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Friday, December 8, 2023

UniRobot's Founder, who raised 900 million yen in funding, talks about "tips on how to face the barriers of failure that confront us every day."

In the last decade, dramatic changes have occurred in the startup industry, including an increase in the number of startup companies and the amount of funding. While there are a few aspects of stalling due to the impact of the new Corona, it is also true that we see more news and good news about startups every day. In order to keep the growth rate of startups from slowing down as much as possible even in unforeseen circumstances such as the new Corona, we would like to present a series of articles from senior startups who have experienced and overcome many rough patches, as well as their experiences and know-how of failure, success, and recovery.

In our first interview, we spoke with Taku Sakai, representative of Uni-Robot Corporation, which has been featured in numerous media outlets for its development, manufacturing, and sales of next-generation social robots, about the real-life experience of a startup that is growing in real time.

Since its establishment in 2014, the company has raised just under 900 million yen in funding. The company currently has about 20 employees. The main shareholders are 7 major companies and 3 VC firms. With the management philosophy of "making "communication between objects and minds" the norm," the company aims to be listed on Mothers as a developer and plot-former of communication technology in general.

Mr. Taku Sakai Representative, Uni-Robot Co.

Graduated from Keio University, Faculty of Economics. He attended New York University and other universities, and is a certified project manager. In 2015, he founded Uni-Robot Corporation, a developer of next-generation smart robots, which was selected as one of the top 10 companies in the field of global innovation out of 500 venture companies at ILS, Asia's largest open innovation ceremony. Awarded the top prize in the Accelerator Program; selected as one of the TOP 10 Japanese finalists for Start World Cup in 2017, and selected as one of the 108 NEXT Unicorns by Nikkei for two consecutive years. Most recently, Unibo won first place among communication robots at the GOOD COMMUNICATION ROBOT AWARD.
Ijichi Chu  Director, CS Team, Steams Division, Creww Corporation

Born in 1981. While attending college in Washington State, USA, he started his first business with his college classmates. In 2014, he joined Creww Inc. to focus on supporting new business creation through open innovation between startups and major companies.

Determined to make a direct contribution to society through my own efforts in the wake of 3.11

- Please tell us about the circumstances that led you to start your business.

Sakai: I originally worked for a major trading company for about 15 years. At that time, I was still involved in volunteer activities and support for NPOs as part of my efforts to address social issues. However, after 3.11, as society underwent a transformation, I began to think that I wanted to do something where I could directly contribute to society through my own power.

From there, I began to work on weekends, but with my day job, it was difficult to be prepared for such activities, and I began to think that I wanted to start my own business. I happened to have a relative who was in the robot-related business, which gave me the idea of robots. I also thought to myself, "The next technology trend will not be limited to tablets and smartphones, but new devices will increase," which led me to "partner robots. And it was the end of 2014 when I started working in earnest to "start a business with robots.

How to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of starting a business?

- We, Creww, were also established in 2012, but our initial direction has not always worked out as we had hoped, and we have repeatedly changed course. Did you encounter any problems?

Sakai:It was full of problems (laughs). At that time, information on deep learning and robot AI was still scarce, and we started from a place where we knew nothing. While such "knowing nothing" was a problem, it was also a good part of the result.

I went ahead with my energy, passion, and dreams without knowing anything. If I had known too much about the circumstances related to AI, deep learning, and robotics, I probably would not have done it (laughs). (laughs) I later learned that 70 to 80% of hardware, in particular, hits the valley of death in mass production, where it often fails.

Because we did not know, we proceeded from scratch, interviewing various people to obtain information and raising funds. Since we started by getting to know people, the most important thing was to have the spirit and passion to go from 0 to 1. To be honest, failures happen day after day. If I had to use an analogy, it would be a roller coaster ride.

As for fundraising, we need to raise capital in the hundreds of millions, but of course I have no such experience, I have never created a capital policy, and I have never created a company. I have no experience, I have never created a capital policy, I have never created a company, and I am hitting a wall every day,Mindset of how to face it.It is.

If you don't try, you'll never know! You must move rather than think!

Sakai:To be honest, I'm really new to everything, so anyway, I'm stumped by everything. Let me repeat that,If you know too much and have preconceived notions, you're stuck.It's a risk that comes up.Moving is more important than thinkingThe following is a list of the most common problems with the

I was trying to create a partner robot like "Doraemon," and no one would believe in such a concept, so I kept searching until I found someone who could do it. At the time, there were only a limited number of people who were engaged in the business of artificial intelligence, so I looked on the Internet and kept sending messages until I found someone who could do it. I asked people I met for the first time what AI was and how much money they would need. I would ask, "How much money do you need?I kept drawing images and connecting with my feet until I met him.It was in the form of a "I'm sorry.

- Anyway, you said that there were a lot of walls, but where were the biggest ones?

Sakai:The most difficult part was raising funds and mass-producing the hardware.

Ijichi:I think it is true that it is difficult for hardware startups to raise funds from the standpoint of holding inventory. It may be an area where it is difficult to raise money.

Sakai:Yes, I agree. Even in 2015, when the funding trend was finally starting, funding was skewed toward trending startups, such as deep learning software startups. We spoke with several VCs, but the harsh reality was that no one would give us money at the conceptual level. So, I gave up on VC and switched my fundraising focus to business companies. I entered into a business and capital alliance with Almex, a group company of the current USEN-NEXT HOLDINGS, and began capital raising activities with a full-fledged focus on business companies.

I have a dream, but robots are expensive,High risk, so it is difficult to partner with a business company that does not have a venture mindset and is capable of risk-takingSo I first visited Almex through a referral from a senior colleague. As a result, we raised initial funding within the year, and one year later we raised more than 300 million in Series A, led by Fujitsu. In Series B, we raised more than 400 million, and we are still in the process of raising additional funds.

