Japan had been a global leader in robotics for decades, but recently the traditional Japanese leaders have been losing ground to the better-funded and better-publicized firms coming out of America and China.

Mujin is changing that. While iRobot and Boston Dynamics have been grabbing headlines and YouTube views, Mujin has been quietly breaking ground with a series of real-world commercial successes in deploying the next generation of industrial robots.

Perhaps Mujin’s largest achievement to date has been their project for Chinese e-commerce giant JD, in which they developed the world’s first fully-automated logistics warehouse where robots unload the trucks, stock the shelves, and them pick and pack the items for shipment without human intervention.

Today we talk with Issei Takino, who founded Mujin with his co-founder Rosen Diankov, and he explains why Japan looks at robots in a fundamentally different way than Western countries do, and how that will lead to a significant competitive advantage.

It’s an interesting conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Show Notes

  • How to get the ecosystem to adopt your platform
  • Why robots have not yet taken over industry (or the world)
  • How to get your first customers in robotics
  • How to get feedback from reluctant Japanese customers
  • When being a Japanese startup is an advantage
  • How America and Japan view robotics and automation differently
  • Advice for starting companies with multi-cultural teams
  • The critical differences between Japanese and American universities

Links from the Founder

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Welcome to Disrupting Japan, Straight Talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs. I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

Today we’re going to talk about robots, specifically industrial robots.

Now Japan has been a global leader in robotics for decades, but in recent years, Japanese firms seem to be losing ground to the better funded and better publicized companies coming out of the US and China.

Well today we’re going to sit down with the founder of a company that is already starting to change that. Issei Takino founded Mujin with his co-founder Rosen Diankov and they have developed a kind of android for industrial robots, that is to say, it’s a generic operating system that works with almost any hardware and works far more effectively than anything else in the industry.

Issei and I go into some of the details during the interview but perhaps the clearest illustration of Mujin success was a project, they did for Chinese e-commerce giant JD. They developed the world’s first fully automated logistics warehouse. It’s a massive facility but almost no humans work there. Robots unload the trucks, stock the shelves, pick the items for delivery and then pack them and ship them out. It’s hard to explain in an audio podcast, so check out the video. We’ve got a link at the site and it’s really amazing to watch.

Issei and I also talked about how Japan and the West look at robots very differently and how that might be holding America back.

He also shares his experience and advice about founding and running a start-up as a multinational team and we talked about why these kinds of Japanese foreign partnerships are going to become more common and more important in the coming years.

But you know, Issei tells that story much better than I can, so let’s get right to the interview.

Tim: All right! So I’m sitting here with Issei Takino of Mujin, the maker of controllers for industrial robots. So thanks for sitting down with me.

Issei: Oh! It’s my pleasure, thank you, thank you for inviting.

Tim: Well I’m glad after all the technical difficulties that were finally able to sit down and talk. Why don’t you tell everyone, what exactly the Mujin controller is and why it’s important?

Issei: So basically like an illusion control eyes, it’s like Android and like I know IOS in cell phone industries. Right now like, industrial robot, it’s actually needed with the highest demand ever. However you know necessarily what is very hard to use

Tim: Right.

Issei: And then like UI, you know, the interface is everything different. Every maker you know everything different but every maker, so it’s like a harder to use and the robot is not smart, that’s why the application is limited.

Tim: So the Mujin controller is basically an operating system for industrial robots that, sits on top of the basic hardware.

Issei: Yes.

Tim: So to run on any manufacturers robot.

Issei: Yeah, yeah exactly.

Tim: That’s fantastic, I can see why that is great for people, who want to develop applications for industrial robots or the buyers of industrial robots.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: But aren’t the manufacturers worried about this, I mean don’t they look at you and say, wait a minute, this is Mujin is doing to us, what Microsoft did to PC’s, they’re making it commodity hardware.

Issei: Yes, of course, the equipment makers worry. I had to get confidential information from each maker and that was hard in a very beginning of the negotiations. In 2013, there was only one maker you know, which is Denso Wave. Gradually more decided to open up their interface.

