Rakuten Opens New Research Centers In Boston And Singapore

Rakuten, Japan’s largest e-commerce company, has opened two new branches of its research center in Boston and Singapore. Called the Rakuten Institute of Technology, the organization already has branches in New York, Tokyo, and Paris that not only support the company’s research and development, but also its efforts at worldwide expansion.

The two new branches will work with universities and other organizations to recruit researchers. One of its first projects is finding scientists who can help Rakuten figure out how to use data from Viki, the Singapore-based video streaming service it bought in 2013 as part of an ongoing effort to expand outside of Japan.

Other companies snapped up by Rakuten include messaging app Viber, e-commerce businesses Buy.com and Ebates, e-book platform Kobo, digital content distributor OverDrive and, potentially, online content company PopSugar.

The acquisition spree won’t slow down anytime soon, as Rakuten is planning to raise $1.5 billion through a share offering to finance more purchases.

The wide range of companies bought by Rakuten are meant to turn it into a global Internet company that may rival Amazon, but Rakuten still needs to figure out how to leverage its rapidly growing portfolio.

The Rakuten Institute of Technology is supposed to speed up the process. For example, its New York branch not only conducts natural language processing research to support the company’s “globalization,” but also communicates with its American subsidiaries.

The Rakuten Institute of Technology Singapore will focus on understanding user behavior and be led by Dr. Ewa Szymanska, a psychologist whose specialities include consumer decision making. The Boston branch’s leader is data scientist Dr. Ankur Datta, who will oversee research in machine learning, deep learning, artificial intelligence, and big data.

Rakuten Institute of Technology Boston’s work is especially interesting because it can not only help Rakuten scale up its existing Internet services more quickly, but also let it develop new technologies to compete with products created by companies like Skype and Amazon, which use deep learning and machine-learning to power its real-time translation tool and facial recognition system respectively (Rakuten is already an investor in a visual recognition startup called ViSenze).