Earlier this Spring, two of our intrepid students, Yuina and Yuka (both Class of 2021, Japan), decided to take part in a startup challenge organized by Startup Weekend, which is part of the world-renowned Techstars family of startup programs. This edition of Startup Weekend took place near Shibuya Station in the heart of Tokyo and the theme of the event was Tokyo Environment and Energy.
Knowing the theme in advance had given the girls some time to prepare their individual pitch ideas, but before they would have any chance to pitch they needed to actually make it to the venue, which was their first challenge of the weekend. Once Friday came, the Grade 10 duo put on their Amazing Race shoes and immediately after classes embarked on their scramble to get from Karuizawa to Tokyo. A few tight transfers onto ever more tightly-packed trains they managed to arrive just before the sessions began at 6pm in the evening. Then, the adventure truly began.
The first day was the pitch frenzy. Yuina and Yuka each came prepared with an idea, but after discovering they had stumbled upon a similarly star idea, quickly decided to combine their efforts and set out to recruit further support from the 30 or so participants. This whittling down of ideas to the best few is part of the Startup Weekend approach and it challenges participants to not only be good at coming up with ideas, but also in winning people over—a crucial part of the startup experience. By the end of the day, the two had doubled their number to a team of 4 with one new member being a more experienced adult and the other a university student with a strong technical background. They had also chosen a name: Gaia!
To address the Tokyo Environment and Energy theme, Gaia’s mission was to promote “Flexitarian” diets, which are sometimes referred to as semi- or casual-vegetarian. Like veganism and vegetarianism, proponents of the flexitarianism say that reducing meat consumption is more environmentally sustainable. But the advantage that flexitarianism is its relative anonymity in Japan as the girls theorized that veganism and vegetarianism struggle to break through due to long-held biases against them in Japan. So, on Day 2, the team sought to do some market research to bolster their theory and, after pounding the Shibuya sidewalks for a few hours and interviewing over 100 representatives of the target market of late-teen-to-early-twenties females, they had some powerful data to back them up.
Day 2 also featured mentoring sessions, which helped Gaia refine its business model, which by then included partnerships with like-minded businesses, who would offer discounts and other promotions to Gaia members. The mentors also offered financing guidance and advice on other ways to fine-tune their approach.
After an additional round of market research at the Aoyama Farmer’s Market that reinforced their earlier findings, Gaia focused their efforts on their app prototype and preparation for the final pitch. Their turn to present finally came late in the afternoon on Sunday and after an intense round of Q&A and deliberation from the judges, Gaia was named the winner of this edition of Startup Weekend in Tokyo.
For Yuina and Yuka, Startup Weekend Tokyo was a tremendously positive experience. So much so that they have committed to hosting an upcoming edition of Startup Weekend on the UWC ISAK Japan campus. The event will run September 13th through 15th and registration will open in late June or July (this event will be held in Japanese only).
Since Startup Weekend ended, Yuina and Yuka have continued to work with their founding members of Gaia and hope to continue developing it from a fledgling idea into a full-fledged business. For Team Gaia, their success at Startup Weekend was simply their first hurdle on the road to success.