As a kid growing up in the 80s, I didn’t need to look far to notice the innovations coming from Japan. From the Sony Walkman to my Casio calculator for school, the term “made in Japan” stood for quality and innovation. Today, Japan is still driving technology breakthroughs such as the use of AI to boost Japan’s declining fertility rates to the use of robot assistants in nursing homes and offices. But while some tech and manufacturing companies in Japan may be continuing their heritage of innovation, Japan’s oldest and largest trading companies — the sōgō shōshas — are needing to navigate their way towards a more innovative future.
Silicon Valley Meets Tokyo
I’m sure you don’t think of startup creation when you think of a sōgō shōsha, the very large vertically integrated trading companies that are unique to Japan. They are known for their global networks primarily running logistics, finance and risk management for the businesses they manage or invest in. The sōgō shōshas have been facing pressure on their business model since the 1970s, when manufacturers began cutting them out as “middlemen.” Today, in the age of digital transformation, these large conglomerates are looking for new ways to create value and new business opportunities. Mitsui & Co., one of the largest sōgō shōshas in Japan, operates a global network of 507 companies with 133 offices worldwide. This global network spans across 65 countries and employs more than 45,000 employees. It is an investment and trading powerhouse to be sure, but not exactly known for creating businesses from scratch or from “zero-to-one” — until Moon Creative Lab.
Moon Creative Lab was founded by Mitsui in 2018 with the vision of helping Mitsui move from “connecting” to “creating.” It’s a bold vision considering that Mitsui has been “connecting” large-scale investments for large-scale projects for decades — and with that storied history comes a certain mindset and way of working. In order to become a successful startup studio, Moon had to be markedly different from Mitsui — different in values, mindset, behaviors and even location. Can Moon uniquely combine Silicon Valley’s rich environment for startup creation with the global scale that Mitsui can provide? It’s an interesting and exciting opportunity and it’s a journey that’s just beginning for Moon.
Moon Combines Design, Technology and Business
With studios in Tokyo and in Palo Alto, Moon has attracted a unique blend of talent — product managers, engineers and designers — that are all working together to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of the 45,000-strong global workforce of Mitsui. With a human-centered design approach, Moon helps idea owners research the unmet needs of users, quickly build prototypes and MVPs and then launch them to market. Moon is also helping Mitsui idea owners learn the foundations of entrepreneurship, including how to take risks, develop meaningful KPIs, how to build a team and how to build a product roadmap.
New Ventures Across Industries and Geographies
From Suup, that is creating new ways to provide working spaces in unused cafes, or Preferred Medicine, that is looking to change the game in early cancer detection, Moon is incubating new ventures across a variety of industries in markets all over the world. Moon is also creating new businesses of their own called Moon Originals. One Moon Original includes the development of a new 3D printed fabric that will have the potential to revolutionize the fashion industry and positively impact the environment. This venture was created in partnership with entrepreneur and fashion designer Danit Peleg, who is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.
Moon and Mitsui Driving a More Innovative Future for Japan and Beyond
So while today, Silicon Valley may still take much of the startup limelight and Japan may not be perceived as it was in its innovation heyday of the 80s — I say watch this space. We’ll be sharing more updates about Moon, its ventures and Mitsui’s journey to become an innovation leader in Japan and beyond. It’s just the beginning and we can’t wait to share our progress with you.
Mary Ann Gallo
Head of Marketing and Communications and Executive Advisor
Moon Creative Lab