Tim: What was the driver for that because there are so many startups, who have an idea similar to Mujin and debt me the idea that, they could provide a generic interface?

Issei: Yes, yes.

Tim: So what was the trigger, that made the manufacturers, stop resisting and start using the Mujin controller?

Issei: So the basically the uniting the interface it’s not enough. That’s not enough motivation for them to the open ¥ their confidential information, right? They try to close their systems, applications, the control language everything.  And we’ll be trying to open it. So this is already a conflict of interest, right?

Tim: Right.

Issei: So in order to make them open, there are conventional information. We need a killer application, right?

Tim: So, so what was your killer app?

Issei: Our killer app is and it’s called a Bin Picking.

Tim: Bin Picking?

Issei: That’s Bin Picking, so called.

Tim: Right and bin picking is been a, one of the most challenging parts of factory automation for a while because it’s, well why don’t you explain, why it’s so difficult?

Issei: So bin picking is very scary. You know, you know there’s a two-part, so why is that can a 3D vision has to detect the parts and then like the robot has to move it, have to take a motion to pick out.  So one is detection and the other is motion. So for human beings you know pick up from in a randomly positioned part is super easy.

Tim: Right.

Issei: It’s like a natural like a, for the robot, for the robot it’s super difficult for them to do it.

Tim: Because you could have a bean of parts that are in, all were you too in different directions.

Issei: So let me explain with the robot, I have to control in this robot. The current way is you have to teach. So usually, you teach the robot and the robot just repeats. Maybe you can sit, as long as you have a very good 3D vision, maybe they can detect the parts but after you detecting the parts, the robot, it has to be taught, so you have to remember, what has to be taught, right? The orientation and the positions everything! It’s almost impossible to know.

Tim: Every possible permutation would be overwhelming.

Issei: Yes overwhelming and it’s impossible to teaching we have before because there are so many possibility of all the motions, right? Motion planning is like a basic technology, which makes a robot think, how to move you know the automatically.

Tim: So it’s motion planning more teaching robots to be goal oriented rather than perform specific motions is that exactly?

Issei: Yes, yes exactly, with all the technologies even though you can detect the parts but you still have to teach, you have to teach there are all the possible motions by yourself. So it’s almost impossible to teach. Well with our system as long as the robot cab see, it can move. You don’t have to teach.

Tim: Right. Okay, well listen before we dig into the technology and competition and the market in general, let’s back up a bit and talk about you?

Issei: Okay.

Tim: You started losing back in 2011 with your co-founder Dr. Rosen Diankov, how did you two meet?

Issei: I’m sorry everybody misunderstood that like, actually I convinced him to now join the Mujin but this is so wrong.

Tim: Okay.

Issei: So actually, I like, we met in Japan. At that time he was working at Intel and Willow Garage, which is one of the most famous robot startups. So he was like super like the opposite character of me. Super different, right? So he graduates the best in his class at UC Berkeley and after that, he entered a Carnegie Mellon University, which is the most famous for robotics.

Tim: Yeah.

Issei: And then, he got PhD, when he was 26 years old and after that, he was working at Intel and Willow Garage, and Microsoft and those company.  At a time they came to Japan for the exhibition and they had a booth and well you know the very smart like genius people. There’s only one Japanese guy in Willow Garage, and he was my mentor in business.

Tim: All right!

Issei: Yeah so he asked me to help out because I, you know, I was working in an Israeli company and I was top sales and he knew I can speak English and also like Chinese and I know the industries, right? So he asked me to come to help. He was like superstraightforwardd guy like, once he believes, he doesn’t, he doesn’t change but like a he somehow believed I could this is a guy, he tries to convince me like you know, let’s do some kind of business. But at that time he was from academia, so he doesn’t have any sense of the business reality.

Tim: Right.

Issei: I mean there are so many guys talking about dream and I run me like at the time, so I was just ignoring him.

Tim: So what, what changed your mind? What convinced you that this was a real business?

