When entrepreneur Machi Takahashi made the transition from executive assistant to business development at a research institute, she could not have imagined the move would lead to her creating a spin-off company.
Yet, as cofounder and co-CEO of Stroly, a free platform for sharing GPS-enabled designed maps, that is exactly what she has done.
Established 13 years ago, Stroly is an award-winning, series-funded startup with an expanding footprint in Japan, France, and the United States. At the same time, the company is creating waves on the tech scene in Japan and abroad.
Earlier this year, Stroly was the only representative from Japan at the pitch contest at South by Southwest (SXSW), a film, interactive media, and music conference and festival held annually in Austin, TX. The startup won first prize in the Entertainment and Content category.
Takahashi, meanwhile, has become a much-sought-after founder in Japan and abroad. This year, Forbes Japan included her on their Self-Made Women 100 list of leading women entrepreneurs.
ART AND TECH
Born in Yokohama but raised in Osaka, Takahashi was a sixth grader when she and her family relocated to New York. In hindsight, the move would lead to her lifelong love for the arts—a passion that, later on, moved her to establish Stroly.
For a Japanese child growing up in New York—and who could not speak English fluently—visiting local museums was one of her most-frequent, and safest, activities.
After returning to Osaka for high school, Takahashi made her way back across the Pacific after graduation. She attended Carleton College, a liberal arts school in Northfield, MN, where she majored in art history.
“Attending a school like Carleton College, I was always being asked, ‘What do you really want to do? What’s your real interest?’ After two years of college, I really got into visual language—history of art really visualizes the whole history of culture. I also had the opportunity to be an intern at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was really cool.”
The experience at Carleton College and the Art Institute of Chicago was inspiring. But what Takahashi was really interested in was the intersection of traditional arts and state-of-the-art technology. Shortly after graduation, and desiring to learn more about the tech industry, she joined an IT startup in Osaka.
“I was used to working with traditional arts that are locked away in museums, but I wanted to go into the world of the internet,” she explained.
Soon after she joined the startup, she made another change. Almost on a whim, she joined the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR), an organization based in Kyoto. ATR conducts advanced research in such fields as life sciences, robotics, and telecommunications.
At first, she worked as an assistant to ATR’s president. But when the opportunity arose to join the organization’s newly established business development division, she took it.
“ATR had a section that spun off basic technology into businesses. So, I volunteered to be one of the people converting their seed technologies into commercial products.”
MEETING OF MINDS
Those early days in ATR’s business development unit were challenging for Takahashi. But the experience allowed her to pursue some of her earliest passions—bringing together art and technology.
Tasked with spinning off the fruits of ATR’s research and development, Takahashi and her colleagues found it a struggle to bring the organization’s nascent ideas to the market.
“We were very seed orientated back then, but, after trying a few things out, we became more customer focused and user interface oriented,” she confessed.
With the new focus on users, Takahashi deployed ATR’s tech based on artificial intelligence (AI) to suit the needs of clients, including museums in the Kansai region.
Such projects included creating an AI-powered recommendation service for museums. The service alerted visitors to artworks they may like based on their preferences of other works. That was in 2004 and 2005.
“That’s when we came up with the idea of Stroly, which was established as a 100-percent-owned subsidiary of ATR.”
Takahashi became Stroly’s co-CEO and cofounder, together with Toru Takahashi, an expert in information engineering. A married couple, they met when both worked at ATR and are a rare example of a husband-and-wife team at the helm of a tech startup.
With its first iteration created in the pre-smartphone era, Stroly initially built a reputation for creating art-recommendation and guidance systems for galleries, museums, and amusement parks.
At the time, handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs), the PlayStation Portable video game console, and the Nintendo DS game system were all the rage, Takahashi recalled.
Such devices, she explained, included embedded web browsers. Using Wi-Fi, users could gain access to maps and guides powered by Stroly on their PDA.
“We were doing something very edgy for its time,” she said.
It was in that period that the company created a guidance system for a theme park—but with an important innovation: their system had GPS positioning for illustrated maps.
“Many people probably use Google Maps to go from point A to B. But if you want to find richer, more detailed information, you probably look for other maps, such as those you get at the tourism office.
“But, using such maps, it’s really hard to find your precise location. The Stroly platform helps you locate your position on these,” Takahashi said. “And this technology of enabling GPS on any map of any form is very difficult to make. A lot of companies have tried and failed.”
Stroly’s technology transforms well designed but information-poor and inanimate maps into information-rich and engaging platforms. Companies such as real estate agents or train service operators can use the information gathered on the Stroly platform to gain a deep degree of insight into customer behavior when on their sites.
With a proof of concept and several patents in hand, Stroly was able to secure funding from government and other sources, allowing the startup to develop the platform. In 2016, the spinoff became independent of ATR, Takahashi and her cofounder having bought out the company and its intellectual property assets.
Stroly’s, whose trade name is derived from the words stroll and story, has offices in Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as the United States and France.
The platform does more than simply produce engaging, data-rich, interactive maps. Users can upload any number of maps to Stroly, including historical maps, those of movie locations, or guides to local craft beer providers.
You can also locate your real-time position on any such map, or share your journey—including text or video memos—with others through social media.
For Takahashi, this is a game-changer. “The platform is fun, because it’s not just a regular map that gives you information. Our maps have hand-picked, curated information. And you can actually enjoy how someone views the world.”
So, it’s not surprising that companies in the travel and leisure world, quite apart from real estate, transport and other industries, are beating a path to Stroly’s front door in a bid to collaborate.
“Our customers are interested in things like area branding, tourism, and events.”
This year, for instance, the Stroly platform powered SXSW’s official event map online, as well as other illustrated maps around the event’s location in Austin.
Stroly has more than 70 projects currently underway and about 50 corporate clients, including real estate agency Mitsui Fudosan Co., Ltd., transport company Keihan Electric Railway Co., Ltd., and travel agency JTB Corporation.
The startup is clearly on a path to success. Looking back, can Takahashi recall a time when the going got tough? She can.
Around 2009, when Stroly was still under the auspices of ATR, there was an expectation from the parent company that other seed projects were to be prioritized.
“I had to fight against that, and I had to prove that this was a better idea than the one they come up with. So that was hard. We had to do a lot of in-house adjustments.”
And with funding from the parent company drying up, and not being able to raise funds externally while still under the umbrella of a research institute, Takahashi felt that she needed help to make decisions about a way forward.
To that end, she joined Silicon Valley-based accelerator Women’s Startup Lab (WSL), a project to support female founders. WSL was established by Japanese entrepreneur Ari Horie.
“I attended their two-week acceleration program in 2015, and was able to speak with a number of successful mentors. They had really good advice and feedback about our platform, including how I should grow it.”
Equally important, Takahashi received expert advice on financing, business models, and scaling while at WSL. When she returned to Japan, she and her cofounder were in a position to make a decision—and that’s when they decided to buy out the startup and go it alone.
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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