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Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

Through a new partnership and $72 million in funding, LanzaTech expands its carbon capture tech

For nearly fifteen years LanzaTech has been developing a carbon capture technology that can turn waste streams into ethanol that can be used for chemicals and fuel.

Now, with $72 million in fresh funding at a nearly $1 billion valuation and a newly inked partnership with biotechnology giant, Novo Holdings, the company is looking to expand its suite of products beyond ethanol manufacturing, thanks, in part, to the intellectual property held by Novozymes (a Novo Holdings subsidiary).

“We are learning how to modify our organisms so they can make things other than ethanol directly,” said LanzaTech chief executive officer, Jennifer Holmgren.

From its headquarters in Skokie, Ill., where LanzaTech relocated in 2014 from New Zealand, the biotechnology company has been plotting ways to reduce carbon emissions and create a more circular manufacturing system. That’s one where waste gases and solid waste sources that were previously considered to be un-recyclable are converted into chemicals by LanzaTech’s genetically modified microbes.

The company already has a commercial manufacturing facility in China, attached to a steel plant operated by the Shougang Group, which produces 16 million gallons of ethanol per-year. LanzaTech’s technology pipes the waste gas into a fermenter, which is filled with genetically modified yeast that uses the carbon dioxide to produce ethanol. Another plant, using a similar technology is under construction in Europe.

Through a partnership with Indian Oil, LanzaTech is working on a third waste gas to ethanol using a different waste gas taken from a Hydrogen plant.

The company has also inked early deals with airlines like Virgin in the UK and ANA in Japan to make an ethanol-based jet fuel for commercial flight. And a third application of the technology is being explored in Japan which takes previously un-recyclable waste streams from consumer products and converts that into ethanol and polyethylene that can be used to make bio-plastics or bio-based nylon fabrics.

Through the partnership with Novo Holdings, LanzaTech will be able to use the company’s technology to expand its work into other chemicals, according to chief executive Jennifer Holmgren. “We are making product to sell into that [chemicals market] right now. We are taking ethanol and making products out of it. Taking ethylene and we will make polyethylene and we will make PET to substitute for fiber.”

Holmgren said that LanzaTech’s operations were currently reducing carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road.

“LanzaTech is addressing our collective need for sustainable fuels and materials, enabling industrial players to be part of building a truly circular economy,” said Anders Bendsen Spohr, Senior Director at Novo Holdings, in a statement. “Novo Holdings’ investment underlines our commitment to supporting the bio-industrials sector and, in particular, companies that are developing cutting-edge technology platforms. We are excited to work with the LanzaTech team and look forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth.”

Holmgren said that the push into new chemicals by LanzaTech is symbolic of a resurgence of industrial biotechnology as one of the critical pathways to reducing carbon emissions and setting industry on a more sustainable production pathway.

“Industrial biotechnology ca unlock the utility of a lot of waste carbon emissions. ” said Holmgren. “[Municipal solid waste] is an urban oil field. And we are working to find new sources of sustainable carbon.”

LanzaTech isn’t alone in its quest to create sustainable pathways for chemical manufacturing. Solugen, an upstart biotechnology company out of Houston, is looking to commercialize the bio-production of hydrogen peroxide. It’s another chemical that’s at the heart of modern industrial processes — and is incredibly hazardous to make using traditional methods.

As the world warms, and carbon emissions continue to rise, it’s important that both companies find pathways to commercial success, according to Holmgren.

“It’s going to get much much worse if we don’t do anything,” she said.

SoftBank announces AI-focused second $108 billion Vision Fund with LPs including Microsoft, Apple and Foxconn

SoftBank Group announced today that it will launch its second Vision Fund with participation from Apple, Foxconn, Microsoft and other tech companies and investors. Called the Vision Fund 2, the fund will focus on AI-based technology. SoftBank said the fund’s capital has reached about $108 billion, based on memoranda of understandings. SoftBank Group’s own investment in the fund will be $38 billion.

It is worth noting that the second Vision Fund’s list of expected limited partners does not currently include any participants from the Saudi Arabia government (the first Vision Fund’s close ties to people, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have been implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has understandably been a major source of concern for investors, companies and human rights observers).

But SoftBank Group also said is still in discussions with other participants and that the total amount of the fund is expected to increase. The full list of participants who have signed MOUs so far are: “Apple, Foxconn Technology Group, Microsoft Corporation, Mizuho Bank, Ltd., Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, MUFG Bank, Ltd., The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, Limited, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, Limited, SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., Daiwa Securities Group Inc., National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan, Standard Chartered Bank, and major participants from Taiwan.”

SoftBank’s intention to launch Vision Fund 2 was first reported earlier this week by the Wall Street Journal. The new fund is expected to decrease SoftBank’s reliance on Saudi Arabian investment and also potentially change the relationship between startups, corporate giants like Microsoft and investors.

