Microsoft for Startups, the support program for startup companies operated worldwide by Microsoft Corporation (U.S. headquarters) since 2018, will join forces with Ricoh’s business co-creation program TRIBUS. This is not the first time accelerator programs of different companies partner up, but this appears to be a very deep and flexible collaboration instead of a merely nominal one. The reason apparently lies in the fact that both parties are aiming to create social value that goes beyond the advantages they could each gain. We interviewed the team members of both companies who have acted intensely and agilely to make this partnership happen.
■ Microsoft Japan Co., Ltd. (Microsoft)
Business Development Manager, Cloud Business Development Department, Corporate Sales Division
Daiki Kanemitsu / Hitomi Todani
■ TRIBUS administrative office
A new form of partnership to expand the ground for startups to grow
――What is the Microsoft For Startups (MS4SU) program?
Todani It’s a startup program that we have been running since 2018, and we are currently active in 140 countries. We are constantly accepting applications throughout a year from companies that will receive different forms of support. In addition to providing cloud resources such as Microsoft Azure* and developer tools as environmental support, we also conduct architecture reviews and technical sessions. In Japan, we have already worked with a few hundred companies in total to date. We also provide sales and PR support for startup companies to help them grow their businesses.
――Please tell us about the background of this partnership.
Kanemitsu Microsoft had already been working with the Ricoh Group on a company-to-company basis. I was first introduced to the TRIBUS program when I mentioned my desire to align the initiatives of Microsoft and the Ricoh Group aimed at startups. I explained Microsoft’s efforts, and we agreed that our goals overlapped in many ways and that there were many areas where we could collaborate, so we started talking.
We have collaborated with other companies through MS4SU in the past, but this is the first time we have formed a full-scale partnership. We are trying to focus our efforts on giving shape to this new partnership, for example by signing a formal logo agreement (allowing the use of each other’s logos).
Todani It was a first in Japan for us that a company-to-company contract was signed like this, so the global team was extremely interested. The Ricoh team contacted us around February of this year, and since this was a new kind of endeavor for the Japanese team, it was a little difficult to coordinate internally. We did have initial hopes to make an announcement around the Golden Week holiday season, but still it was only with the support of everyone involved that we were able to move this far in just a few months.
Ogasawara For us, we want to develop a different ground for growth by working with Microsoft. For startups or new businesses, the question of whether the “soil” matches them is crucial for their success. Even if interesting startups gather at TRIBUS, Ricoh can only provide the kind of soil it has. If they don’t fit in with Ricoh despite their entry, we can’t provide them with opportunities to go further. But opportunities will expand if we could provide not only Ricoh’s but also Microsoft’s grounds with its particular soil. I believe that this will eventually lead to delivering value to society.
I’d like to see the Microsoft team use Ricoh’s grounds as well, and I think it’s important to spread the idea of mutually making use of the kind of soil each company lacks. I hope this collaboration can be a starting point for that.
Morihisa At the first meeting in February, we said “let’s do it” on the spot, without even discussing it back at the company. MS4SU accepts applications throughout a year, but TRIBUS only from May to August. I feel very bad, but also very grateful, that Microsoft had to go through a lot of trouble to get this going before that. It’s a big global company, so it must have been really hard to get this through and coordinate things internally.
Creating a startup ecosystem for society as a whole
――What do you expect from this partnership?
Morihisa Personally, one thing I’m looking forward to are the unparalleled cloud technologies as exemplified by Azure. It would also be great if the startups that have entered MS4SU would “discover” Ricoh through this partnership. I hope that this will also lead to new discoveries and insights for us as well. I was amazed by how Ms. Todani and Mr. Kanemitsu acted so swiftly despite of the huge scale of the program that’s operated in 140 countries around the world, and I found this contrast very attractive.
Also, I had the impression that last year’s program had many applications from hardware related startups. Microsoft’s program focuses on software, so I hope this will lead Ricoh’s program to expand toward software and services as well.
Kanemitsu We also have high expectations for the assets of the entire Ricoh Group. The technological capabilities go without saying, but Ricoh also has many sales channels, and most importantly, it is very well known. I don’t think there’s anyone in Japan who doesn’t know about the Ricoh Group. Microsoft’s accelerator program is not well known in Japan, and that’s something we’d like to amend with the help of the Ricoh Group. I once heard that one out of every five Japanese persons is related to Ricoh, and I believe that if an organization of that kind of scale gets serious, there will be a real possibility that Japan will change.
Another thing I perceived was the independence of the TRIBUS administrative office. It acted so freely despite being in a large organization with many stakeholders. The enthusiasm and speed with which they were trying to change society is encouraging and made me feel that they would be able to overcome any obstacles with a positive attitude.
Ogasawara We are still deciding on the details of what exactly we will do, but I think the basic idea is to start by introducing the participating startups to each other, according to the needs of these companies. For example, if we see a startup participating in Ricoh’s TRIBUS that we feel is better suited to Microsoft, or that a company would be beneficial for Microsoft as well, then we would introduce that company to Microsoft. I think that’s the starting point, and after that, we will consider what each company seeks and respond accordingly.
Todani Yes, I think our position is to bring together assets that the other may not have. We will disclose the benefits and challenges of each other’s programs so that they can come to complement one another. Once entering TRIBUS or MS4SU, companies may be able to take advantage of the benefits of the other program too. I hope startups will make the best use of both companies.
I thought the supporters’ system of TRIBUS was interesting because it’s not something MS4SU offers. It’s amazing to have 200 employees volunteer as supporters, isn’t it? I had never heard of an accelerator program with more than 200 volunteers from within the company who wanted to help startup companies. I felt it would be fascinating to receive the knowledge and support from 200 people with different specialties and backgrounds. It would surely lead to some kind of solution to the problems faced by the participating companies. Personally, this was one of the reasons why I wanted to work with Ricoh.
