On January 27, 2023, TechBBQ and JETRO held the first spin-off event “TechBBQ Sapporo” in Japan. The one-day event brought together various players from Nordic and Sapporo startup ecosystems at the historical Sapporo TV tower.

January 31, 2022 / 10 min. read

TechBBQ Sapporo
Bridging the Nordic and Sapporo Startup Ecosystems

TechBBQ comes to Sapporo for the first time

On January 27, 2023, TechBBQ and JETRO held the first spin-off event “TechBBQ Sapporo” in Japan. The one-day event brought together various players from Nordic and Sapporo startup ecosystems at the historical Sapporo TV tower.

TechBBQ Sapporo aims to be a bridge between Sapporo and Scandinavia by providing space for learning about the startup ecosystems in Sapporo and Scandinavia, looking for business partners, meeting global tech talent, and getting inspired.

The event featured panel discussions on the Nordic and Sapporo/Hokkaido ecosystems, talk sessions by leading Japanese and international figures at the forefront of their respective industries, including AI and Agri Food tech, and a pitch event by up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) is a government-affiliated organization that works to promote trade and investment between Japan and the rest of the world. JETRO supports the global expansion of Japanese startups, promotes open innovation between Japanese and foreign companies, and works to build relationships with ecosystem builders around the world to globalize the Japanese startup ecosystem.

What is TechBBQ Sapporo all about?

Photo: PR/ TechBBQ Sapporo

Sapporo's efforts with the Nordic countries

In the Nordic countries, industry, government, and academia work closely together and have produced many innovative startups aiming for the global market.

In the context of the startup ecosystem, there are many similarities between the Nordic countries and Sapporo. For example, the Nordic region's distance from major European cities such as London and Paris is similar to the relationship between Tokyo and Sapporo in Japan. Another similarity is the cool climate and proximity to nature.

This suggests that Sapporo has much to learn from the Nordic region in order to create startups that will go on to global success. In recent years, various initiatives in collaboration with Finnish and Danish institutions and organizations have started in Sapporo.

Our colleague and the Head of Program at TechBBQ, Kay Michelsen, was on the ground and she chatted with some of the participants from both ecosystems to share their experiences and learnings from TechBBQ Sapporo.

Interview with Motoki Harigaya, Startup Project Leader at JETRO

Our TechBBQ audience would love to know more about the work that you do at JETRO. Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Motoki Harigaya and I'm from JETRO Hokkaido. My role is to bring foreign startups to Hokkaido and help them develop their businesses here. One other thing that I do is collaborate with foreign organizations, just like TechBBQ to create a stronger ecosystem in Hokkaido. Basically, my role was communicating and designing the TechBBQ Sapporo event itself.

Can you share with us what values, ideas, or learnings from the Nordic ecosystem inspired you the most at this event?
One of the things that I realized about the people in the Nordic ecosystem is that they are so open to discussing with others. There is a sense of community and startup-minded people are always there in the ecosystem, while there are not many people in Hokkaido who have this international entrepreneurial mind. So we would like to bring that DNA into Hokkaido by collaborating with TechBBQ.

What kind of similarities make it a good business fit with the Nordics and Hokkaido specifically?
To start with, our market size is quite similar and of course the weather. The second similarity I find interesting is that the Nordics are quite far away from major European metropolitans such as London or Paris, which is kind of the same situation between Sapporo and Tokyo.

We could utilize the knowledge that the Nordics have to expand our ecosystem. Because smaller ecosystems like ours should be collaborating with each other so that we can make differences and grow stronger.

If you could say one of the main strengths of the Sapporo ecosystem already today, what would it be?
I would say industries like agritech, travel tech, and space tech are the strongest factors. One of the conventional strengths is the agriculture industry in Hokkaido. While nation’s calorie-based food self-sufficiency ratio is something over 30%, while Hokkaido’s ratio is over 200%. So Hokkaido is like an agriculture hub in Japan making significant contributions to a stable food supply in Japan.