The second Vision Fund could help SoftBank extend its position as the most influential investor globally. Through its first $97 billion Vision Fund, the giant invested in dozens of high-profile growing companies, including ride hailing giants Didi Chuxing and Grab, and India-based grocery delivery startup Grofers, payments-firm Paytm, and budget lodging startup Oyo.

The maiden Vision Fund, which was announced in October 2016 and began investing in early 2017, has earned 62% returns to date, SoftBank said last month. SoftBank, known for consistently cutting checks of $100 million and of larger sizes, has invested in 24 of 377 unicorns globally (companies with valuation of $1 billion or more), according to research firm CB Insights.

Japan will restrict the export of some materials used in smartphones and chips to South Korea

Japan’s trade ministry said today that it will restrict the export of some tech materials to South Korea, including polyimides used in flexible displays made by companies like Samsung Electronics. The new rules come as the two countries argue over compensation for South Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during World War II.

The list of restricted supplies, expected to go into effect on July 4, includes polyimides used in smartphone and flexible organic LED displays, and etching gas and resist used to make semiconductors. That means Japanese suppliers who wish to sell those materials to South Korean tech companies such as Samsung, LG and SK Hynix will need to submit each contract for approval.

Japan’s government may also remove South Korea from its list of countries that have fewer restrictions on trading technology that might have national security implications, reports Nikkei Asian Review.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled several Japanese companies, including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, that had used forced labor during World War II must pay compensation and began seizing assets for liquidation. But Japan’s government claims the issue was settled in 1965 as part of a treaty that restored basic diplomatic relations between the two countries and is asking South Korea to put the matter before an international arbitration panel instead.

Chat app Line is adding Snap-style disappearing stories

Facebook cloning Snap to death may be old news, but others are only just following suit. Line, the Japanese messaging app that’s popular in Asia, just became the latest to clone Snap’s ephemeral story concept.

The company announced today that it is adding stories that disappear after 24-hours to its timeline feature, a social network like feed that sits in its app, and user profiles. The update is rolling out to users now and the concept is very much identical to Snap, Instagram and others that have embraced time-limited content.

“As posts vanish after 24 hours, there is no need to worry about overposting or having posts remain in the feed,” Line, which is listed in the U.S. and Japan, wrote in an update. “Stories allows friends to discover real-time information on Timeline that is available only for that moment.”

Snap pioneered self-destructed content in its app, and the concept has now become present across most of the most popular internet services in the world.

In particular, Facebook added stories to across the board: to its core app, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, the world’s most popular chat app with over 1.5 billion monthly users. Indeed, Facebook claims that WhatsApp stories are used by 500 million people, while the company has built Instagram into a service that has long had more users than Snap — currently over one billion.

The approach doesn’t always work, though — Facebook is shuttering its most brazen Snap copy, a camera app built around Instagram direct messages.

China’s top chat app WeChat added its own version earlier this year, and while it said in its earnings this week that users upload “hundreds of millions of videos each day” to its social platforms, it didn’t give numbers on its Snap-inspired feature.

Line doesn’t have anything like the reach of Facebook’s constellation of social apps or WeChat, but it is Japan’s dominant messaging platform and is popular in Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia.

The Japanese company doesn’t give out global user numbers but it reported 164 million monthly users in its four key markets as of Q1 2019, that’s down one million year-on-year. Japan accounts for 80 million of that figure, ahead of Thailand (44 million), Taiwan (21 million) and Indonesia (19 million.)

While user growth has stagnated, Line has been able to extract increase revenue. In addition to a foray into services — in Japan its range covers ride-hailing, food delivery, music streaming and payments — it has increased advertising in the app’s timeline tab, and that is likely a big reason for the release of stories. The new feature may help timeline get more eyeballs, while the company could follow the lead of Snap and Instagram to monetize stories by allowing businesses in.

In Line’s case, that could work reasonably well — for advertising — since users can opt to follow business accounts already. It would make sense, then, to let companies push stories to users that opted in follow their account. But that’s a long way in the future and it will depend on how the new feature is received by users.

Uber may have left Southeast Asia but its APAC HQ remains in Singapore

Uber exited Southeast Asia last year after it sold its local business to Grab but it continues to remain in Singapore, where it has now opened a new regional HQ for Asia Pacific and is hiring for staff.

The company — which is headed for IPO imminently — won’t be restarting its service, however, which puts it in a rather interesting position in Singapore.

The writing has been on the wall for some time, though. TechCrunch reported last August that Uber was on a hiring spree in Singapore, and now that has come to fruition with the opening with a new 2,000 sq meter office near the Central Business District in Singapore. That’ll function as the management center for the nine markets that Uber operates in across Asia Pacific, which include Japan, Korea and Australia. India, Uber’s second largest market, is managed separately to the rest of the continent.

