Sony Corp., once known for innovations like the Walkman, will begin to back entrepreneurs outside the company with money, marketing support and more as it seeks more breakthroughs.
The Tokyo-based company said on Wednesday it would open up an internal accelerator program to external entrepreneurs, including a partnership with Tokyo University under which students can turn ideas into businesses. Depending on the opportunity, Sony may invest, strike an alliance, provide office space or support the startups with its own marketing and sales expertise. It may also acquire the businesses.
“All kinds of people should have a chance to be an entrepreneur, that’s our slogan,” said Shinji Odashima, head of Sony’s accelerator program, at an event in Tokyo. “We’ll offer the know-how and the environment of our enterprise. Through these things, we want to realize the vision of creators.”
After years of restructuring put it back on solid financial footing but gutted thousands of engineering jobs, Sony is again looking for innovation under Chief Executive Officer Kenichiro Yoshida. This month, the company cut its annual revenue forecast and reported weaker profits in the PlayStation business, triggering the sharpest share drop in more than three years. A week later, it announced its largest stock buyback ever to support the shares.
The initiative, now known as Sony Startup Accelerator Program, was started in 2014 by Yoshida’s predecessor, Kazuo Hirai, to encourage innovation and risk-taking among employees. To date, 34 ideas have been incubated and 14 of them have become new businesses, Sony said.
The most prominent so far include smartwatches line wena, the digital smell dispenser Aromastic, and self-flying drone startup AeroSense. Another product called toio, small toy robots that can be programmed to perform custom games, was brought into the PlayStation division late last year.
Sony said the program will span all stages of starting a business: creating an idea, incubating it, marketing and expansion. After a product reaches a mature stage, a decision will be made whether to invest, partner or acquire it, Odashima said. The program is not directly related to the company’s existing corporate venture fund, Sony Innovation Fund, according to a spokesman.
While the specifics remain vague, by opening up the application process through its website to anyone, the company is essentially trying to lure more innovative talent under its roof. Odashima said he wants to foster what he calls Shinagawa Valley, a nod to the neighborhood where Sony is headquartered.
“It all begins with just an idea,” said Odashima. “I can’t tell you how many businesses began with just one word.”
By Yuji Nakamura