Issei: So first, he has to convince me, right? And he was kind of stalking me for the next one year. For the whole year, every month, every a couple of weeks he sent me long emails, and I was you know busy, so I just reply to in two sentences. After 10 months, he sent me another and he said like, he’s going to have postdococ job at Tokyo University, so he’s coming to Japan. It was in the winter, it’s a very cold day and he texted me and can I meet you? And I said no I’m pretty busy. I’m actually, I’m from Osaka. So I was at parents house and relaxing, right? And I replied, “No”, and in a couple in hours later, he sent me a text again, saying “I’m at Osaka Station right now.”

Tim: Jesus, he came down to Osaka?

Issei: Yeah. I already told him I’m in Osaka. So I can’t really give him any excuse.

Tim: That’s yeah, you kind of have to meet someone when they go to that extreme.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah that’s the point where you either have to go and meet them or you have to call the police.

Issei: Yes, I mean that was like almost I call the police. We met in cafe in Osaka Station. He gave me like two hours PhD lecture in motion planning tech, Technology presentations, and I couldn’t understand almost 98%.  But 2% I can understand. He didn’t have a product, he only had the technology potential for a product.

Tim: Sure.

Issei: Right.

Tim: And that’s hard, I mean so many startups fail because they just have great technology and no path to market.

Issei: Yeah, so I decided to make a team with him no because I thought I can be successful with this guy. I make decisions based on the thought that maybe with this guy even we fail, we can do it again, we can start again.

Tim: VC is often talk about betting on the team, right?

Issei: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: But you were kind of betting on the team, when you know you are half the team?

Issei: Yeah, so it’s, it’s very Japanese kind of thing, I guess. It’s not very logical, right?

Tim: No but it seems to be working out. Okay so how did you go from there, where you two obviously really believe in each other? What was the path from that to your first customer because as you mentioned this is an incredibly conservative industry?

Issei: Yeah, I mean, from here, I know the customers so we are thinking of what our story will be.

Tim: How long a time period?  How long did it take from like yes we’re going to build this to yes we’ve sold this?

Issei: It’s almost one and a half a years.

Tim: Well that’s pretty fast.

Issei: I’m sorry like you know the first, I first talk to customers still we didn’t have a product. So after he convinced me, I still don’t know how to use this technology and was the product will be, right? So I started taking him to my customers because I was kind of top sales. I can get into the almost any factories in Japan; in Aichi, Toyota and Denso. So I was taking him and asking around the customers, what kind of applications they want or what kind of problems they really have right now.

Tim: One complaint I hear a lot from Japanese startup founders is that, they have a lot of trouble getting feedback and ideas from potential customers. So even in this conservative industry did you find that the clients were willing to give feedback and give ideas early.

Issei: Um, of course they are like a very conservative, right? Especially when we talk about something that people never had done before, right? So we try to ask like what America’s objectives and their opinions, but I was famous in the metalworking industry but not in the robotics industy, right? He is very famous in academia in robotics but like not in the industries, so even if we go to your ISCAR or FANC or in other companies, they have not heard of that guy.

Tim: Right.

Issei: Right, so I got another ideas. So there are actually branchs in America. Each maker has a branch in America because North America is a big market. So we met with branch managers, they are very important people, always looking for the innovation because it’s a big market but there, but they are much, much more open than Japanese headquarters.

Tim: Okay.

Issei: Because you have more thoughtful atmospheres, if there is something interesting, they will meet. So me and Rosen went to America and I made appointments like, all the presedents in America like Yasukawa, Kawasaki, Mitsubishi, Natsu Fujikoshi. I also met with the plant managers of the Honda and the Toyota.

Tim: Okay, so was it easier to get the appointments in America then in Japan?

Issei: Yeah, when you don’t have any product, yes.

Tim: All right!

Issei: But you know, so we get very good idea from this executives, right? They told us all kinds of problems and shared good ideas, so we started thinking about how we can solve them. We came back to Japan’s and some of those presidents made introductions topeople at the headquarters. They started inviting us for presentations.