Uber’s Southeast Asia sale — which saw it take a tactical 27.5 percent stake in its Singapore-based rival — gave Grab first refusal on a lot of Uber’s operational talent, but most of Uber’s core management team remained with the company in Singapore. For example, Brooks Entwistle, who was hired as chief business officer for Asia Pacific in 2017, remains stationed there as Uber’s international chief business officer.

Big day for ⁦@Uber⁩ in Asia as we open our new APAC HQ in Singapore. Our awesome team is growing as we deepen our commitment to this city-state and its outstanding tech talent and focus. We are hiring! #Uber #UberEATS #JUMP #Onward #Asia #Singapore https://t.co/BOnOn2GblE

— Brooks Entwistle (@BrooksEntwistle) April 2, 2019

Straits Times reports that Uber’s Singapore headcount is at least 165 with some 17 vacancies open right now. As we reported last year, the company was aiming to hire at least 75 roles to take its Singapore-based team to over “well over” 100 — it seems that it did that and then some.

President Bolsonaro should boost Brazil’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Romero Rodrigues
Contributor

Romero Rodrigues is a managing partner at Redpoint eVentures, the Brazilian-focused arm of the Silicon Valley venture firm Redpoint.

In late October following a significant victory for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential elections, the stock market for Latin America’s largest country shot up. Financial markets reacted favorably to the news because Bolsonaro, a free-market proponent, promises to deliver broad economic reforms, fight corruption and work to reshape Brazil through a pro-business agenda. While some have dubbed him as a far-right “Trump of the Tropics” against a backdrop of many Brazilians feeling that government has failed them, the business outlook is extremely positive.

When President-elect Bolsonaro appointed Santander executive Roberto Campos as new head of Brazil’s central bank in mid-November, Brazil’s stock market cheered again with Sao Paulo’s Bovespa stocks surging as much as 2.65 percent on the day news was announced. According to Reuters, “analysts said Bolsonaro, a former army captain and lawmaker who has admitted to having scant knowledge of economics, was assembling an experienced economic team to implement his plans to slash government spending, simplify Brazil’s complex tax system and sell off state-run companies.”

Admittedly, there are some challenges as well. Most notably, pension-system reform tops the list of priorities to get on the right track quickly. A costly pension system is increasing the country’s debt and contributed to Brazil losing its investment-grade credit rating in 2015. According to the new administration, Brazil’s domestic product could grow by 3.5 percent during 2019 if Congress approves pension reform soon. The other issue that’s cropped up to tarnish the glow of Bolsonaro coming into power are suspect payments made to his son that are being examined by COAF, the financial crimes unit.

While the jury is still out on Bolsonaro’s impact on Brazilian society at large after being portrayed as the Brazilian Trump by the opposition party, he’s come across as less authoritarian during his first days in office. Since the election, his tone is calmer and he’s repeatedly said that he plans to govern for all Brazilians, not just those who voted for him. In his first speech as president, he invited his wife to speak first which has never happened before.

Still, according to The New York Times, “some Brazilians remain deeply divided on the new president, a former army captain who has hailed the country’s military dictators and made disparaging remarks about women and minority groups.”

Others have expressed concern about his environment impact with the “an assault on environmental and Amazon protections” through an executive order within hours of taking office earlier this week. However, some major press outlets have been more upbeat: “With his mix of market-friendly economic policies and social conservativism at home, Mr. Bolsonaro plans to align Brazil more closely with developed nations and particularly the U.S.,” according to the Wall Street Journal this week.

Based on his publicly stated plans, here’s why President Bolsonaro will be good for business and how his administration will help build an even stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem in Brazil:

Bolsonaro’s Ministerial Reform

President Temer leaves office with 29 government ministries. President Bolsonaro plans to reduce the number of ministries to 22, which will reduce spending and make the government smaller and run more efficiently. We expect to see more modern technology implemented to eliminate bureaucratic red tape and government inefficiencies.

Importantly, this will open up more partnerships and contracting of tech startups’ solutions. Government contacts for new technology will be used across nearly all the ministries including mobility, transportation, health, finance, management and legal administration – which will have a positive financial impact especially for the rich and booming SaaS market players in Brazil.

Government Company Privatization

Of Brazil’s 418 government-controlled companies, there are 138 of them on the federal level that could be privatized. In comparison to Brazil’s 418, Chile has 25 government-controlled companies, the U.S. has 12, Australia and Japan each have eight, and Switzerland has four. Together, Brazil-owned companies employ more than 800,000 people today, including about 500,000 federal employees. Some of the largest ones include petroleum company Petrobras, electric utilities company EletrobrasBanco do Brasil, Latin America’s largest bank in terms of its assets, and Caixa Economica Federal, the largest 100 percent government-owned financial institution in Latin America.

