TOKYO >> As more and more young people strive to start innovative businesses to address social issues, universities have started to teach entrepreneurship skills to students. The goal: to develop a workforce that can revolutionize the business world.
“Without the support of my university, I might not have thought of starting my own business,” said Shonosuke Ishiwatari, 29, looking back on the support and education he received from Tokyo University. Ishiwatari is the Chief Executive Officer of Mantra Inc., a startup founded in January 2020 that offers an artificial intelligence-based translation tool for manga.
The device recognizes dialogues and other texts in manga and translates them into foreign languages, starting with English and Chinese. Some publishers and manga apps are already using the tool.
During his studies, Ishiwatari did research on the computer analysis of words and the daily dialogue of people. He toyed with the idea of becoming an academic researcher. Then he heard a lecture from a former student who had founded a startup.
Ishiwatari has been a huge manga fan since childhood. When his family lived in China, he found that Japanese manga helped him build friendships. He became aware of the many websites that contained pirated manga, and he realized that distributing manga around the world more efficiently would help curb the problem.
When Ishiwatari considered starting his business, he faced daunting hurdles specific to manga. Dialogue in manga is sometimes broken into several parts, and the subject of a sentence may be omitted. These unconventional constructions made it difficult for the AI to correctly perceive the context of the words and to translate the texts.
Ishiwatari feared that he would fail as he built the business.
What drove him forward?
“I thought it was going to be a lot of fun, and that helped me overcome my anxiety,” he said.
In 2018, when he was in his third year of PhD, Ishiwatari learned how to start a business from scratch at the University of Tokyo Entrepreneur Dojo.
He participated in the university’s Summer Founders Program, where participants worked on new product development and consumer needs assessments. In 2019, he received nearly $44,000 in funding from UTokyo Innovation Platform Co., a venture capital firm founded by the university.
Now Mantra is preparing to launch a program for clients learning English through manga.
“My goal is to use technology to break down language barriers and make the world a happier place,” said Ishiwatari.
The University of Tokyo, which established the Entrepreneur Dojo in 2005, was a pioneer among Japanese universities when it came to providing entrepreneurship training and support. As of 2020, 4,000 students have passed through its doors and the program has produced more than 100 entrepreneurs.
In addition to the courses, the program offers a wide range of support services, such as incubation facilities to support startups. Around 430 new business start-ups have emerged from the university’s efforts.
“As the number of graduates who become successful entrepreneurs increases, there will be a virtuous cycle in which students who have seen them succeed aspire to start a business themselves,” said Shigeo Kagami, deputy director-general of the university department from the University of Tokyo Corporate Relations.
To increase the school’s efforts, the Japanese government has supported university ventures.
According to a survey by the Ministry of Economics for Economics, Trade and Industry in the 2020 financial year, the number of startups that emerged from universities is at a historic high of 2,905.