Tim: Right.

Issei: Right and they’re like one of the automakers actually offered us to have the booth inside their both  at the Robot International and Robotic Exebition. That was a 2009.

Tim: And that was before you even had a product.

Issei: At the time I still, I didn’t have a product. We only had OpenRaid.

Tim: So in the booth, what were you, what were you advertising in the booth? Just “we exist.”

Issei: Yeah  good question. We didn’t even have a company name because at the time I’m still working as a sales engineer and Rossen is working as a post doc at Tokyo University. We do not even have a company name, so when we exhibit something, we have to have like at least a company name, right?

Tim: It’s useful, yes.

Issei: So before that, when we introduce it’s like Issei and Rosin. It’s very kind of shady.

Tim: Yeah.

Issei: So at that time, we decided to call it Mujin, and then we made our only interface but none of us were  UI engineers, so it was kind of mock-up.

Tim: Right, right.

Issei: Only three buttons were actually working, but that’s a secret.

Tim: Three buttons out of how many?

Issei: About 30. There are many parameters you know and stuff but they didn’t work in there, somehow like an exhibit and actually we exhibited automation optimization simulators and then that some of the companies like they send us so much interest and a cannon was enough becoming first customers. They knew like we are still startups and we didn’t have nothing but today all for like to do some little project, so that was like our beginning.

Tim: Right, so with Cannon it was like a experimental project or like a joint development type of a project?

Issei: Yes, you know Cannon was making a camera, right?

Tim: Right.

Issei: Right, after they automated 95%.

Tim: Oh wow!

Issei: So it’s like a highest automation rating in Japan for camera manufacturer.

Tim: Well yeah and we were talking before and you mentioned that, the rate of factory automation is actually a whole lot lower than most people think.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: So for example with automobiles, what like, what percentage of automobile production is really done by robots?

Issei: Of course it’s going to be different you know depends on like automakers but like, about five percent, only five percent is automated by the, by the robot.

Tim: Okay and so cannon was automating at 95 percent.

Issei: Yeah

Tim: Oh it’s a different product of course.

Issei: Yeah different product but still,

Tim: That’s pretty amazing.

Issei: Yeah it’s pretty amazing like the one problem they had is like, if you automate 95 percent means the 60 robot was working in a one line to make a one in a camera, right? Each robot motions, yeah cycle time actually influence the in production so much. So if five percent or the production rate increase, that’s kind of like give them like a so much of the benefit, right?

Tim: Right, also this gets into, what you’re saying about Mujin’s core advantage, where it can sort of sense, it’s goal-oriented, it can sort of optimize the motions on its own.

Issei: Yes, exactly. So our controllers contain all the possible motions in very short times, then like we can optimize the motion, there like we can we know shorten the cycle time, if we can shorten like a one second out of five seconds, they are like.

Tim: That’s a 20% increase.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: That’s huge.

Issei: Yeah, so cannon operator, they are spending their life time, to think how to shorten the cycle time 0.5 second everyday seriously.

Tim: Has that project moved from a pilot stage and are they actually using it in their factories today?

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: Excellent, well actually another one of your projects that I thought was amazing was the project with JD in China. It is the first fully automated logistics warehouse.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: And in the video is amazing to watch but you talk about that a bit?

Issei: Yeah, yeah, of course like you know so that Cannon stuff I was talking like so far, it’s, it’s a little different. Currently the way of the people is taking like you know let’s say 1000 motions, 2000 motion by hand, it’s hell and with our controller you don’t have to teach anymore. So it’s going to be much, much easier. However people can still do the demo, if they take the time long years, if they want to like you know have a time then exist you can do it.

Tim: Oh yeah that’s the big problem with robotics demos and artificial intelligence demo is something.

Issei: Yeah, so, so I keep thinking like what was the ultimate application that only we can do. I realized that’s the logistics. So you remembers even a one part, one metal part we have to teach 2000, 3000 certain motions by hand, but in logistics like there are so many kinds of situations coming every day, right?