The process of privatizing companies is known to be cumbersome and inefficient, and the transformation from political appointments to professional management will surge the need for better management tools, especially for enterprise SaaS solutions.

STEAM Education to Boost Brazil’s Tech Talent

Based on Bolsonaro’s original plan to move the oversight of university and post-graduate education from the Education Ministry to the Science and Technology Ministry, it’s clear the new presidential administration is favoring more STEAM courses that are focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics.

Previous administrations threw further support behind humanities-focused education programs. Similar STEAM-focused higher education systems from countries such as Singapore and South Korea have helped to generate a bigger pipeline of qualified engineers and technical talent badly needed by Brazilian startups and larger companies doing business in the country. The additional tech talent boost in the country will help Brazil better compete on the global stage.

The Chicago Boys’ “Super” Ministry

The merger of the Ministry of Economy with the Treasury, Planning and Industry and Foreign Trade and Services ministries will create a super ministry to be run by Dr. Paulo Guedes and his team of Chicago Boys. Trained at the Department of Economics in the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, the Chicago Boys are a group of prominent Chilean economists who are credited with transforming Chile into Latin America’s best performing economies and one of the world’s most business-friendly jurisdictions. Joaquim Levi, the recently appointed chief of BNDES (Brazilian Development Bank), is also a Chicago Boy and a strong believer in venture capital and startups.

Previously, Guedes was a general partner in Bozano Investimentos, a pioneering private equity firm, before accepting the invitation to take the helm of the world’s eighth-largest economy in Brazil. To have a team of economists who deeply understand the importance of rapid-growth companies is good news for Brazil’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. This group of 30,000 startup companies are responsible for 50 percent of the job openings in Brazil and they’re growing far faster than the country’s GDP.

Bolsonaro’s Pro-Business Cabinet Appointments

President Bolsonaro has appointed a majority of technical experts to be part of his new cabinet. Eight of them have strong technology backgrounds, and this deeper knowledge of the tech sector will better inform decisions and open the way to more funding for innovation.

One of those appointments, Sergio Moro, is the federal judge for the anti-corruption initiative knows as “Operation Car Wash.” With Moro’s nomination to Chief of the Justice Department and his anticipated fight against corruption could generate economic growth and help reduce unemployment in the country. Bolsonaro’s cabinet is also expected to simplify the crazy and overwhelming tax system. More than 40 different taxes could be whittled down to a dozen, making it easier for entrepreneurs to launch new companies.

In general terms, Brazil and Latin America have long suffered from deep inefficiencies. With Bolsonaro’s administration, there’s new promise that there will be an increase in long-term infrastructure investments, reforms to reduce corruption and bureaucratic red tape, and enthusiasm and support for startup investments in entrepreneurs who will lead the country’s fastest-growing companies and make significant technology advancements to “lift all boats.”

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund will also invest $45B in SoftBank’s second Vision Fund

The sovereign fund of Saudi Arabia plans to invest $45 billion into the second SoftBank Vision Fund, two years after putting the same amount into the original $100 billion Vision Fund, Saudi Arabia Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview on Friday.

When the first Vision Fund was announced, it was by far the biggest private equity fund ever created, but if SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son’s plans come to fruition, it will not be the last. Son told Bloomberg Businessweek last month that he wants to raise a new $100 billion fund every two or three years.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is anticipating a fresh influx of $170 billion over the next three to four years after selling its stake in Saudi Basic Industries, as well as the upcoming IPO of state-owned Saudi Aramco, said Prince Mohammed, who is also the PIF’s chairman. The PIF, which has also made investments in Uber, Tesla and Lucid, has enjoyed a “huge benefit” from the first Vision Fund, he told Bloomberg.

“We would not put, as PIF, another $45 billion if we didn’t see huge income in the first year with the first $45 billion,” Bin Salman said. He added that its investment in the first Vision Fund will help PIF achieve its new target of $600 billion in assets by 2020, up from the almost $400 billion it currently holds.

SoftBank Group has been contacted for comment.

SoftBank Group and Saudi Arabia’s other partnerships include a deal to build the world’s biggest solar plant for $200 billion. The PIF said earlier this month the plant is still going ahead despite a Wall Street Journal report that it had been shelved.

WeWork China raises $500M to triple the number of cities it covers

WeWork’s China business is getting a fresh injection of capital after it raised $500 million.

The company entered China two years ago and today it covers Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu with nearly 40 locations. It claims 20,000 members, and it is also active in Hong Kong, which technically falls under ‘Greater China.’

The new capital comes from Trustbridge Partners, Singapore’s Temasek, SoftBank, SoftBank’s Vision Fund and Hony Capital. WeWork said it’ll be used for expansion into six new cities: those are Shenzhen, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Nanjing, and Wuhan. This new raise is a Series B, WeWork China previously scored a $500 million Series A last year, which was also when the Chinese entity was founded.