Ogasawara I think the aim is to expand the scope of the programs by offering each other’s resources. So, in order to achieve that aim, let’s expand the number of partners even more, going beyond Microsoft and Ricoh, to create an ecosystem for startups. This is the just first attempt, and I hope there will be more partners in the future. It will be challenging, but I hope we can enjoy and be excited about the process.
Todani I completely agree. Our attitude is also to try to do things first, to start with the things we can do now. In some cases, the things we want to change are too large for a single company to tackle. Just like our partnership with Ricoh, I want to work with many more companies in the future to tackle ever bigger issues together.
Kanemitsu I hope we can expand the breadth of opportunities for startups and build a culture in which taking on challenges and accepting failures is the norm. I think Japan would become a much different place if it had a culture that accepts challenges and focuses on what to do next after a failure. I hope this partnership will be the first step in that direction.
Shaping the program together with participating startups
――How will you present this partnership to the participating startups and in-house teams?
Ogasawara First of all, I think it would be great if the Microsoft team could hold a briefing session for the startups and teams that are participating in TRIBUS. I’m literally asking you this for the first time now during this interview.
Todani Yes, let’s do that! In this kind of collaboration, the best way to go about it is to quickly try out any interesting measure that we may come up with. We too would like to share this partnership with the MS4SU family and would love to have a briefing from Ricoh!
Ogasawara We’ll be happy to do that. Let’s definitely do those mutual briefing sessions. In addition, I would like to ask the teams that have entered the program to fill out a form freely to tell us what they expect from Microsoft and what kind of help they hope to get. Such letters of request will form the basis for future steps. This partnership is about thinking while on the move, and deciding while doing, so in that sense, I think it’s something that we’re going to shape together with the participating startups.
Todani Feedback is always welcome! I’d like people to stop thinking about whether it may be possible or not and start by just telling us what’s on their minds. The program is also being updated gradually. For example, after the GitHub acquisition started, we received a lot of feedback globally that GitHub should be added to MS4SU, so we will make that happen this year. We would like to make not just the program but also the teamwork with Ricoh ever better together based on the feedback.
――What do you want to work on or change in the future as you strive to promote open innovation?
Todani For me, it’s inclusiveness. The image that comes to mind when one hears the word “startup” varies from person to person, but I hope to create an environment where people who want to take on challenges can do so, regardless of factors such as age or background. I sometimes think that people might create their own safe zones by themselves based on stereotypes and preconceived notions, preventing themselves from taking on challenges and narrowing down their own possibilities. MS4SU values diversity globally, so I hope to encourage all kinds of people who want to take on challenges through the program.
Kanemitsu I would like to make sure that companies and startups with good technologies come under the spotlight. There are so many startups that have R&D capabilities and unique technologies that fail to reach the market. In order to achieve my goal, I would like to start by sincerely getting to know all the startups that enter either MS4SU or TRIBUS, to thoroughly understand even the details, such as the backgrounds and visions of the company owners. I think this will in turn help to expand the opportunities for startups and to put them in the spotlight.
Morihisa I would like to create a culture of cooperation that overcomes the various differences. TRIBUS not only accepts entries from outside the company, but also has a program to develop in-house entrepreneurs. If the participating external startups and in-house entrepreneurial teams can interact and collaborate, they can create new value together. There are also ongoing community teams from last year’s teams, which can further expand by collaborating with the teams that will be selected this year. I think it would be interesting if this kind of circle of participation with many people and companies continues to expand, creating ever more variations of collaboration.
Ogasawara I believe that what innovation needs is diversity and new combinations, so I think it is important to lower the hurdles to participation and create various ways of involvement. With TRIBUS, there are many ways to be engaged and different degrees of engagement too. That’s how it should be. I hope it will become more widely known that there are many ways to participate, whether as a leader, a linker, or a supporter, and that we should just have fun doing it. That’s the baseline.
By seeking short-term KPIs, you will end up twisting and betraying what you want to do, and it will not be fun. It is natural that the people, startups, and companies that participate have all different ways of thinking. I believe we can expand our partnerships further if each participant can engage with the program in a variety of ways. Starting new businesses always involves high uncertainty, so I want to create an environment where people can participate and speak freely.
――What would you like to say to those who are entering the program?
Kanemitsu As clearly stated in the program, we are looking forward to working with startups that have the ambition to change the world. Since Microsoft is a technology company, I think that tech-driven companies would be a good match. We would also like to make sure that participants can have access to Ricoh’s assets too and make the most of what we have to offer together.
Todani We work really well with tech-driven companies, so if you’re one of them, do consider contacting us instead of worrying beforehand. Also, the MS4SU program lasts for one or two years, but it’s just a starting point. We’re also happy to meet teams that want to continue working with Microsoft after the program is over! It’s a shame to work together for a year or two and then lose touch.
Morihisa Ricoh tends to be associated with the workplace and imaging fields, but we’re looking forward to receiving proposals that deal with a wide range of social issues regardless of Ricoh’s established image. We have included information on our various assets in the guidelines, but we intend to go beyond them to support the participants. I’m looking forward to getting to know the teams.
Ogasawara TRIBUS is a 4-to-5-month program, but I would like to see more medium to long-term involvement. Nevertheless, I also want the starting point to be something less rigid, something like “this looks interesting.” We can get to know each other while on the move, and collaborate if it seems beneficial. If everything was set in stone, we wouldn’t be able to adapt to the participants’ needs when something was slightly off, and I don’t want that. I want to create an environment that is capacious both in size and depth, which would allow us to collaborate on a long-term basis. That’s why we’re working on this with Microsoft. We’re looking forward to receiving the applications.
*Microsoft Azure is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and all other countries.