A Netherland-based startup SolarDuck quickly turning into an industrial player, has started a demonstration offshore solar power plant project in Tokyo in collaboration with Tokyu Land Corporation (hereinafter TLC). Olaf de Swart, The Co-Founder and Head of Business Development APAC of SolarDuck, shared his experience and insights through Plug and Play Japan’s Energy program.
Interviewee : Olaf de Swart
Co-founder, Head of Business Development SolarDuck
SolarDuck powers the world with clean solar energy. It generates offshore solar energy using state-of-the-art technology. Fully scalable to match specific local requirements worldwide. Offering a sustainable alternative to meet the world’s rising demand for energy. In Japan, SolarDuck has been active since 2019, which resulted in the first demonstration project with TLC in the Tokyo Bay area. https://solarduck.tech/
Reason to Choose Plug and Play
– What was the reason for you to join our program?
Four years ago, I went to live in Japan for the first time. We knew that Japan is one of our key target markets. I was searching for accelerator programs in Japan that could support us in getting a foot on the ground, and I came across Plug and Play’s Energy program, which looked very promising. At that time I was in the Netherlands due to covid but I applied, knowing that, if covid allowed, I would go back to Japan to continue the business development efforts. Shortly after arriving in Japan, with a new startup visa setup by Shibuya city, we were selected for the program.
-- What did you think about our program?
What I really like about the Plug and Play Japan’s Energy program is that it helps with the commercialization of technology. Because in the end, that’s one of the biggest bottlenecks. The program is an opportunity for showing our technology works in local markets and also scaling to commercialize it. That’s precisely what Plug and Play Japan intends to do in their program. It helps you to connect to companies who are interested in cooperating with startups, and connects you directly to the right people inside the corporate partners.
The “champion system” works very well. In each company, people called champions are selected for Plug and Play’s program to represent their company and act as a spider in the web, connecting internal resources to the startups. Languages can be a barrier in Japan but typically these champions are fluent in English, which helps a lot in connecting and discovering if there is common ground for cooperation. Although I speak a bit of Japanese, that was not sufficient to have real business conversations. As such having a connection with a “champion” is of vital importance.
--It could have been difficult to get directly connected to a company like TLC if you want to do it on your own.
Definitely yes. Before, we actually tried approaching some companies directly with one of our partners, but it was difficult to reach the right people or departments. And then the conversation went quite quickly.
The Benefit of the Program
--We did some special workshops gathering corporate partners including TLC. Did you find any benefits from those workshops?
I think it was by far the best way to work together with corporate partners. In Japan, we first have to inform companies about the possibilities our technology offers to them and the market since it is a new technology. The workshops Plug and Play organized offer a platform to inform many large corporations at the same time. During the workshops, you discover that the companies become interested and they share ideas. They have a positive influence on each other. Furthermore, some companies may take the lead in investigating a business case relevant to them.
--What did you prioritize to choose the right partner?
In the past, we sometimes made the mistake of spending too much time on one target company which did not materialize. It was a lesson for us that we have to find somehow a way to reach multiple companies preferably at the same time and to see which ones are really interested. Then we can focus our efforts more on the ones who were really interested and the other ones we will probably follow in a later stage. There are always companies that are more interested in taking risks and want to be frontrunners in their field. Those companies are the ones we can best cooperate with.
（Left: Olaf de Swart, Right: So Watanabe, Champion from TLC)
Tips for Entering the Japanese Market
--The partner first, or the office first. There is a chicken or egg problem for international business expansion. You jumped into the Japanese market before having any local partner. What kind of advice can you give to other startups?
That is actually a very good question. We knew that Japan is a key market, and it can potentially be one of our main markets. So there was already a reason to come here. What I noticed is when you try to connect to Japanese companies while you are not physically in Japan, communication difficulties are much higher. Because in Japanese culture, many companies would like to meet face to face. Meeting in person helps a lot in gaining their trust to build up a real connection. Though I can also say that not for every company Japan is the most suitable. It is important to determine for your company specifically why Japan is an interesting market. Language barriers or differences in culture may prove to be difficult to cross in some industries. For our company the match is good. Japan has very strong energy players and maritime heritage as well as strong support for renewables both onshore and offshore.
--You also used a newly-established visa program for overseas startups.
Yes. In the past few years, some organizations and regimes have been set up by the Japanese governments and local governments to make that possible. I came here on a start-up visa from Shibuya which was not there yet a few years ago. Though some other cities offered it before our industry is mainly located around Tokyo. For us, Shibuya was the best fit. The start-up visa facilitates young companies to enter the Japanese market more easily and to find local partners. You will have a six-month visa, which can be extended by another 6 months before you have to make an investment in setting up your company in Japan.
By using the new visa opportunities, you can basically do a low-cost entry to see if the market is really working for you and to find your initial partners. If that doesn’t work, you can always decide, “Okay, this is at the moment too difficult”. Since Japan appointed a minister for startups, there is a lot of focus on improving the startup ecosystem within Japan. There are a lot of large corporations which are interested in foreign startups nowadays. Previously that was a more selected group of companies.
-- Are you going to hire more people in Japan?
We are currently setting up the Japanese entity as a beachhead for East Asia. One of the things we are thinking about is hiring a Japanese speaker. This allows us to reach out to other companies who are interested but do not have English language capabilities. Of course, hiring is also dependent on the traction.
--Any comments for Plug and Play?
I would like to thank Plug and Play for selecting us for the Energy program. Without it, we would not be able to find Japanese partners so quickly. Further, I would like to thank TLC for providing trust in us in a very short time frame. I would say it’s quite extraordinary. It is not often that a project materializes this quickly. We hope to build on this relationship further in the coming years. I also wish that many other startups from the Plug and Play program can have a similar experience. I can really recommend joining it.
(Left: Aldausi Khoirul Rizal, Program Manager, Energy)