Culturally, Japan is very risk-averse, which is not ideal for entrepreneurs. But things are changing here.

Coming of age in the age of social media, Hiro Maeda '09 (computer science and economics) has long been fascinated by the intersection of technology, commerce and social interaction in which online businesses operate. Inspired by the success of Facebook and YouTube, Maeda, a Tokyo native, began building social media websites and mobile applications in his Bucknell dorm room.

Maeda's passion for tinkering with technology and creating enterprises makes him well suited to his current goal: spurring a new wave of Internet entrepreneurship in Japan. "Culturally, Japan is very risk-averse, which is not ideal for entrepreneurs," he says. "But things are changing here. The recent success of Silicon Valley companies has had a huge impact in Japan, and our entrepreneurial community is growing."

Forgoing more stable opportunities at U.S. tech companies, Maeda headed back to Japan after graduation in 2009 to help launch Tokyo-based startup incubator Open Network Lab, which provides office space, mentoring and funding to Japanese Internet startup companies. To date, 18 companies have graduated from Open Network Lab, including successful enterprises like, which allows users to send gifts via Twitter; and Qlippy, a social media platform for e-readers. Maeda anticipates working with an additional 10 to 14 ventures in the next year.

"At our first event for entrepreneurs, only 10 people showed up. Six months later we drew crowds of more than 200 people," he says, noting that several other Tokyo incubators have popped up since Open Network's inception.

To encourage transparency within the incubator, companies must share important business details like revenues, marketing tactics and strategies for attracting new users. "We are trying to seed the type of open culture that has served Silicon Valley so well, and I think it's working. I'm confident that in the next few years we'll have developed a few entrepreneurs that will really influence the economy in Japan," Maeda notes.

Paradoxically, the devastating earthquake that hit Japan in 2011, as well as the dismal employment rates for recent college grads, have helped to encourage entrepreneurship by "helping Japanese people to become more comfortable with uncertainty," Maeda says. "And uncertainty, of course, is what building a startup company is all about."

Posted March 2013