Sep 14, 2017 06:31 PM IST | Source:

SoftBank chief’s billionaire brother Taizo Son bets big on food startups

Taizon today announced a new startup accelerator program – Gastrotope – in partnership with India’s GSF accelerator

Japan’s investment company SoftBank is a name to reckon with for several Indian startups, including Flipkart and Ola. Now SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s youngest brother – Taizo Son – who is himself a serial entrepreneur worth USD 1.2 billion, is dabbling his hands in the burgeoning startup ecosystem.

But unlike the strategy of his elder brother, Taizo Son is not much game for online commerce or retail.

He is rather inclined to make a positive social impact in the Indian food and agriculture industry. The younger Son has already invested over USD 160 million in startups around the world including Ninjacart and InnerChef in India.

To that end, Taizon today announced a new startup accelerator program – Gastrotope – in partnership with India’s GSF accelerator.

The accelerator wants to incubate and invest in startups that can come up with unique, but utility-based solutions to solve issues in agriculture logistics, food processing, farming tech or influencing eating habits.

Taizo’s claim to fame was the hit smartphone game Puzzle & Dragons, which was a product of his startup venture GungHo Online Entertainment, a game developer.

He then went on to set up Mistletoe, a company that invests in early-stage ventures, incubates them and also runs entrepreneur-in-residence programs.

The serial entrepreneur, who shifted base to Singapore from Japan due to regulatory frustrations in the country, is unphased by the bureaucratic bottlenecks of India.

In a free-wheeling chat with Moneycontrol, Taizo Son shares his entrepreneurial philosophy, his iconic brother, and the startup ecosystem. Edited excerpts:

Are you close to your elder brother Masayoshi Son and is he as a mentor?

Of course, draw inspiration from him and I am very much influenced by him. We are very close and we discuss a lot of things. But Masa is 15 years elder to me. I feel it is very difficult to benchmark him against my progress. He has been more of a parent than a role model to me. I would say my role model is Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo, who I first met in 1996.

He explained to me what a search engine is in one simple sentence – it is the future of knowledge gathering. I have learnt a lot from him about entrepreneurship and why it is important to make a change than just create a company for profits.

What do you look for in a startup prior to investing?

More than the business model, I am interested in assessing a founder and their passion.

One thing that I have learnt in my 20 years of work life is that the ultimate formula for success is to never give up. That’s a simple fact.

Most of the failures occur because the founders give up.

Every startup will face hardships, but it is important to hold on. If they have the passion they will. These are most important qualities I will look for.

How do seek to achieve a social impact through this new startup accelerator – Gastrotope?

It is a focused accelerator with the vision to catalyze the creation of a new agriculture and FoodTech enabled industry ecosystem that builds upon India’s rich food diversity and focuses on sustainability.

We want to create a ‘farm to fork’ value chain, which essentially means consolidating all processes between a farm and the end-consumer. It will eliminate multi-tier exchanges and reduce pilferage. We want to invest in startups that can add value in various parts of this value chain, starting with farmers and moving to food transportation, processing, and delivery to and consumption by customers.

Why do you think India will be a good fit to bring about this change?

I truly believe that India will be the centre of AgriFood tech innovation, and I am very excited about it. India has amazing talent and engineers, with a vast pool of land and population, along with a long and rich food culture.

India will be the next hub for food and agri-tech. Japan is also a country with deep agriculture technologies and food culture, but the culture of innovation is not as great as in India.

I believe that a partnership between these two ecosystems will yield good results in identifying unique solutions to the fundamental questions of food and agriculture.

Why is the food and agri-tech sector so important to you?

Earlier the innovation was inside a box, now it is coming out of the screen. The food issue is one of the most important issues to solve, worldwide.

So I made a decision based on the kind of impact we can make, than worrying about ROI.

Food and agriculture are something we cannot sustain without. India, having a huge agri-based economy, has a responsibility to sustain its agriculture. Especially because the middle class in India is growing the fastest.

The population is becoming wealthier but not healthier. We want to create a long-term impact where we can influence habits of the farmers – what they grow, how they grow, and also the consumers – what they eat!

The pilferages need to be curtailed, logistics and distribution need to better.

We need to invent by ourselves, and invent that will make a long-term change. I would like to be a role model for future entrepreneurs, like Jerry was for me. We call ourselves the collective impact community.

We will support any company, startup, non-profit which has a good concept to solve specific problems in food and agri. It is not just about investing money.

We will look at the complete ecosystem. We already have three investments in India – InnerChef, Ninjacart, and Kisan Network. We will accelerate our investments here. Worldwide we have invested close to USD 160 million till now.

How do you plan to take forward the accelerator program in India?

I don’t know much about Indian bureaucratic situation.

But, I think the effective approach is to create a good example for people to see and get inspired from.

We are not a typical VC. We are free to invest in a startup at any stage, and we will not go for an equity-linked program.

Accelerators here usually have a batch program. We will adopt a different approach. We will build a community of entrepreneurs, designers, engineers.

The first three months will be engaged in bringing them together and organize multiple discussions and brainstorming sessions. If a good idea comes out of it, we will test it and support it. In the second phase, if need be, we will make a program and create a fund.

We want to keep it flexible. We will test everything in India, and if we see a use case in other parts of the world, we will look at pushing it. Healthcare and education are the other sectors we will look at after agri.

We will look at bringing change both through impacting tech and also the processes. We will approach from the demand side. I believe in the power of open source and that’s where we will head. We are developing one open source for recipes.

I know many Michelin star chefs, who have agreed to share their recipes, and upload it for free for aspiring chefs.

They will serve better food, which will, in turn, impact consumer behaviour, and subsequently the choice of crops by farmers. This is a very different approach we are adopting.
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