Tim: And what they’re picking isn’t even the same thing every time.

Issei: Yeah 40,000 – 50,000 sometimes 100,000 in the pieces and then guess what like a 200 new stock pieces, it’s coming every day. Who’s going to teach?

Tim: Not possible.

Issei: It’s not possible that’s what you never seen the robot in the warehouse before. We actually up try to apply our technology to do this application the fulfillment, piece picking application and somehow we  it worked.

Tim: Somehow?

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: That’s great. So Mujin’s actually very aggressive in international expansion as well and I find it interesting that a lot of startups coming out of Silicon Valley kind of waved their flag and say we’re San Francisco startups and it is, them kind of this credibility, as a Japan startup does that help you? Does that hurt you?

Issei: Yeah, it actually helps.

Tim: Yeah.

Issei: Yeah, I guess like three advantage that we had you know other Japanese in startups. So one is how we are in a target-rich environment.

Tim: What do you mean?

Issei: Target rich environment?

Tim: Yeah.

Issei: It means like so once you go out at Tokyo then I see so many factories, so many kinds of companies you know, so it’s not only like Sony, Panasonic is there’s so many others, right? So we are Japanese people living in very small country but manufacturing companies density is, I guess the highest here.

Tim: Okay interesting.

Issei: Yeah once you walk around you hit someone and also you, we can see in a so many different kind of industries, even if in the manufacturing with so many industry to there, so many kind of the manufacturing and we can experience, so many like you know the different manufacturing at the same time. So this is one thing, if you go to America’s there are so much manufacturing its big, so manufacturing companies are far apart, right? You see the one big factory outside of Los Angeles but next big factories maybe like 200 kilometers away.

Tim: That’s true in Japan, it’s got a bigger density.

Issei: Yeah bigger density, so this is one thing. So second thing is Japan it’s not very famous for IT, however for the manufacturing we still have in has some respect you know in the world other manufacturing.

Tim: So when you went overseas was the fact that you were a Japanese company helpful or was the fact that you had Japanese manufacturing customers?

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: Did that carry weight?

Issei: Yeah I mean like a Japanese and manufacturing companies, we are super sensitive for the safety and stability and also like a manufacturing qualities and those stuff is like so crazy, right? So strict in Japan. Even I was making like for GM you know the Ford, those parts were from Honda, Toyota. Even one gear, the precision everything is so different people in the waters they thinks, if our products work for manufacturing company in Japan, it means I can we have already passed so many tests already.  We don’t even have to do outside testing.

Tim: So the Japanese customer base is just invaluable for…

Issei: Yeah, yeah and the third thing is customer feedback. This is a very, very Japanese thing but a few the workers, how they feel that their responsibility is very strong, regardless of their salaries once they take the job. They’re all feel so much responsibilities. So once we give them our product and they tested it, right? Of course, there are so many bugs, there are many.  If I asked, asked that the customers in America or some other regions, they just tell us like oh they couldn’t do it and then I tell them again, so how?

Tim: This is really interesting because with most software startups, I hear the opposite story. I hear that American customers provide lots of feedback and lots of advice, where Japanese customers tend to be more demanding and have higher levels of support, so is there something different about the robotics industry?

Issei: Yeah, I mean especially in the manufacturing, you’re like those heavy industries, right? Japan is like a creative but very responsible, I think opposite from IT, you know the work, if you ask field workers in for example like Ford, right? They’re like, chewing gum and like a drinking coffee and I got rambling stuff and they are testing our product and ask me why? “So how’s my product?” “Oh it couldn’t work out, it didn’t go well” and then so what kind of allegations they didn’t go out I asked them? They just tell us like that’s your job to find out.

Tim: Sorry?

Issei: In, in Japan, other Japanese peoples, there’s the some kind of genba. Genba, genba is like a feeling of real field, they have pride as long as they need to you know complain someone they have to clarify why they are complaining. So they prepare for the everything like I saw in these situations, they’re always like you know,

Tim: Document everything?

