Are you working on innovative tech-based solutions to the challenges posed by COVID-19? If so, read on: the fifth edition of the 500 Startups Kobe Accelerator might well be a good fit for your startup.
Known as 500 Kobe, the program is a partnership between 500 Startups and the city of Kobe, Japan. While it took place in Kobe each year since 2016, this year is different due to COVID-19. 500 Startups will deliver the program online from September 7 to October 30, 2020, and the focus is on developing pandemic and post-pandemic solutions.
The show must go on
Despite COVID-19 challenges and travel restrictions, Kobe’s mayor, Kizo Hisamoto, is determined to host 500 Kobe virtually. “We already witnessed some of the companies that participated in the program have their business take off from our city after the program, which is a great honor for us, and we are very glad that we are able to continuously host the 500 Kobe program,” he said. “We had to overcome a lot of hardship, but we do have an optimistic outlook to the future, and we would like to use this as an opportunity to develop new projects.”
One of these projects will see the city’s hospitals, for example, introduce medical robots by the company Medicaroid for coronavirus PCR testing. Innovation in the health sector is one of Kobe’s strengths, and is now more relevant than ever to 500 Kobe.
Pioneering health tech
As you may recall, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Disaster hit Kobe in 1995 with tragic consequences, causing the loss of 4,571 lives in the city and devastating both the city and the port areas. Kobe has since rebuilt and flourished thanks to unique initiatives that were part of the recovery program.
Port Island is one of the best symbols of this transformation. Since 1998, this artificial island has been home to the KOBE Biomedical Innovation Cluster (KBIC), a life science cluster that includes more than 10,000 employees working at 350 companies, universities, specialized hospitals and research institutes. It recently made the news when the Fugaku supercomputer KBIC hosts was crowned as the world’s fastest.
This presented an opportunity that led to a 500 Kobe program with a health tech focus last year. “We thought that if we connected seed stage startups with the life science cluster and its experts, we might see good collaboration and innovations result from that initiative; so in 2019 we decided to focus 500 Kobe’s fourth batch on the healthcare sector,” says Kobe City spokesperson Shigenori Tanabe.
A global perspective
One of the unique aspects of the 500 Kobe program is that it is open to startups from around the world. Participants interested in doing business in Japan are welcome, but that is not a requirement. “Usually, programs that are backed by local authorities ask participants to have headquarters in their region or to commit to open offices there. In contrast, 500 Kobe does not set up these types of conditions. That’s because we know how things work in Silicon Valley: startups from all over the world get together there, benefit from a lot of know-how and support, get good funding, but after that, might go back to their region and make their business grow there. Kobe also wants to become that kind of hub to support players with this approach,” says Mr. Tanabe.
When Mayor Hisamoto visited Silicon Valley in 2015, he met with 500 Startups’ team to learn about their activities. At the time Kobe had a small accelerator, called Kobe Global Startup Gateway (KGSG), which was the first local government-owned accelerator program in Japan. However, the city recognized that a partnership with 500 Startups would bring the resources they needed to create a more active startup ecosystem. Around that time, 500 Startups’ Ecosystems team was also starting to offer innovation services to entities globally, thanks to the firm’s experience as one of the world’s most active venture capital firms.
500 Startups and Kobe City subsequently launched Batch 1 of 500 Kobe in July 2016. Since then, 500 Kobe’s four editions to date have supported a total of 71 seed-stage startups–selected among more than 800 applications–and they have received mentorship and funding in excess of ¥10 billion (around $93.5 million USD).
Adapting to COVID-19
While this online edition will be a first, it will make up for the lack of on-site events with virtual networking. “If they wish to have some collaborations with life science institutions and experts, we are happy to support this kind of matching and opportunities on an online basis,” said Mr. Tanabe. “We hope that new startups can be born out of our medical business cluster and engage with the world; while startups from all over the world will also come and engage with this cluster.”
Founders in Batch 5 will have access to 1-on-1 online mentoring sessions and lectures from 500 Startups’ network of experts in sales, growth marketing, fundraising, and more. Last but not least, they will become part of a community that will support them well beyond the program’s eight weeks, as will the city of Kobe.
“I am convinced that the spirit of innovation and the ability to create new things comes from curiosity, that same curiosity with which Kobe welcomed the first ships coming to our port 150 years ago,” Mayor Hisamoto said. “We’ll be welcoming this fifth batch of participants in the same spirit: they will bring new ideas in general and new ideas on how to do business, which we are very interested in, and we expect this curiosity to lead to more innovation in the future.”
Kobe is already positioning itself in a post-COVID-19 world, by taking advantage of the fact that it is not as densely populated as Tokyo or Osaka. It is turning Mount Rokko, which falls within city limits, into a smart city and a new hub for startups by 2023. “It would be a perfect location for startups and IT companies. This very creative space in the middle of the forest would be great for nurturing communication between companies, while still permitting social distancing. This would make it a very appropriate environment for working and living in the time of coronavirus,” said Mayor Hisamoto.
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