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Sushi, Sake and Pitches: Samurai House in Israel’s 1st Demo Day

A Japanese-style incubator has found a home - and lots of tech talent - in Tel Aviv
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after they exchange documents during a signing ceremony at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on May 12, 2014 (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/POOL /Toru Hanai)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after they exchange documents during a signing ceremony at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on May 12, 2014 (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/POOL /Toru Hanai)

I had the pleasure of attending the “Samurai 1st Demo Day in Tel Aviv” event last Thursday night. The event was organized by Samurai portfolio startup Aniwo Million and MC’d by Yoni Golan, the newly appointed Head of Operations of Samurai House in Israel. Kentaro Sakakibara, CEO of Samurai Incubate better known locally as Ken-Samurai, gave the opening presentation. Wearing a dark grey yukata with a plastic Kanata on his hips, and greeting the crowd with a big “Shaloooom!” he didn’t disappoint the crowd with his now signature mix of goofy comedy, infectious energy and bravado.

As Samurai House in Israel’s first “Demo Day”, the highlight of the event was the series of 2-minute pitches by Samurai’s 16 portfolio companies. Those following Samurai House in Israel’s FB page know that the Samurai team has been busy on-boarding local startups for the past half year. I first met Ken-san during his initial exploratory trips to Israel about 3 years ago, and have since followed his progress through his decision to set up Samurai Incubate’s first overseas office here in Israel, his arrival a little over a year ago, and his trials, tribulations and successes in getting Samurai House in Israel up and running. To see this project go from conception to reality has been nothing short of breathtaking. Given that each portfolio company received a $100K round of investment from Samurai Incubate, the current stable of startups represents a total investment of $1.6M into the Israeli startup ecosystem.

Below is a profile of the 16 companies that pitched for the Demo Day.

A number of the Samurai startups have a definite Japanese angle. Two of the startups, Aniwo Million, developing an online portal for connecting startups and investors, and Zerobillbank, developing a token currency exchange for driving community engagement, are headed by Japanese founders who came with Ken-san to set up their startups in Israel. Two Israeli-founded startups are focused on the Japanese mobile gaming market, currently the biggest in the world by far (Japan’s mobile gaming revenue reached US$ 6.5B in 2014, followed by the US with US$ 3.2B and China with US$ 3B). Watermelon is a group of Israeli developers developing games geared to the highly lucrative Japanese mobile gaming market. On the flip side, Cybertiger is developing a marketing platform for helping Japanese mobile gaming companies to more successfully enter the U.S. market. Another Asian-focused group is StartupEast, a startup accelerator connecting Israeli startups to Asia and Asian startups to Israel.

Many of the portfolio startups, however, are a diverse group of consumer-oriented web and mobile based tools and apps that have broad-based appeal. Waveit is creating a viral content sharing app focused on content quality rather the user popularity (for example, celebrities).  CouponRoller is a gamified savings platform creating casino-type games where the winnings are coupons for retailers. Dogiz is a location-based community app for connecting dog owners with local fellow dog owners and dog services. YapQ  is a web and mobile based platform for discovering “must-see” locations in an unfamiliar city and planning optimal routes to visiting them. ParkLife is developing a big-data based car parking solution combining statistical model of parking supply and demand at destinations and machine learning based on user historical routes. ThemeGo is creating a centralized portal for researching and booking theme park vacations. Wisefuture is a next generation online brokerage for providing professional investment services that are currently available only to high net worth individuals.

A third group of startups are providing B2B solutions for added web/App functionality or file management/security. WonderVoice is developing a voice assistant for apps using proprietary speech and social language technologies. Trendi Guru is developing a web-browser add-on tool for directly connecting images of apparel found online with retailers. righTune offers a personalized website music platform with website engagement tracking. Actifile is developing a cloud-based document management and security protection system.

During his opening remarks, Ken-san repeated his goal to invest in 100 Israeli startups over the next 5 years. This event drew a standing room only crowd at Google Campus TLV, and attracted representatives from notable investors such as Canaan Partners VC, Lool ventures, RDSeed, Krypton VC and Mitsui Global investment. One can only wonder at what kind of crowd the next Samurai Demo Day will attract.

About the Author
Grew up biracial (white/Asian) and tricultural (American/Japanese/Jewish), mostly in Tokyo and Palo Alto. Made Aliyah in October 2011 along with his loving wife and two adorable daughters. Passionate about intellectual property (he's a registered U.S. patent agent working at AC Entis IP), the Israeli tech scene and Israel-Japan relations.
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