Issei: Document everything.

Tim: Do you think part of that might be that, the American factory workers view automation as more of a threat than the Japanese workers do? Or they may be like afraid for their jobs or something?

Issei: Oh yeah, I mean that one is clear, that was second reason, unlike Japan they are not very open for robots. The US, even in Europe they have a very strong Hollywood influence so,

Tim: Okay terminator!

Issei: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: Where Japan is more Doraemon.

Issei: Yeah, yeah. So they have like a negative impression for the robot, they think the robot is friendly in the very beginning they think so in the end I know, what it may be like you know coming to fight against you guys.

Tim: Actually that’s, that’s true. It’s not just about like being afraid of their job it is this overall cultural idea that in America in movies the robots almost always the bad guy.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: And in Japanese movies, it’s almost always the good guy.

Issei: Yeah always it’s good guy. Yeah Doraemon, Atom you know even Mechagodzilla.

Tim: Yeah.

Issei: All that’s a human side, I mean this is a very interesting. So I go to the factory, right? In order to automate some of the tasks. I have to ask field workers the working that task, right? So I came for the automations and can you tell me like how you do it, can you show me? And then they don’t have any hesitations. This is a difficult part and you should do this but if I do the same stuff in America maybe have to be so much careful you know not to get stabbed in the back.

Tim: How much of that do you think is this cultural like or dislike for robots and how much of that do you think is the fact that Japanese companies don’t fire staff very easily and the US companies will lay off staff fast, so how much of it is just liking or disliking robots and how much do you think is people are legitimately worried about robots taking their jobs?

Issei: There are like so much cultural things I guess that kind of more than the you know general impression the robot. In Japanese culture we have some kind of beauty that’s all the employee is a family. Once we hire somebody, we shouldn’t like easily lay off people because they are family, they are not employees, so this is like a Japanese beauty, it’s like some nice stuff, someone recommends to you hire somebody, they are no like just employees, yeah one of the families. So means that we cannot fire people, otherwise everybody thinks, oh you are not a good leader.

Tim: Right.

Issei: In the US, maybe like as long as it’s logical you know you leave the people sometimes you become a good deal but in Japan we have a very limited choice actually. We cannot lay off people, so we have to increase efficiency and productivity with the same amount of the people because I don’t want hire again.

Tim: And right now in Japan there’s a real labor shortage.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: So automation is absolutely necessary.

Issei: Yeah, what a background is actually pushing up the demand.

Tim: Yeah.

Issei: You know originally Japanese people’s, we had a good impression of robot and also that we know, our resources always limited. That’s why we knew automations is absolutely necessary for the growth for Japan. So once we automate something, we can make someone thing cheaper and a quality become more stable, everything is going to be so precise. If you get good stuff with a cheaper price of course in a product can be solved in buy more. Then like in Toyota everybody have to make another factories, then we have to hire more. So we knew other cultures as in our experience, we know like automation actually for this more employment, that’s how we know the one yeah, in that’s 40 years

Tim: And do you think that this type of automation is the solution going forward as Japan has a smaller and smaller more population?

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah other than huge amounts of immigration, automation is about the only path forward.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: But Japan also has a huge number of very tiny factories.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: And most of these factories are not automated they’re, people doing the work by hand and robots themselves aren’t expensive, an industrial robot might cost a few million yen and lasts for 20 or 30 years or even longer.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: Is the reason that these small factories aren’t automated just the cost of teaching and training the robots?

Issei: Yeah, I mean like I know the cost of the teaching is the one thing but more likely not teaching, it’s very difficult. It’s not something like anybody can teach, how you do it, it’s like you have some kind of but it’s called pendant, which has a flow of the text and through the text and you have to imagine, how they robot the moves in 3D in your head, it’s super complex, it’s almost impossible.

Tim: It sounds a lot like computer programming back when you had to use punch cards

Issei: Yes seriously, I mean the how we program the robot hasn’t been changed last 40 years.