The company has been pretty busy over that 12-month period, most notably it scooped up its largest rival, Naked Hub, in an acquisition deal that is worth a reported $400 million and massively grew its reach.

Naked Hub builds on WeWork’s presence in Greater China by adding 24 office locations and a further 10,000 members. That’s why WeWork China’s figures are so impressive for just two years of operations. Now, this new capital will put WeWork’s own DNA into that network through this planned expansion spree.

“This investment will help WeWork fuel our mission to support creators, small businesses, and large companies across China,” WeWork CEO and co-founder Adam Neumann said in a statement. “WeWork has built an incredible team in China that supports our members every day, serving as a bridge for local companies who want to reach the world as well as for global companies that want to enter the Chinese market.”

Outside of China, WeWork is also making inroads in India — where it launched in 2017 — Korea, Japan (where it operates a joint venture with SoftBank) and Southeast Asia, where it made an acquisition to kick-start its presence. Indeed, WeWork has a float of around $500 million for its operations in Southeast Asia and Korea, although the total pot for India is unknown at this point.

WeWork China’s big raise comes days after Hong Kong’s Campfire pulled in $18 million and Awfis in India raised $20 million.

Coca-Cola is releasing a boozy version for the first time ever

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Mixing booze with Coke is not a new thing.

But now, Coca-Cola’s Japanese arm has seemingly caught on to that fact, with the news it’ll look to release an alcoholic drink for the first time in history.

It’ll be what’s called a Chu-Hi in Japan: A canned, ready-to-drink alcoholic beverage that’s traditionally made with the spirit shōchū, carbonated water, and lemon.

You can get Chu-Hi in flavours like lime, grapefruit, among others, and can get as strong as 9 percent alcohol. While Coca-Cola haven’t released any detail about the product, it appears they won’t be dropping anything too heavyweight. Read more…

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Japan’s SmartHR raises $13.3M led by 500 Startups

 SmartHR, a startup helping Japanese employers run HR and staffing smarter — because that’s of course its name — has raised a JPY 1.5 billion ($13.3 million) Series B round led by 500 Startups Japan. The startup is perhaps comparable to the likes of Zenefits and Gusto in the U.S. — it aims to drag Japanese HR departments into today’s digital era. “In Japan… Read More

Hello Aibo, goodbye Alexa: Sony turns robot dog into AI assistant

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That robotic dog you wanted as a kid is back. And sadly, it’s just as expensive.

Sony had announced that after more than a decade since retiring its robot dog product, the Aibo will be coming back for real.

Image: aibo/sony/screenshot

The new Aibo has also learnt some new tricks. Its AI capability will allow it to learn and recognise people’s faces, and remember and avoid obstacles in a room.

It’ll also be voice-capable and cloud connected, being able to record photos and save them online. For example, saying “take a picture” will trigger the Aibo to take a shot and send it to the cloud, accessible later from a companion app.  Read more…

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Asics is going to bake your next custom sneaker in a microwave

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Custom sneakers can usually take weeks, if not months, to be made, but Asics is going to make you one the same way you make instant ramen.

The sportswear giant says it’ll soon introduce microwaves in its stores that can “bake” soles in just around 15 seconds.

It’s still in testing, but the company has produced an official site and videos illustrating the process, so it looks like it’ll happen sooner than later.

Image: asics

When ready, customers will be able to choose their colour of the various layers of their sneaker soles, including the midsole and upper. The component for the sole comes in pellet form, and gets microwaved in a mold, Asics explains in a new microsite. Read more…

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Ikea has launched a new furniture collection just for your pets

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Even dogs and cats need to relax in style.

Ikea has just dropped a new collection designed exclusively for pets.

The new Lurvig collection, which means “hairy” in Swedish, made its pilot launch in five countries — Japan, France, Canada, U.S and Portugal (Algarve) at the start of October, an Ikea spokesperson told Mashable.

From a plush dog bed to a fancy scratching mat, Ikea’s pretty much got you covered.

Image: ikea japan/instagram

Image: IKEA JAPAN/INSTAGRAM

Here’s the catalogue, even if you aren’t in a country that has the goods yet yet. Read more…

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Tokyo subway at rush hour is just endless humans, and it's terrifying

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We definitely wouldn’t want to be caught in this rush hour traffic.

A Japanese user posted a video on Twitter showing thousands and thousands of commuters making their way in and out of Tokyo’s Shinagawa station. 

According to news outlet Sora News, twitter user @sigeyosiinoue spent half an hour recording the almost one minute long video, starting at around 8:26am. 

Shinagawa station is one of the city’s busiest stations.

It’s not uncommon for train stations in Tokyo to be filled with busy commuters, but even Japanese users on social media were taken aback by the constant stream of human traffic. Read more…

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Kit Kat with a cake in it is most luxe Kit Kat you'll ever eat

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Kit Kat is no stranger to variations on its classic wafer, but this one is fancy AF. 

