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Shiori Fukuda (Life-Tech KOBE)

May 22, 2024

Kobe City in Hyogo Prefecture has been on the front foot in its efforts to support startups in Japan. We invited Ms. Shiori Fukuda, an innovation specialist at the Life-Tech KOBE, a regional startup ecosystem who has been supporting local startups aiming to expand their business overseas as well as startups from other countries interested in developing their business in Japan, to talk about her background and the initiatives of Kobe City.

Please tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I’m originally from Nagasaki Prefecture, and I moved to Tokyo when entering university. After graduating, I joined a think-tank in Tokyo. I was engaged in services commissioned by the central government, such as assistance for people who were having difficulty finding employment, and promotion of diversification of working styles, and I was also involved in livelihood protection as an expert in areas connected with labor and welfare.
After that, in 2016, my husband decided to go to New York for study, and I went there with him. There, I joined a newly established startup as an intern. Actually, this was when I first heard about terms such as “startup” and “pitch.” At that time, the startup community was beginning to enjoy a boom in New York, following the lead of the West Coast, and I had a strong sense of that movement during my work.

How did you like working at the startup?

It was my first time working at a startup, and it was a very exciting experience. Since we had limited resources within the company, we needed to focus on building a network with other startups and building operations and value chain networks from scratch. We enjoyed and learned a lot from the process of working together to overcome many difficulties. It was totally different from the experience I would have had at a major company.

What made you return to Japan?

We returned to Japan in 2017 and settled in Kobe. Before leaving for America, I had promised to go back to my previous company in Tokyo, so I returned to my old job and started to work remotely from Kobe. After that, when my previous startup company in New York was entering the series A funding round, I joined the Japanese affiliate of that startup as a regular employee.
After working at the startup for about two years, I found a job opening for startup assistants in Kobe, which has been my role ever since. I had been working remotely from Kobe for the companies in Tokyo and America, but I like Kobe and had wanted to work for the city at some point in my life, so I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. I also felt this would be an opportunity for me to use the experience I had gained from addressing social issues at the think-tank while taking a stance closer to that of the central government, and from working within the startups. 

Could you tell us about the efforts that Kobe City is making?

I’m mainly in charge of the development of global programs, through which I help Japanese startups to expand their business abroad while also attracting foreign startups to Kobe. Simply put, I’m in charge of both in-bound and out-bound business operations.
In terms of out-bound operations, we provide programs to help Japanese startups with a focus on resolving social issues. These programs include seminars designed to help startups roll out their products and services overseas, as well as programs helping them to perform mentoring, conduct market research and find partners. Rather than arranging group visits to Silicon Valley and things like that, our programs are designed to give wide-ranging support to individual companies without limiting their target markets. The aim is to ensure that such companies can define their target markets, plan market research, and actually find partners in the field by themselves. I have been working here for four years, and this year we are planning to make our programs more practical, such as by mainly using English.
As for our efforts to support in-bound operations, we are focusing on climate tech and food tech this year. For example, we are inviting climate tech and food tech startups from other countries to Kobe with the aim of promoting the charms of Kobe by creating business-matching opportunities with Japanese companies and performing demonstrations at large conferences, as well as creating the basis for these startups to make inroads in Japan.
In addition to global business initiatives, I’m also in charge of supporting female entrepreneurs in Kobe City.

Do you also help people to obtain startup visas?

Yes, we provide a one-stop service, having also developed a program to help entrepreneurs from overseas who want to open up a business in Kobe to acquire a startup visa, find an accountant, and locate an office.

What type of startup companies are there in Kobe?

In the Keihanshin area, which is the area including Kobe, the deep tech field is booming. Kobe has a biomedical cluster, so there are many startups that are very active in the fields of health tech, medical tech, and biotech. In Osaka, as well as in Kyoto, university-launched startups and deep tech startups are particularly strong. On the other hand, unlike Tokyo, there are still not many startups in the fields of Web3, VR and SaaS.
Kobe City is concentrating on supporting deep tech startups that are planning to launch overseas operations despite the cost and time required, and at the same time it is expected that startups will appear in other new fields. When inviting startups from overseas, we try to help them communicate with local companies to develop mutually profitable relationships.

Another important point is to boost local industries, right?

Yes, because if local companies in Kobe and the surrounding areas collaborate with startups from overseas, this could make it possible for local startups to create new businesses. I believe we should not only support startups but also aim to stimulate the entire economy of Kobe, including traditional companies, by assisting the startups, and I think this will improve the quality of life of people living in Kobe.


Could you tell us about your vision for the future?

I will continue to work for the global development of the in-bound and out-bound companies under my remit. Kobe City began to support startups at a relatively early stage, but we are seeing more and more local governments starting to provide similar support, so we need to make clear what sets Kobe apart in its offering for domestic and overseas startups.
I want Kobe to establish a hub function as a city that will enable overseas startups to enter the Japanese market via Kobe, and domestic startups to advance overseas via Kobe. As a port town, Kobe has always been outward-looking, so I want to leverage this feature.
Also, Kobe Airport, which currently handles only domestic flights, is set to begin handling international flights, which will enhance access to Kobe from outside Japan. An increase in the number of people visiting Kobe for business purposes as well as sightseeing will make Kobe even more international.


Lastly, apart from startups, could you tell us about some of the attractions of Kobe City?

I think it is the size of the town that make Kobe City attractive. It’s neither too big nor too small, with everything located at just the right distance. When I moved from Tokyo, I was a little worried about whether I would be able to blend in, but Kobe has an open atmosphere that makes people from outside feel welcomed, so I felt more comfortable than I had expected to feel.
Kobe is also easy to access. It takes only 70 minutes by plane from Tokyo or three hours by bullet train. When I talk about its accessibility to people overseas, they often comment that it sounds like a commuter town. Of course a big city has certain advantages, but Kobe is a city without unnecessary competition despite having the necessary urban functions, providing a less stressful business environment. Surrounded by the sea and mountains, you can enjoy nature nearby, and prices of commodities and office rental are lower than those of Tokyo, so you can enjoy the pursuit of quality of life.
I hope that our efforts to support startups will help to reenergize this beautiful city.

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