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21 May 2018

GCV Powerlist 2018: Hiroshi Saijou

The rest of the 100 (in alphabetical order): Hiroshi Saijou, Yamaha

Author: James Mawson, Editor-in-chief

There is a cool video of a robot riding a Yamaha motorcycle on YouTube. But whereas even a few years ago there would have been heavy use of computer-generated images to show this, now it is a reality.

The Motobot humanoid robot that can ride an unmodified motorcycle autonomously is one of two internal projects developed by Japan-based vehicles company Yamaha Motor’s corporate venturing unit over the past few years.

Hiroshi Saijou, the CEO and managing director at Yamaha Motor Ventures & Lab in Silicon Valley, for last year’s award said the other internal project developed was VasP (Vehicle as Probe), an internet-of-things visualisation of microenvironmental information captured by any kind of vehicle.

While such projects are focused on vehicles, Yamaha Motor’s background of disruptive shifts – it started out as a musical instruments maker of keyboards – means its tagline is “exploring new Yamaha as value creator for the world”, according to Saijou.

He said its other achievement and highlights were establishing Yamaha Motor Ventures & Lab in Silicon Valley (YMVSV), California, with a “great team” and direct reporting to Yamaha Motor’s top management. This team includes George Kellerman and Amish Parashar, and Saijou is expecting to increase its size after the departure of Jay Onda to Orange.

YMVSV’s investments this year include industrial robot technology developer Soft Robotics’ $20m round and reinvesting in US-based drone technology producer PrecisionHawk’s $75m round, and it is looking for more in the seed, A and B rounds across robotics, connected service and industrial automation sectors.

He is also developing a funding mechanism either off the balance sheet or through a dedicated fund as well as start Yamaha Motor Business Accelerator to incubate businesses from ideas, Saijou said last year.

This might mean a change in deal completion. Saijou said that although “our decision-making authority is by top management committee at Yamaha Motor [it does] mean we could encourage our top management to explore for uncertain but potential opportunity”.

Quoting Yamaha Motor’s founder, he added: “Action is the best way to learn, so let’s explore rather than research. In the business world today, so many people are obsessed with figures. They become fixated on the numbers of the minute and without them are too afraid to do any real work. But in fact, every situation is in flux from moment to moment, developing with a natural flow. Unless one reads that flow, it is impossible to start out in a new field of business.”

And the motto has been taken up more widely in Japan recently. Finance publication Nikkei Asian Review said corporate venturing activity has been rising in Japan over the past few years with 73 deals for a total $671m in funding last year.

Saijou told the Review that this acceleration was largely triggered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Silicon Valley in 2015, when Abe met and talked with some of the valley’s top entrepreneurial figures, including Facebook founder Marck Zuckerberg, Tesla founder Elon Musk and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Saijou said: “I believe Japan has been getting much more hyped in terms of CVC activity lately, with established corporations being more proactive and more eager to acquire new opportunities. The market is growing, and the environment is generally positive.

“Over the past two years, the scene has become particularly exciting for hardware-related businesses. Robotics, IoT and AI are all new areas of innovation that have been brought to hardware design, giving way to new opportunities. Japan has always been known for the quality of its hardware manufacturing, and so foreign investors are starting to look to the Japanese market for good sourcing in these fields.”

For Yamaha’s Saijou, it was clear the local market needed to open up. He told the Review: “Japanese corporations and startups still operate in a very Japanese style. Their structure itself is Japan-unique, and very domestic. I believe they should operate with international standards. Even within our own [Yamaha’s] strategy, we do not really look at Japanese startups at present, as we believe they are not international enough, and too inward-looking.

“At the same time, the local innovation ecosystem should be modelled to fit in with the Japanese culture. There is so much potential for established corporations to use their human and financial resources to their full extent, to be innovative and to find new business opportunities.

“Educating people to VC, putting training systems in place for company employees, being more open and working together with local startups – these are all challenges that Japanese corporates should take up right now.”

Prior to founding YMVSV, Saijou was a division manager at Yamaha Motor’s US office, where he led exploratory efforts in Silicon Valley. He started his career at Yamaha Motor in Japan where he worked for almost two decades on a broad array of surface mount technology and robotics in addition to new business development.

Saijou earned a software engineering degree from Kyushu University.

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