After debuting a 24-karat gold covered Kit Kat, a sake-flavoured Kit Kat and Kit Kat sushi, the chocolate bar brand has come up with the Chocolatory Gateau Mignon, which has a piece of rich chocolate cake inside it.

Image: Nestlé Japan

The Gateau Mignon Kit Kat took Japanese pastry chef Yasumasa Takagi over a year to develop. Takagi used a lengthy process of trial and error to create a fondant cake with just the right texture to balance the sweetness of the bar’s other ingredients, according to SoraNews24Read more…

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Konami doesn't forgive and forget if you quit the company, apparently

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Apparently Konami will bear a serious grudge if you quit the company.

The Japanese video game giant behind classics like Dance Dance Revolution and the Metal Gear franchise is in the news right now for apparently punishing employees within the industry for leaving the firm.

Konami’s pretty influential, so being on its sh*tlist is pretty bad if you’re trying to develop a career in video games.

Ex-Konami staffers told the Nikkei Asian Review: “If you leave the company, you cannot rely on Konami’s name to find a job.”

The report goes on to say that Konami even goes so far as to file complaints with other gaming companies, if they hire former staff. Read more…

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Japan passes law legalizing Airbnb and other sharing economy rentals

 There’s good news for Airbnb in Japan where the government has approved legislation that legalizes its service, and others like it, in the country. The law, which was passed by Japan’s upper house on Friday, will allow home-owners to let out their property to paying guests for up to 180 days per year. They are subject to registering with local authorities who, in turn, have license… Read More

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Artist's amazingly intricate cardboard creations will definitely make you smile

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These figurines are a far cry from your usual cardboard cut-outs. 

Monami Ohno, a Japanese artist, transforms plain brown cardboard into incredible objects. 

From Star Wars to Super Mario, there’s nothing she hasn’t done. 

5月4日は世界中でスターウォーズの日! Day of STAR WARS!4.5.2016 #StarWars #cardboard

A post shared by Monami Ohno (@monamincb) on

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These hyperrealistic handmade dogs will bend your mind

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Much wow. These felt doggos appear to have pulled the wool over our eyes.

A Japanese artist, @yomoko888‘s super realistic handmade felt dogs are going viral on Twitter for obvious reasons.

Yomoko888 often churns out realistic Corgis, Shiba Inus and Dachshunds: 

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These delicious cakes are actually disgusting vegetables in disguise

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You don’t win friends with salad. But maybe salad disguised as cake will buy you some time before social ostracisation kicks in.

Behold: The salad cake. It’s basically a bunch of vegetables that are smashed together to look like a delicious, sugary dessert — but is actually very good for you. How disappointing. 

Misuki Moriyasu is the genius creator of this cruel trick of the eye. Her Vegedeco Salad Cafe located in Nagoya, Japan, will serve you healthy cake that’s “fun to look at, fun to eat and full of joy using a new shape of salad.” Read more…

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Sleep in a spherical capsule hotel that floats over to a desert island by morning

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Imagine going to sleep in a floating capsule hotel, and waking up on a desert island in the morning.

Amazingly, that’s an experience a theme park in Japan plans to offer.

Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch-themed park in Japan, is building spherical capsules which float on the sea. 

海上ぷかぷか、球体ホテル ハウステンボスが開発中 | 2017/3/6 – 共同通信 47NEWS https://t.co/v50SSTchqc

— 惰眠 (@Damin_EN500) March 6, 2017

The two-storey capsules are left to float slowly overnight to an island, which houses numerous attractions that tourists can explore the following day. Read more…

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The robots studying the Fukushima nuclear waste site keep failing

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The robots sent in to investigate the nuclear fallout at Fukushima just aren’t good enough.

Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) head of decommissioning admitted on Thursday that more creativity was needed in developing its robots sent to the reactive zone.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant was massively damaged in 2011, when three of the six nuclear reactors suffered meltdown after being struck by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and associated tsunami waves.

More than 100,000 residents of the nearby Fukushima Prefecture had to be relocated, and the government has spent the last five years struggling with the aftermath. The incident is regarded as the world’s largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Read more…

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Usain Bolt and Pikachu are in an ad together and Bolt's the bad guy

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The fastest man in the world is now a member of the Pokémon squad.

Pokémon’s latest ads, promoting its new video game series Sun and Moon, sees Usain Bolt starring alongside Pikachu.

Bolt, an eight-time Olympic gold medalist, is dressed as a member of Team Skull, an antagonist Pokémon gang.

“Even in a Pokemon battle, I’m number one,” declares Bolt in the video, before instructing his Pikachu to use his Thunderbolt (geddit) attack.

Bolt is also seen striking his signature victory pose in the video.

