Seattle Tech Delegation Heads to Japan, Seeking A.I. Business

Eleven Seattle-area tech companies are heading to Japan this week, carrying with them this region’s credentials in artificial intelligence in hopes of winning new business.

The visit follows five meetups organized in Seattle over the last two years in which representatives of large Japanese corporations have heard pitches and discussed business deals with Northwest companies.

The exchange was organized by the Washington State Department of Commerce and Innovation Finders Capital, a Japan-focused business development and investment firm based in Kirkland, WA.

The participating companies pay their own fare to participate in the four-day visit to Tokyo, during which they will pitch to Japanese industry groups and corporations, including a major telecom services association; Dentsu Group, an advertising giant; auto parts manufacturer Denso Group; Deloitte Consulting Japan; and SoftBank Group, says Tom Sato, co-founder of Innovation Finders Capital.

“Japan has been a good market for Seattle-based companies,” Sato said, citing “huge business” done by the likes of Microsoft (for which Sato worked in the 1980s signing up Japanese PC manufacturers to license early versions of Windows), Amazon, Boeing, Starbucks, Costco. “Obviously, we would want to extend that success to the newly developing companies here.”

A few other Washington-Japan business and research deals Xconomy has covered over the years:

Despite that list of corporate names and a history of trade, Japanese businesses tend to think of Silicon Valley rather than Seattle when it comes to technology innovation, and A.I. in particular, Sato says.

“In terms of publicity, there’s much more to do,” he says. “We are having to constantly remind the Japanese that Microsoft and Amazon, two of the biggest A.I. platform providers, are based here in Seattle. This will be a good opportunity to promote Seattle as a de facto A.I. capital of the world.”

Sato says he is also encouraging Japanese businesses to set up engineering and product development centers in the Seattle area to take direct advantage of the technology workforce here.

Tom Sato, co-founder of Innovation Finders Capital.

The focus on A.I. is a reflection of the immense interest in the technology area among the large Japanese companies that Sato’s firm has surveyed over the last two years. “They’re from all walks of industry—advertising, manufacturing, finance, e-commerce, ICT, whatever—they all have the idea that this new generation of technology is going to change their own industry, so they’re looking for innovation in this area,” he says.

The goal, Sato says, is for the Seattle-area companies to come away with new customers, distribution deals, alliances, technology licensing arrangements, and sometimes investment—anything that would “generate cash flow for these startups.”

“This is not a sightseeing tour,” he adds.

Sato says many such deals are in the works, but most are still covered by non-disclosure agreements. One exception is DefinedCrowd, which provides crowdsourcing-as-a-service to aid in training machine learning models. The company participated in the Microsoft Accelerator in Seattle, and is backed by investors including the Amazon Alexa Fund and Sony, after meeting with the latter company’s executives through the earlier meetups and trips to Japan, Sato says.

The other companies participating in the Japan visit are:

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