inspired by an idea and turning it into a really successful business. Alfred Nobel and Thomas Edison are some examples. Nevertheless, at each stage of discovering the abilities of a super talented person, developing those abilities and then applying them in a business, communication is actually the most important factor.

Shimura> In other words, communication is what drives the creation and development of innovation.

Vincent> It means that Engawa Kyoto along with Dentsu serves as a hub for Plug and Play’s business.

Shimura> Even today, members of a Dentsu project team attended a presentation by a startup that hopes to form tie-ups with companies.

A presentation by a startup firm aiming to collaborate with other companies.


Open innovation is the key concept

Shimura> Having a venue and platform for driving innovation is clearly important, as you have explained. Next, could you tell me your thoughts on what trends are happening in the global business world today. 

Vincent> Although already well known, the days of big fish swallowing up the small fish are finished. We are entering an era when the fish that swim faster than the big fish will survive.

Shimura> That seems to be an issue for many large companies nowadays. 

Vincent> The fast-moving firms have been swiftly collecting information and making connections. That’s why they can maneuver so quickly.

Shimura: The speed of their decision-making is also important, isn’t it?

Vincent> Yes, speed is important, but promptitude is also a vital factor. Companies need to be quick enough to act before their rivals. That means being fast enough to continue moving forward when waiting for decisions to be made. To do that, they must always be at the forefront. 

Shimura> So, the speed that companies will need in the future is actually both quickness and earliness. 

Vincent> Yes, and that kind of speed comes from open innovation.

Shimura> Indeed, that is the core component.

Vincent> Instead of one plus one equals two, we cannot talk about innovation unless one plus one can grow to three, or 10, or even 100. I think that Japanese, more than any other people in the world, have been made to accept the proposition that one plus one equals two. That is really unfortunate, however, because it does not lead to innovation.

Shimura> You could even say that the acceptance of one plus one equals two results in lost opportunities.

Vincent> You’re right. That’s because communication is so important, as we talked about earlier. Essentially, rather than holding on to information and concealing it for one’s own personal gain, giving open access to ideas right from the beginning is vital. Because those ideas are openly available, people who can take those ideas further will appear. People who can expand on the ideas will appear, too. That process creates speed and scale. That’s what we mean by open innovation. 


Making big deals is the goal of innovation

Shimura> I wonder why the mindset behind open innovation has not really taken root in Japan. Maybe it’s because people here want to protect their vested interests. 

Vincent> Perhaps the reason is that people do not really understand what returns can be gained from open innovation, or how to effectively handle the risks involved in initiating open innovation.

Shimura> I guess because we don’t really understand such things, either.

Vincent> Right, and the amount of money invested in something so unclear together with funds for personnel and resources can be the difference between success and failure.

Shimura> Yes, the so-called 'big deal.'

Vincent> Innovation does not come from starting small and working tirelessly on something.

Shimura> That’s because the essence of innovation does not originate from conventional logic. 

Vincent> Nonetheless, it is not gambling, either. A single idea can attract diverse people who want to apply it. The dynamism of that kind of communication is what leads to the big deal. The most enjoyable aspect of this work is meeting such a diverse group of people.

Shimura> Everyone who meets you finds you to be approachable and a good communicator. 

Vincent> That’s because I enjoy communicating. There’s no reason to be shy.

Shimura> If you think about it, you are lucky because you can meet people who most of us never have a chance to encounter.

Vincent> Meeting people who one would normally never meet and then beginning a process of communication is precisely how innovation happens and big deals can be made.

Shimura> That’s a great way to sum up our discussion today. Thank you.