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Japan’s start-up community is powering the future of smart cities


Keihanna Science City is taking a global approach to fuelling innovation and fostering start-ups.


Kyoto has been at the forefront of the start-up scene for decades. Often considered to be the cultural capital of Japan, the city is also a focal point of technological innovation. Just over two hours from Tokyo by bullet train, the city is home to many major tech corporations, including Nintendo, and also boasts a large concentration of higher education institutions. Kyoto’s proximity to cutting-edge research facilities and talent from local universities means that it has several successful innovation hubs along with a vibrant start-up scene, especially in the smart city space.


Keihanna Science City is one of these hubs and it sits at the epicentre of the Kyoto, Osaka and Nara prefectures in western Japan. Located 30 kilometres from the centre of the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, the ground-breaking innovation complex stretches over 15,000 hectares of land and is home to more than 150 research facilities, boasting a total workforce of around 10,000.


Keihanna Science City: an early smart city pioneer


First proposed way back in 1978, construction of Keihanna Science City began in 1987, marking it out as something of a pioneer in its goal of making sustainable societies a reality. The scope of the technology work within the complex is broad but largely concentrates on artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and robotics. Areas of focus include energy, mobility, healthcare, agriculture, security and municipal services.

Keihanna Science City is supporting the growing number of fledgling companies with game-changing ideas

Various initiatives at Keihanna Science City are helping to support the growing number of fledgling companies with game-changing ideas. For example, Keihanna Open Global Service Platform for Accelerated Co-Innovation (KOSAINN) involves Japanese companies presenting a specific challenge which start-ups have to develop solutions to. Another initiative, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Smart City Program supports global expansion of smart city-related Japanese startups, by matching them with European companies. This program is a result of Keihanna Science City’s long-term collaboration with Barcelona, Spain and the Peninsular accelerator in Spain supports the program.


WEBINAR: (30 March) Kyoto: The Japanese Start-Up Community powering the future of smart cities



Supporting start-ups: Keihanna Global Acceleration Program Plus (KGAP+)


While there are several successful start-up accelerator programs in Kyoto, the Keihanna Global Acceleration Program Plus (KGAP+) stands out. It is a major player in the Kyoto start-up scene and taps into the complex’s unique ecosystem to foster a stimulating atmosphere for start-ups to develop proofs of concept, especially those where local residents can be involved.


The accelerator was launched in 2019 and operated by the private sector Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR), which is aiming to establish Keihanna Science City as a global centre of excellence. ATR has already established exchange programs with research institutes and universities outside of Japan to share best practice.


The KGAP+ accelerator runs two three-month long programs each year, one in summer and one in winter. During these schemes, selected start-ups aim to secure pilot tests with major Japanese companies located within the city and beyond. During these three months, the start-ups benefit from expert seminars, networking and mentoring support from partners and JETRO, as well as matching with suitable companies. This matching is the most important, but also the most challenging, part of the process.


The accelerator is open to both Japanese and overseas start-ups and KGAP+ works with a select group of global partners, including JETRO, a government-backed non-profit organisation that provides support in matching start-ups with local partners. The lineup also includes Barcelona’s Activa, the Israel Innovation Authority, the National Research Council of Canada, the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in New York. This international network of start-up accelerators helps to boost global collaboration and the development of innovation hubs around the world. It also helps start-ups to expand their businesses globally.


Kyoto Smart City Expo: Start-up demo days


KGAP+ holds demo days for its start-ups at the annual Kyoto Smart City Expo, which is hosted at Keihanna Science City. Supported by major firms such as Cisco and PWC, the Expo brings together experts to showcase and discuss the latest developments in the smart city space, covering everything from energy and transportation to food and education.


The aim of the demo days at the Expo is for start-ups to pitch to potential partners and customers. The first three cohorts from KGAP+ featured a total of 35 start-ups from seven different countries, including Japan. These covered a diverse range of fields including robotics, healthcare and smart manufacturing. An impressive 86 per cent of these start-ups were matched with partner companies as a result.

Kyoto Smart City Expo covers everything from energy and transportation to food and education.

The latest cohort of start-ups, known as Batch 4, began their stint on the KGAP+ accelerator in November 2020. Comprising a selection of 13 companies, the group included start-ups from Japan, India, the USA, Canada and Finland covering a wide range of interests from food tech to Blockchain. While the program in 2020 was held entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic, start-ups still had the chance to refine their business models for the Japanese market and to hold meetings with potential partners.


The Batch 4 demo day took place in February and was also part of a wider national initiative aimed at developing global start-up ecosystems. The Osaka-Kyoto-Hyogo/Kobe Consortium was first selected as one of the core cities of this national program last year and major stakeholders and start-up supporters in these areas have been working closely ever since. February’s KGAP+ demo day was supported by more institutions than any of the accelerator’s previous events, including embassies from different countries.

Power up: Kyoto is also home to Japan's arguably most famous export; Nintendo
Power up: Kyoto is also home to Japan's arguably most famous export; Nintendo

Start-up success stories




One of the start-ups from KGAP+ Batch 4, Hyperia aims to build a sustainable future by developing blockchain-based applications for businesses. The company’s technology has been designed to address some of the usual problems encountered with blockchain technology, including its lack of speed. Established in 2019 and based in Tokyo, the company is looking to collaborate with companies that want to automate processes and real-time transactions between IoT devices. Possible use cases vary widely, from renewable energy to pest-free food traceability and trading systems.