Image: ポケモン公式YouTubeチャンネル/ youtube Read more…

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A traditional Japanese painting of Iron Man will look perfect in your grown up apartment

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Unlike a lot of fan art you’ve got hanging up on your wall, this one’s going to kick up the classiness a notch.

Behold Marvel’s Iron Man rendered in a Japanese ink-wash technique called sumi-e.

水墨画ぽい練習でアイアンマン pic.twitter.com/MsNuqlLUkM

— ikuyoan (@ikuyoan) February 16, 2017

Japanese artist Ikuyoan drew Iron Man using thick, dark lines of ink to frame the superhero.

You can watch Ikuyoan’s process as he draws Iron Man in a more modern, conventional form:

This isn’t the first time Iron Man has been drawn in sumi-e. Here’s another painting done in the same ink-wash that shows how gorgeous the style is: Read more…

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The CPAC replacement speaker for Milo Yiannopoulos was a notorious Japanese cult-member

After his awkward endorsement of pedophilia disqualified Milo Yiannopoulos to be the hard right’s token gay pal, CPAC needed a new speaker to fill his slot their conference, and the guy they chose was Jikido ‘Jay’ Aeba, a member of the notorious Japanese “Happy Science” cult, who helped the religion extrude a tendril into the political realm by founding the Happiness Realization Party.
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You can almost taste McDonald's newest burger in this 'Star Trek' movie

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Who needs to eat a burger IRL when you can just taste it virtually?

McDonald’s Japan has released a 4D “Star Trek” movie in promotion of its newest creation, the Yakki burger

The Yakki burger is a pork-based burger with ginger and soy-sauce based Japanese sauce.

Since audiences couldn’t actually eat the burger during the film, they got the next best thing — a virtual eating experience, or the fourth dimension in 4D. 

This included having water sprayed at their faces to signify the juicy pork patty popping out of the screen, and getting a whiff of its salt, ginger and black pepper seasoning in the cinema.  Read more…

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Japan zoo kills 57 monkeys carrying 'invasive alien' genes

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A Japanese zoo has killed 57 snow monkeys by lethal injection, after they were found to be carrying genes of an “invasive alien species.”

One third of the monkeys at the Takagoyama Nature Zoo were found to have been crossbred with the rhesus macaque.

The rhesus macaque, which is native to parts of India and China, is banned in Japan, and therefore categorised as an “invasive alien species.”

The snow monkeys were believed to have escaped from their enclosure and bred with the wild monkeys outside the facility.

The monkeys had “to be killed to protect the indigenous environment,” an official told the Japan Times. Read more…

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India is getting an undersea bullet train

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Drills for India’s first bullet train has begun, according to reports. Construction of the 7-kilometres (about 4.3 miles) undersea rail corridor between Mumbai and Ahmadabad in western India is slated to begin in 2018.

The drilling will help ascertain soil conditions under water. “Soil and rocks below the 70-meter-deep see are being tested as part of the geo-technical and geo-physical investigation undertaken for the entire project,” a senior Railway Ministry official reportedly said. 

Estimated to cost about Rs 97.6 billion ($14.5 billion), 80% of the project’s funding will come by way of a loan from Japan that operates the Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka. India will replicate that system. The project cost includes possible cost escalation, interest during construction and import duties.  Read more…

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Guy sets new world record for most finger snaps in a minute

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We can’t even begin to imagine how much practice this guy had to do.

A Japanese student has just broken the Guinness World Record for the most finger snaps in a minute. 

Satoyuki Fujimara snapped his fingers 296 times in one minute, on Tantei! Knightscoop, a Japanese TV show, in the presence of a Guinness judge.

Judge Kaoru Ishikawa, along with two professional sound engineers, later reviewed the footage and made sure that only audible clicks made using Fujimura’s thumb and middle finger would be included. 

The snaps are pretty darn impressive, but his expressions are even more priceless.  Read more…

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There's a chocolate manhole cover in Japan and we don't know why

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It’s a weird shape to mold chocolate into.

@38beem, a Japanese Twitter user — in an effort to make a chocolatey gift for Valentine’s Day — created what seems to be a manhole cover set into a sidewalk out of chocolate.

He documented the process on Twitter: 

マンホールチョコの部分はマンホールのシリコン型を作り、溶かしたチョコレートを流し込むオーソドックスな工程で作られています。 pic.twitter.com/cdjeSkBEC0

— おでこし(金谷)Berryzデスロード (@38beem) February 6, 2017

First, he produced a silicone mold for the manhole cover, then filled it with chocolate. 

マンホールチョコレートできたよ〜!
ビターなおすい味だよ〜! pic.twitter.com/tsuu4RSP17

— おでこし(金谷)Berryzデスロード (@38beem) February 2, 2017 Read more…

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For some reason, Justin Bieber is not over that PPAP song yet

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Remember that Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen guy? Justin Bieber does.