Tim: Do you think that either using new generation of technology or other companies technology, we’re going to get robots to a point where a small factory run by five or ten people will be able to train their own robots?

Issei: Yeah, yeah, I mean that’s the kind of goal but right now like even a big companies still hard for automation, even they have money. So we have to automate the big companies first, because they have so many resources. They’re, fast and we’re going to go after the small market later.

Tim: All right.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: You mentioned before, one of the unique things about Mujin is because of you and the co-founder, you really have a multinational team.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: So about what, what’s the ratio between like Japanese staff and foreign staff at Mujin?

Issei: So right now in our company has a, 70 employees right now. 80% of the employee are engineers, sixty percent came from all over the world, the rest are  Japanese.

Tim: Okay, how do you handle communication and, and do you have advice for other startups with mixed teams on making sure communication is effective and everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing?

Issei: Yeah basically you have to speak English, this is the one thing, that language in a high hurdle that you have to overcome in Japan but our company’s common language is absolutely English, so if you don’t speak English, you are not hired.

Tim: Do your sales staff speak English at internal sales meetings?

Issei: At staff internal sales meeting we speak like whatever language we like.  Most of the time maybe Japanese but once we get a project we have to talk to someone else and also we have to talk to engineers, they’re not going to be of course speak English. Eventually, when we grow the company to more than 100 people’s I cannot acquire the all English employees, but for now everyone has to speak English..

Tim: Okay.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: Before we wrap up, let me ask you what I call my magic wand question, and that is if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all the education system, the way people think about risk, their attitude towards robotics, anything at all to make things better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?

Issei: Education.

Tim: Education?

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: What would you change about it?

Issei: So especially the University Education, I think like that’s the necessary to be improved.

Tim: How would you improve it?

Issei: Compared to the America or Europe, you know Japanese at the University Education, it’s like when they enter the university I’m pretty sure level is very high but when they graduate for some reason, you know, they are not as hungry as in other countries and also they’re not as smart.

Tim: Well there is that reputation that American Universities are easy to get into and hard to graduate and Japanese universities are really hard to get into but once you do it’s easy to graduate?

Issei: Yeah basically it’s like that. It’s not really like a true for that American University, it just like a Japanese Universities that they only see that test, in a one time test, right? Once they pass the test, they enter the good University and that’s their goal or their life.

Tim: And they have four years to just kind of enjoy themselves.

Issei: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: Before real life starts.

Issei: Yeah, US schools they see like whole high schools experience like GPA and the activities, and everything, right? Japan’s only see the test, one time test and that’s everything and the name is very important. So if you have Tokyo University or the Keio University, then it’s almost like your job is decided.

Tim: So what should they be doing? Should they just be studying their subjects much harder, should they be trying to collaborate with different departments ideally, what kind of curriculum or activity should they be doing it in Japan?

Issei: Yeah so there are two things I think, so one thing is that the University have to see like a whole activities, as a whole, how they you know lived, when they’re in the high school. Second thing is that curriculum and also like that they have to teach in a critical thinking in Japan because a Japan’s beauty is whatever you are told and then you shouldn’t have a question. This is like there is a some kind of in a weird notion in the bottom of the cultures. For example when you have a lecture in the University and then teachers ask you in the very last, do you have any questions? Japanese student barely raise their hand, even one people, one person raised their hand that’s a lot today. If you do it in America anybody raise a hand, right?

Tim: So are they afraid to show that they don’t understand the subject or they just think it’s not necessary to understand it more deeply?

Issei: I mean they don’t think, they never doubt, they are taught to ask if it’s right or not?

Tim: Okay, their job is just accepting information and learning the one right answer.

Issei: Yeah, how to obey, how to like carry out your mission. It’s like it’s a samurai. It’s very important. We don’t really like doubt what we are given.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s a good point. I, I think University would be a good place to kind of break that idea that there’s always one right answer and your job is just to find it.