Because the conventional industry is also very strong you will probably have a good market and support in Hokkaido. I would definitely say this is the strength of Hokkaido which is not present in Tokyo. So it differentiates.

We also have been working on building the ecosystem since 2016 and what we basically did achieve by now is that we are very close together. This is clearly one of the best perks that a smaller combat ecosystem has, therefore we would like to expand on this and continue building the community and connections much stronger.

What can be done to take where you are to the next level?
We need to align ourselves, that's the main thing. I feel that the mission of each organization is slightly different, so we are not working as one ecosystem, but we're working quite individually. Events like TechBBQ or any other events that are happening in Hokkaido should be made so we can align ourselves and set the same goal with other organizations.

What do you hope to come out of this event?
One of many things that I realized is that if this event was organized just by Japanese people, that networking would not happen. Usually, people would listen to the discussions, maybe talk to familiar faces and then just leave.

TechBBQ Sapporo was eye-opening in that sense because the networking room was full of people and seeing Japanese people being open to talking to international attendees was quite surprising, in a positive way. Seeing so many people who are interested in this ecosystem and such a high number of participants, it completely exceeded our expectations.

Would you like to share any last thoughts with the TechBBQ audience?
I would definitely love investors to come to Hokkaido because we have a big potential and now it is time to utilize it. It will be definitely a perk to be the first ones coming, having 40 universities alone in Hokkaido and with the support of the city and governmental organizations for the startup ecosystem.

Lastly, I would like to add this event was so successful that we are really looking forward to doing the next edition. We’d love to keep this collaboration going. Hopefully, the Sapporo delegation will be seeing you soon at TechBBQ 2023.

Interview with Mette Hoberg, CEO at The Link & Startup Aarhus

Q&A with Mette Hoberg

Can you tell us more about the work that you do at the Link and Startup Aarhus?
My name is Mette and I'm the CEO of the Link and Startup Aarhus. The Link is a non-profit organization working towards a strong startup ecosystem in Aarhus. We do so by connecting all the stakeholders within the startup ecosystem to create stronger collaborations in Aarhus and by showcasing the ecosystem through media and our branding platform startupaarhus.com. We also link the ecosystem internationally to trends, corporates, investors, and organizations like TechBBQ.

Coming to TechBBQ Sapporo, what would you say was the most surprising thing you learned about the entrepreneurial culture here?
I knew that the culture is very different from the Nordics in general, but I had not really previously thought of it in a startup context. The fact that you're not allowed to stand out from the crowd is really a challenge in starting a company and if you’re not allowed to be different and provide something new that is really difficult to have a strong startup ecosystem.

What also struck me was the fact that people will bully you or make fun of you if you fail with the first company. Most of us working with startups know, that it is extremely difficult to start a company and most founders will be successful the second or the third time. So if that were to happen here and people will have to close down their first company and then get so much harassment for it, would they ever dare to do it again? Probably not. So that's really something again that needs to be addressed if we are to move forward here.

Lastly, I was a bit surprised when I was told by one of the university local startups here, that the university will own the IP rights. Because working with startups here it's still such a new thing the whole tech transfer office and the whole setup of getting your IP rights is really slow and difficult. So there are definitely some structural changes that will need to be looked at if the ecosystem really is to flourish.

Do you see any similarities between the Aarhus and Sapporo ecosystems?
There are definitely many similarities, like not being a capital or having a specific focus for instance food and agriculture. We are in the exact same boat and we want to grow.

So there are many things that we have in common. But then again, the structure around it sounds as if they have some more challenges in Sapporo than what we face in Denmark.

I am not saying that we've got an ideal system in Denmark, but all universities do have incubation areas, that have a structure around the tech transfer setups. All the support schemes that we do have in Denmark put us in a slightly better situation.

How do you think Sapporo can address these challenges or what has been done so far in order for them to take it to the next level?
I think we have some of the same challenges that we need to also tackle in Denmark and it is about changing the mindset. We don't brag, we don't want to say or you can't say you're better than anybody else in the whole sort of Janteloven context.