Ijichi:From the outside, it looks like you're procuring them at a rapid pace, doesn't it?

Sakai:I had given up on venture capital, so I was glad that I focused on large companies that might be interested in robotics. It is very important to know "who to talk to! is very important. So I was thinking about how to meet people with positions.

When did Uni-Robot scale?

- As you continued to raise funds and grow, at what point did you feel that you were "starting to scale"?

Sakai:To be honest, I still don't feel that much of a "Here it comes! I don't really feel that "Here it comes! When we received our first investment, we presented our prototype at the International Robot Exhibition, which received a great deal of media coverage, and that was a turning point for us. The success of our media strategy at that time and the buzz it generated gave me and the company confidence. Most TV stations at the time picked up on what we had developed, and this was a major catalyst that led to the next round of funding.

Now that we have a topic, the rest will depend on how we create a business plan and the content of the pitch. In terms of technology, we created an environment where demonstrations could be held while gathering people, brought in demo equipment, and while giving demonstrations, presented a plan that said, "If this part can be mass-produced, we can achieve this much. I could explain the plan and the timeframe in which it would be possible to achieve it. I was able to explain the details of the plan.

In the case of hardware, the key is to what extent it is recognized by others at the prototype stage.I was an adventurer at the time, so I went straight to it without going through the POC (laugh). Nowadays, in most cases, a POC (Proof of Concept) is done, but I was an adventurous person at the time, so I went straight to it all at once without going through a POC (laughs). (Laughs.) We had also received information that personal robots were beginning to be developed overseas, so we thought speed was important. We had to do agile development so that we could mass-produce with speed, and we had to do it in Shenzhen as quickly as possible! So, our main focus at the time was to find a company that we could immediately connect with in Shenzhen via a coordinator and see when we could do it in the shortest amount of time.

Do we really need a POC?

- What do you actually think about the need for POC now?

Sakai:In conclusion, we feel that a POC is necessary.
At the time, I was watching a lot of videos about Steve Jobs and was influenced by the idea of "create a dream and people will follow your product," and I thought that if I created such a dream product, people would follow it, but in reality, that did not happen. Based on this experience, I now strongly feel the need to conduct solid demonstration experiments.

For hardware, demonstration through actual products is the key. Opportunities to actually experiment in the field, such as through demonstration tests, are extremely important. Especially for hardware products, I believe that the provision of opportunities such as those offered by Creww will make them shine. By receiving feedback and repeating the PDCA cycle in an open innovation environment with business companies, products will be refined. Once a hardware mold is made, it is difficult to modify it,We recommend building a prototype before mass production and repeating thorough demonstration tests before proceeding to mass production.I will do so.

What are some tips for utilizing the Accelerator Program?

- We understand that you have used a number of accelerators and accelerator programs to scale your business.

Sakai:The good thing about accelerator programs such as Creww is that the business company has a budget for the accelerator program. We are often approached by government agencies and other organizations that say, "We will provide you with a place to conduct a demonstration experiment!" However, in the end, we bear all the costs, including travel expenses, so it is honestly tough for hardware startups to do everything on their own since hardware itself is costly and application development is also expensive.

For example, Creww's accelerator program has a high point in that we are given a budget and can brush up our product while sweating together with the business company. In other cases, I think there are many cases where the venture side has to go along with the major companies in order to get them to like the product, or where the venture side has to do things like subcontracting to a major company while looking out for the interests of the people in charge at the major company.

If we continue to do this, we will fall into a pattern of having a dream but falling short because we do not have the resources.It is important to work with business companies that have the concept of co-creation from the same perspective, based on the understanding that startups do not have the resources to do so.It is.
Therefore, I think what we are looking for in an accelerator is to create a place where we can work together with the mindset of the business company with which we are co-creating.

Especially for early-stage or pre-Series A startups, I think it is tough to do everything with their own resources. The good thing about accelerator programs is that you can co-create with a business company on a tripartite basis, so I think you should take full advantage of such accelerator programs to grow.

Pitfalls of the Accelerator Program

Sakai:Another thing to keep in mind when using accelerator programs is the "schedule. Each accelerator program has its own set deadlines, and I have experienced the pitfalls of trying to force myself to stay within those deadlines.

When collaborating, it is important to work out the schedule and other details with the project company. Rather than getting caught up in the schedule and losing sight of the essence of the project, it is important to determine how much can and should be done in the short term, while keeping the medium- to long-term in mind. I think it is also very important to determine whether or not the business company understands this and is willing to take action.

Creating a communication platform beyond robots

- Tell us what kind of world you envision for your future vision. Please tell us about the goals you would like your company to achieve and the future you would like to realize.The following is a list of the most common problems with the

Sakai:I started out with robots, but I would like to create a communication platform. I am now working on developing communication technology that will allow people to communicate and converse with objects with their minds.
Beyond the scope of Unibot, the robot, we are thinking of providing intelligence services by making the UniRobot Cloud Engine into an API, going out and integrating it into various things.

Ijichi:You have expanded it from the original vision.

Sakai:Yes, I agree. I believe that vision is also a living thing, so I don't think that vision can be refined unless we train ourselves to draw it on the campus from time to time, without getting too attached to one thing.

name of companyUni-Robot Co.
EstablishmentOctober 01, 2017
Location5F Dai II Bell Plaza, 3-2-15 Sasazuka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
representativeTaku Sakai
Business OverviewCommunication technology platform business and manufacturing and sales of AI robots
uniform resouce locatorhttps://creww.me/ja/startup/www.unirobot.com
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PORT Editorial Officehttps://port.creww.me/
PORT by Creww is an open innovation media for startups, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs in recovery, and companies seeking to create new businesses on the theme of social issues, operated by Creww Co.


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