The duo are teaming up together for a new Japanese commercial, in what could be the most unlikely bromance of 2017.

【ジャスティンfacebookより】#学割ってる #softbank
😱😱😱#justinJP pic.twitter.com/D2J6uCMvST

— Justin Bieber JAPAN (@bieber_japan) February 5, 2017

The actual commercial, for Japanese telecommunications company SoftBank, has yet to air, but a behind-the-scenes video has just been released and is getting shared quickly in Japan.

Japanese singer Piko-Taro took the Internet by storm last year after his song PPAP, which has been viewed over 113 million times, went viral.  Read more…

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Magikarp-shaped taiyaki pancake is the most obvious yet genius evolution

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Magikarp is pretty much a flop as a Pokémon, but as a pancake, it’s a genius idea.

One specialty store in Japan has decided to make a Magikarp version of the traditional fish-shaped taiyaki pancake.

Magikarp’s appeal is, undoubtedly, super effective: 

帰りによって美味しくゲットできたよ!!くりこ庵のコイキング(たい焼き)!!(っ’ヮ’c)ウッヒョォォ♥
袋可愛いのに裏がメチャ切ないのシュールwww pic.twitter.com/0VzTGPZTrL

— でちゃう!WEB (@dechau_WEB) January 23, 2017

Magikarp Taiyaki https://t.co/hn9chmT9Yn What more is there to say? pic.twitter.com/fxZlmEntpS

— Tofugu (@tofugu) February 2, 2017

横浜のくりこ庵ってとこのコイキング焼き♡
なにこれ可愛い…!♡ pic.twitter.com/vb9K1UbrZi

— りこ。 (@riko_na_11) February 2, 2017 Read more…

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Google wins its latest case against the 'right to be forgotten'

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The “right to be forgotten” isn’t guaranteed worldwide, according to a new court ruling. 

Google on Tuesday won the latest lawsuit over its search results when a court in Japan ruled that the company did not need to remove links to articles written about a man arrested on child pornography charges, the Wall Street Journal reported

The “right to be forgotten” is a term coined by a European Union court in 2014. Europeans can request that information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive” be removed from the search engine. 

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Google wins its latest case against the 'right to be forgotten'

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The “right to be forgotten” isn’t guaranteed worldwide, according to a new court ruling. 

Google on Tuesday won the latest lawsuit over its search results when a court in Japan ruled that the company did not need to remove links to articles written about a man arrested on child pornography charges, the Wall Street Journal reported

The “right to be forgotten” is a term coined by a European Union court in 2014. Europeans can request that information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive” be removed from the search engine. 

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Google wins ‘right to be forgotten’ battle in Japan

google-shop13 Google has won a long-standing battle in Japan that drew parallels with Europe’s “right to be forgotten” ruling. The Japanese Supreme Court today dismissed four cases against the U.S. company seeking the removal of allegedly defamatory comments in its Google Maps service, including one high-profile case involving a medical clinic. Back in April 2015, the Chiba District… Read More

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You can now point your phone at Japanese text and get an instant translation

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Google’s Word Lens is a smartphone app that lets you point your camera at text and get an instant translation on-screen. That’s nifty enough as it is when you’re navigating a foreign country, but it gets far more useful when you’re dealing with an alphabet or characters you can’t even read.

On Thursday, Google announced that Word Lens now supports Japanese, meaning you can go to Japan, point it at kanji characters — of which there are thousands — and see what the heck they mean right on your phone’s display.   

As Google points out, you could already take a photo of Japanese text and get a translation with the Google Translate app, but Word Lens shows you the translation live as you move the phone around. Even better, it works when you don’t have internet connectivity.  Read more…

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One of Japan's biggest hotel chains is denying that the Nanjing Massacre took place

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Chinese tourists are boycotting APA hotels in droves, one of Japan’s largest hotel chains, after people discovered it had placed books denying the Nanjing massacre throughout its rooms.

The book, titled “Theoretical Modern History II — The Real History of Japan,” was written by the CEO of the APA Group, Toshio Motoya, who wrote under the pen name Seiji Fuji.

The Nanjing massacre refers to the Japanese military invasion of the city of Nanjing in China in 1937, in which around 300,000 Chinese citizens were believed to be murdered and over 20,000 women were sexually assaulted by the Japanese troops. Read more…

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Japan is trying to help clueless tourists figure out their high-tech toilets

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There are toilets, and then there are Japanese toilets.

Often more sophisticated than their western counterparts, even public toilets come with various features such as heated  seats, in-built bidets and some even play you music.

Tourists are often unable to understand the many controls, finding going to the toilet more complicated than they thought.

In a bid to make itself more tourist-friendly ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan’s Restroom Industry Association has agreed to create a set of standardised icons, so all tourists will now know their backside wash from their small flush.  Read more…

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