“Through KGAP+, we were introduced and are in discussions with an IT company and a construction company to implement our Blockchain for Supply chain management and Smart City data management,” said HYPERIA founder and CEO Yukihiro Sakaori. “Also, we’ve had brainstorming sessions with mentors on improvement and clarification of our business model, together with a legal advice on performing our business. The mentors promised us their continuous support beyond the program period, which we sincerely appreciate.”


The next step is to develop potential smart city uses cases with the companies that Hyperia was introduced to through KGAP+. The long-term goal is to lead the way in creating a blockchain-powered future society where safety and transparency can be achieved.




Established in 2017 in Kyoto, Linearity is developing next-generation elevator technology powered by linear motors. Similar to the technology used in maglev trains and some rollercoasters, Linearity’s innovation enables elevators to run in any direction and for multiple elevators to run on the same track. The company has already been commended by Kyoto City for its vision and business plan, and has partnered with Desird Design R&D, a Turkish company, to help develop and manufacture technology. Linearity has also installed a prototype at Kyoto University and is working with them to develop an AI-based multi-car elevator group control system as part of a continuing joint research partnership.


The JETRO Smart Cities Program has helped Linearity in several ways. "We have been introduced to many companies and organisations, including potential technological partners, investors, government offices and other contacts,” said Linearity CEO Dr. Sandor Markon. “We have been given continuous administrative and mental support, including participation at joint meetings, supply of information and advice, so we never feel alone.”


Linearity now aims to secure its latest round of investments, establish partners within the elevator industry and finalise its first mass-production product. It also aims to encourage developers and architects to start designing buildings that take advantage of its game-changing technology.




Tokyo-based start-up XPAND developed a technology similar to a QR code, but scannable much further away. The XPAND Code is a slender barcode that can be displayed on large-scale signage and scanned by smartphone from a distance to give more detailed information. Established in 2017, XPAND has already successfully introduced its technology in several key sectors including sports, retail and public transport. The company has installed signage stickers in 2,400 locations in all 47 prefectures in Japan, including McDonalds, Burger King and 7-Eleven. XPAND Codes have also been used at Obihiro bus station in Tokyo and XPAND is also working with Scottish sportswear brand Foxglide and Japanese curling team Ignites Nagano to develop services that will connect sportswear and smartphones.

"We have been given continuous administrative and mental we never feel alone."

The JETRO Smart Cities Program is currently looking for matching opportunities for XPAND, particularly through its network in Spain. JETRO is also supporting XPAND in discussing smart city opportunities in Indonesia, UAE, India and Germany. Along with sports and esports, a key focus area for XPAND in the near future is smart cities. “We are exploring the use of XPAND Codes, both in conjunction with digital signage and as guidance aids for autonomous vehicles and drones,” said Nanmoku Toworu, founder and CXO at XPAND.




Founded in 2018 and based in Tokyo, Synspective deals in ‘synthetic data for perspective’ with its unique combination of satellite development and the creation of both standard and customised platforms to analyse the data collected. Since reaching $100 million in funding in July 2019, the company has released two products, one for monitoring land displacement and one aimed at flood damage assessment. In February 2021, Synspective successfully captured the first image from its StriX-α satellite, which was launched in December 2020.


As a direct result of the JETRO Smart Cities program, Synspective was paired with over 20 companies through virtual meetings within two days of the event. “Our time and effort paid off well, so thanks to JETRO Kyoto for this opportunity”, said Shoji Koike, head of global sales at Synspective. Building on its success so far, the company aims to build a constellation of six satellites by 2023 and 30 by the late 2020s. The latter will make it possible to observe the location of a disaster happening anywhere in the world within a two-hour time frame. The next satellite, StriX-β, is set to launch in 2021. Synspective also plans to launch more services based on its satellite data to aid sustainable development.


Expanding its global reach further


ATR is already in talks with a number of potential partners that will enable KGAP+ to expand its global partnership network. It also plans to strengthen its collaborations with other start-up programs in Japan. This will enable more matching and PoC opportunities for start-ups from other accelerators. ATR recently established new relationships with Hack Osaka and Shinagawa Business Club in Tokyo.


In addition, ATR plans to boost the capabilities of the KGAP+ scheme with investment and consulting functions, as well as robust support to help domestic start-ups succeed overseas. ATR also aims to match domestic companies with specific needs with start-ups that have compatible solutions. This is based on the same concept as the ATR-developed KOSAINN platform.


As a global hub that can not only help Japanese start-ups to succeed overseas but also find overseas start-ups to partner with Japanese companies, Keihanna Science City is leading the way as a powerhouse of smart city innovation. Its close collaboration with KGAP+ provides a valuable blueprint for other cities around the world to follow.


“Keihanna Science City has a wide network that spans large Japanese companies, financial institutions, local governments, and the national government,” said ATR executive vice president Hiroyuki Suzuki. “Furthermore, Keihanna Science City has established a strong network with a number of overseas innovation hubs. And domestic and international startups can expand to these hubs through Keihanna Science City.”



Why not register for our next WEBINAR: (30 March) Kyoto: The Japanese Start-Up Community powering the future of smart cities

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