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University nurtures entrepreneurial students

TOKYO >> With more and more young people aspiring to start innovative companies to tackle social problems, universities have begun teaching students entrepreneurial skills. The aim: to nurture a workforce that can revolutionize the business world.

“I might not have been able to think about starting a business myself if it wasn’t for my university’s support,” said Shonosuke Ishiwatari, 29, looking back on the assistance and training he received from the University of Tokyo. Ishiwatari is the chief executive officer of Mantra Inc., a startup established in January 2020 that provides an artificial intelligence-based translation tool for manga.

The device detects dialogue and other text in manga and translates them into foreign languages, starting with English and Chinese. Some publishers and manga apps are already using the tool.

Ishiwatari researched computer analysis of words and the daily dialogue of people while he was in graduate school. He was toying with the idea of becoming an academic researcher. Then he heard a lecture by a former student who had launched a startup.

Ishiwatari had been a big manga fan since childhood. When his family lived in China, he found that Japanese manga helped him build friendships. He became aware of the many websites that carried pirated manga, and he realized that if manga could be distributed globally more efficiently, it would help to curb the problem.

When Ishiwatari considered starting his business, he faced formidable hurdles specific to manga. Dialogue in manga is sometimes split into multiple parts, and the subject of a sentence may be dropped. Those unconventional constructions made it difficult for AI to correctly perceive the context of the words and translate the texts.

Ishiwatari worried that if he started the business, he would fail.

What pushed him forward?

“I thought it would be a lot of fun, and that (helped me overcome) my fear,” he said.

In 2018, when he was in his third year of working toward his doctorate, Ishiwatari learned how to start a business from scratch at the University of Tokyo Entrepreneur Dojo.

He joined the university’s Summer Founders Program, where participants worked on developing new products and surveying consumer needs. In 2019, he received nearly $44,000 in funding from UTokyo Innovation Platform Co., a venture capital firm founded by the university.

Now, Mantra is getting ready to start a program for customers who study English through manga.

“My goal is to use technology to reduce language barriers and make the world a happier place,” Ishiwatari said.

The University of Tokyo, which launched the Entrepreneur Dojo in 2005, has been a pioneer among Japanese universities in offering entrepreneur training and support. As of 2020, 4,000 students have walked through its doors, and the program has produced more than 100 entrepreneurs.

The program offers a diverse range of support in addition to its courses, such as incubation facilities that assist startups. About 430 new business ventures have emerged from the university’s efforts.

“As the number of graduates who become successful entrepreneurs increases, there will be a virtuous cycle in which students who have seen them succeed will aspire to start a business themselves,” said Shigeo Kagami, deputy director general of the University of Tokyo’s Division of University Corporate Relations.

To help reinforce the school’s efforts, Japan’s government has supported business ventures coming from universities.

According to a survey in fiscal 2020 by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, the number of startups that originated in universities are at an all-time high of 2,905.

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