Japan, the world’s third biggest Internet market in terms of web users (following China and the US), disappointed at last year’s TechCrunch40 conference with no company from Nippon presenting in San Francisco at all. But this year, the country bounced back, with a total of three companies having been selected as TechCrunch50 finalists (Opentrace, Tonchidot, Gazopa) and two others as DemoPit companies (Adlibe and Mulodo).
These five companies helped show a worldwide audience that development of innovative web services is not geographically limited to the US. TechCrunch50 as a whole turned out to be a very international event, the result of TechCrunch specifically appreciating applications from abroad. Israel, for instance, had a particularly strong showing. Not only were there more start-ups based outside of North America presenting as TechCrunch50 finalists, DemoPit companies and exhibitors, but there was also a significant increase in international attendees: Taking Japan as an example, the number of visitors coming to San Francisco rose from a handful in 2007 to a few dozen this year.
These are the three Japanese start-ups that presented on stage this year:
Opentrace by Rinen
Opentrace, an enterprise solution created by three-man start-up Rinen, describes itself as a “massive, world-wide database of product materials”. The site aims at contributing to lower the impact of CO2 emissions through a tracking system that encompasses various kinds of products, from food to air planes. The final goal is to become a “green” Wikipedia for users wanting to investigate the environmental impact of any product on the planet.
Opentrace breaks down the supply chain of consumer goods and other products into sequences, analyzing how much of a burden each step in the production and distribution process causes for the environment. The final result is presented as a visual map or list on the site.
Manufacturers can use the service to find out how green their products are by inputting information usually found on purchase slips. Opentrace encourages companies to use the results on product labels, empowering consumers to make buying decisions based on environmental considerations. The service is free to use.
Sekai Camera by Tonchidot
Tonchidot‘s CEO Takahito Iguchi delivered a headstrong presentation on Sekai Camera (World Camera in Japanese), an iPhone-only social tagging app, which was surely one of the most futuristic products presented at TechCrunch50.
Here is how it works: The application makes use of the iPhone’s camera, linking visual data, locations and information. Information is displayed in the form of tags, which pop up when the camera captures a previously tagged object. One example: iPhone owners wanting to know the more about a painting exhibited in a museum can point their handset at it, after which Sekai Camera would immediately present the corresponding Wikipedia article or any other user-generated information.
Although company representatives dodged questions about how (and if) the app actually works, Tonchidot achieved one thing: Sekai Camera was one of the most talked about and controversial products of the whole conference. Iguchi gave one-word responses to detailed questions from the panel of judges, such as “imagination,” “join us, and “We have a patent.” When one judge suggested he would soon sell to Google, he won over the crowd by raising his forefinger in objection and saying, “Never!”
Despite the antics, having lived in Japan for four years now, I am confident to say it’s highly unlikely a Japanese company would dare to present a hoax to such a large audience and star-studded jury (I heard rumors like this many times following the presentation).
Price and availability of Sekai Camera are unknown at this point. See my previous post for more information.
The Gazopa presentation proved that foreign web companies interested in taking part in next year’s conference can overcome language and cultural barriers if they are willing to. Among the Japanese participants, CEO Hideki Kobayashi’s delivered one of the most professional performances, balancing between “Americanization” and a Japanese flavor.
His company aims at redefining image search through a self-developed technology that uses features from a picture to retrieve similar images. Results are mainly filtered through analyzing the color and shape of the object pictured.
Gazopa’s key feature is that no search terms have to be entered: Just upload a picture or right-click on an image you found on the web to let the service find similar ones. For example, if you are unhappy with the color of a T-Shirt you like the design of, Gazopa will help you find it in a different color.
Waget by Adlib
The service is geared towards people wanting to retrieve information on shops and restaurants in the vicinity they are in. Users are supposed to email the telephone number of the venue they want to know more about to Waget to get its URL, coupons, a map and other data.
People can also add info themselves to the database, i.e. in the form of opinions and recommendations (this feature was not available when I accessed the fixed Internet site). The service is very similar to a search in Google Maps on a mobile phone. From a business perspective, Waget is essentially a marketing tool for restaurant and shop owners. Users can recommend restaurants to friends, while restaurant owners are able to reward active promoters with e-coupons or special offers emailed to them (the system identifies so-called premier customers through their cell phone numbers). Waget keeps a percentage of the revenue generated via these transactions.
Deckkr by Mulodo
Deckkr is the name of a Firefox 3 extension, which Tokyo-based Mulodo officially released on the first day of TechCrunch50. The tool is supposed to enhance the browsing experience for Firefox users through a pop-up window, which can be accessed on any given web site to access related information, search the web, bookmark, use Twitter etc. without navigating away from the page (you can read my full review here).