Issei: Yeah it’s like, I’m asking questions, right? I’m not asking your opinion, just do whatever it is I said, that’s what like a Japanese this it’s more like a military, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Issei: Well there’s a good point and a bad point. it’s a good point like you know once someone say something, everyone going in one direction without any questions, so it’s very quick. Once the direction’s right, then  we can actually walk very efficiently.

Tim: Yeah, it’s incredibly efficient if you know exactly where you want to go.

Issei: Yeah.

Tim: But I guess in Japan the problem is, we’re not sure where we want to go right now.

Issei: Yeah, but still like in the daily beauty, everybody follows the rule, right? So this is a good part but in education you know for the innovation, see that’s not good part programming, software engineering those you have to do like critical things all the time.

Tim: Right. Do you do you think that’s changing now?

Issei: It’s going to be changing. Now changing but still very slow but you know we started having success stories around the Universities, right?

Tim: Well the University of Tokyo has produced a huge number of startups in the last four or five years. So at least some people are changing the way they’re thinking.

Issei: Yeah, still Tokyo University and I think second was like Keio or Waseda, right? but difference between Tokyo and second is so huge still.

Tim: Really?

Issei: Yeah and also a difference is that students study harder rather than playing around. So I think the curriculum has to be harder, they have to take attendance too. In America, attendance is taken and also curriculum is a very hard. Professors will fail you with zero mercy.

Tim: American professors will fail you without hesitation.

Issei: Yeah without hesitation, but they are like a really nice person, right?  “Hey, it’s okay. Study is not the only your life.” blah, blah, blah, right? But Japan the teacher will always pass you. This is really bad!

Tim: Yeah it’s not good preparation for life is it.

Issei: Yeah, so University is actually valued by how much a graduate student is contributed to society, right? Japanese people’s when they enter University have so much abilities but within four years they are spoiled and a graduate, they don’t have much power to fight against smart people and they settle in Japan.

Tim: We need to keep that momentum going from high school, which is really hard and just keep that momentum all through University.

Issei: Yeah that’s a difference like you know we really have to like change education. Education seems to be like long run on a project but actually I guess shortest way to improve the country.

Tim: It’s fixing the universities.

Issei: Yeah, that’s why most of the people, who did the really good startups are either from Tokyo University or have experience outside Japan.

Tim: All right, well listen Issei thank you so much for sitting down with me I really appreciate it.

Issei: Is it okay? I didn’t even talk about like JD stuff.

… and we’re back.

Issei’s story about, how he worked to find his early adopters is interesting. Although Mujin was a Japanese startup trying to sell its innovations to Japanese companies, he had to go to America and talk to the American subsidiaries.

Now some of this can be explained by the fact that it’s easier to get appointments at smaller offices rather than headquarters but that’s not all of it. In fact there’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here, Japanese enterprises believe that American companies are more innovative and they very often overlook the innovation that is happening right here in Japan. It’s a very similar sentiment to what Takuma Iwasa of Cerevo told us last year, that even though most of his customers were in Japan, he only exhibited his products at international Expos because the Japanese press paid far more attention to them.

In any event, Mujin’s customers knew a good thing when they saw it, and being a Japanese startup or at least having Japanese industrial customers is now working to their advantage. Where companies worldwide assume that if Mujin can meet the demanding requirements of Japanese firms, Mujin will be able to meet theirs as well .

And although we didn’t really dive into it that deeply, getting an industry to move from their proprietary software and standardize on your platform, is something that many startups a dream about doing but it is profoundly difficult to pull off in practice.

The fact that Mujin has convinced so many of the big robotics manufacturers to do so is proof that their product is a huge leap forward. You are going to hear a lot about Mujin in the future, they’re doing something that no one else in the world is able to do and they’re just starting to go global.

If you’ve got thoughts on robotics and automation Issei and I would love to hear from you. So come by disruptingJapan.com/show 125  and tell us about it. And hey, please also follow Disrupting Japan on Twitter and Facebook or even join our LinkedIn group. If you want to ask a question there, I guarantee you I’ll respond.

But most of all thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.