Japanese robotics startups look to foreign talent

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Shortage of skilled workers at home opens door for outsiders

Rapyuta Robotics CEO Gajan Mohanarajah wants to create an office culture in which people do not feel differences due to each other’s nationality.

TOKYO — Foreign software engineers and other information technology specialists are increasingly joining Japan’s robotics startups. They believe the industry offers them ample opportunity to put their skills into action as Japanese industry is willing to adopt more robots. Lack of engineers in Japan is also prompting startups to look overseas for talent.

Tokyo-based Rapyuta Robotics is working on technology to control drones. Drones are made up of a wide range of technologies in their hardware, software and communications devices, and require highly skilled experts to develop them, but it is impossible to find all the people with the necessary skills in Japan, said CEO Gajan Mohanarajah.

About 70% of the company’s 35 employees come from outside Japan, including the U.S., Europe and India. Mohanarajah came to Japan from Sri Lanka in 2014 to start his business. One American engineer said the office environment is very international and gives him energy to work.

Rapyuta also has offices in Switzerland and India. But Mohanarajah insisted that the headquarters be in Tokyo because he expects the drone industry to grow fastest in Japan on stronger demand for energy efficiency and better productivity than any other country.

Special residents

The number of foreign specialists working in Japan has been on the rise. According to labor ministry data, the number of foreigners with special residence status, such as engineers and specialists in humanities and international services, surpassed 200,000 in 2016, accounting for 18% of all foreigners living in Japan. Engineers make up about 30% of the specialists.

Mujin, another Tokyo-based startup, is developing control devices for industrial robots used in distribution centers and factories. Every morning at 9 a.m., employees gather at the Mujin office, which was converted from a warehouse, for a daily morning briefing. Each of the 30 or so employees spends 30 seconds to explain what they are going to do that day. The meeting is intended as a chance to rigorously share information and avoid misunderstandings among members, because 60% of them come from countries outside Japan, such as the U.S. and China.

Competition for skilled professionals is fierce around the globe. But most of Mujin’s employees are graduates of prestigious universities like Carnegie Mellon University of the U.S. CEO Issei Takino said, “Many foreigners join our company hoping to be part of the work to establish an era in which robots play an important role.”

Foreigners choose Japan partly due to the difference in how robots are perceived in Japan and the U.S. Although America is keen on robotics, businesses tend to be wary of introducing robots to their workplaces because it may result in fewer jobs for humans. Japanese companies, by contrast, are less averse to using robots, and are already relying on them at factories and warehouses. Retailers and the service industry also use robots.

Many choose Mujin because they believe they can play a big part in realizing the dream of a robotic society, the company said.

Gang Xu, president of 3D Media, a startup based in Shiga Prefecture, central Japan, noted that robotics is a world of programming that has nothing to do nationality. His company is working to develop sensors that will allow robots to recognize parts and their orientation.

The company receives financing from a fund set up by Japanese car giant Toyota Motor. About 10 of the company’s 50 or so employees, including Xu, who is from China, are non-Japanese. The company hopes to leverage this diversity to develop technology to meet demand for automation.

To some, Japan appears open to high-skilled foreigners. It is easier to obtain a working visa in Japan than in Europe, Rapyuta Robotics’s Mohanarajah said. In some European countries such as Switzerland, a company wishing to hire a foreigner must prove it cannot find people with the same skills within its own country.

Japan has been actively attracting foreigners with special skills since 2012 in a bid to create new industries. It set up a new program for those wishing to work in Japan, giving points to their academic background, work experience and income, among other credentials. A score above the threshold grants the person designation as a highly skilled foreign worker and accords various benefits.

However, the point-based system does not work in favor of startups, for example, because their employees’ incomes are low. “At first, it was really difficult to obtain visas for foreign employees because we were insufficiently capitalized,” Mujin’s Takino said.