We need to work on it and that is also what we do with the Link in Aarhus, temporarily. We work to help the founders to get their stories out, to get big events to all so that founders can say and see that we have a vibrant system where people actively coming together because it gives them that sort of hope and space where they can brag a bit more, say a bit more and talk about their vision with others.

So I think the same goes for Sapporo, having a partnership with TechBBQ gives them that extra wind. It sounds like they've got it all rolling a little bit. So that’s amazing.

Can you share your thoughts about the outcome of the TechBBQ Sapporo event?
The event has managed to get a broad group of people together both local and international, so well done for gathering all of them. It's all about making those connections, and getting to know people in this startup ecosystem, and once you meet you are all eager to help each other and share knowledge. So I think the event was spot on with this.

The time spent with TechBBQ is always good because then we continue to getting to know each other even better. Being here in Sapporo made it clear, that just like TechBBQ, there are so many other organizations that are eager to do similar things, and support each other’s growth.

Interview with Nicklas Pavoncelli, TechBBQ Sapporo Initiator & former Global Partnership Manager at TechBBQ

Q&A with Nicklas Pavoncelli

How do you feel about the TechBBQ Sapporo event?
It has been great and it has gone beyond our expectations. We were let's say a bit clueless about how the Japanese team was working because of course we were not here and everything was coordinated digitally from far different zones.

I feel that all the cooperation ran smoothly and I guess you can agree on the fact that we were also ourselves. Our minds were blown by their level of preparation and detail-orientedness, cooperation between the different institutions that were involved, Jetro and Startup City Sapporo.

So all in all, I don't have any negative notes for us for being a first-time event in the region, it's very successful.

Can you give a brief context of how this cooperation was built?
When I started two years ago, I was of course insecure that this conversation could lead us today to a historical TV tower. Let's say, it's always a mix of factors and it's a mix of luck but also selecting the right people.

It started as an umbrella meeting on a startup day in Tartu, Estonia’s second biggest city. So in a place that is rather an unbeaten path and for some reason, not many people go, especially from our area of Copenhagen and in Denmark.

I’ve always been attracted by smaller events as opposed to big events because there you get the time to dive deep and see if this person is reliable and that I want to spend my time with. There I met Kotoro, who kept asking me how did Denmark do it and what should they do in case they want to open and build their own ecosystem.

So this cooperation did not fall from the sky, I did my fair share because I felt that I was comfortable these guys were serious and the team was competent not just in skills but it is also motivated in passion.

What do you think and how do you think events like this can enable the ecosystems for growth?
By exactly setting the rules of the game, meaning that you come to TechBBQ you don't come here just to flat, it's mainly about you coming to TechBBQ because you want to meet, you want to connect and you have a shared passion, interest, and dream with other like-minded people. A lot of people come also by simple curiosity because they want to know more about what other people do.

Maybe take their first steps, they maybe have the secret wish of curiosity of becoming a founder entrepreneur but they don't know where to start and it's by getting close to like-minded people that are trying to achieve the same results as us that pushes you.

What's one thing that surprised you about TechBBQ Sapporo?
What mostly surprised me was to see the local Japanese organizations both public and private have come together with so much interest because they know that if they don't change the course, Japan will suffer greatly as a society because it will decrease its the overpopulation and people still do things that don't make them happy and they're starting to recognize them.

And in that sense I saw that we don't see much about Japan from our side of the world, we know that they are there, but we don't have a deep connection.

What can you learn going forward in this sort of entrepreneurial world from Sapporo?
Well, that community is a king. What really matters is people and that's sort of a brick foundation of both society and also market or economy is nothing more than a transaction between people. So somehow we got confused that money is the sole goal, but it's more about making life for the people that are changing money better.

Lastly, I have gained a better perspective on the difference between people and how, despite the differences, we have rather similar interests, wishes, and passions.

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