Why is it Important Now?
- A Drone Development Venture Attracting Talent from Around the World
Various languages can be heard at Enroutelab Co., Ltd. (Mr. Kai Yan is on the far right)
“In-bound consumption,” or consumption by foreign tourists, is very brisk in Japan. In 2017, the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan grew 19.3% compared with the previous year to a record high of 28.7 million people (according to a survey by the Japan National Tourism Organization), providing a boost to the Japanese economy. However, it is not only from outside Japan that foreign people can have an impact on the country. Foreign people can also support Japanese society and industry and promote change from within Japan.
Foreign People’s Contributions to Japan at Historical Milestones
Due to the fact that Japan, an island country, closed itself off from the outside world during the Edo period from the 17th century to the 19th century, there is the perception that the country has tended to lag behind in internationalization. However, there is no shortage of examples of foreign people accepted into Japan triggering change during historical milestones. Such foreigners include the Chinese monk Jianzhen in ancient times (8th century), Christian missionaries in the Age of Warring States (from the late 15th century to the late 16th century) and foreigners employed by the Japanese government to help Japan’s modernization in the Meiji period (from the late 19th century to the early 20th century). In modern Japan as well, there are cases of foreign business executives turning around struggling Japanese companies. Foreign players’ contributions to the Japanese national team at the Rugby World Cup are also still fresh in our minds. Moreover, it may not be something that people often think about, but many foreign people contribute to the Japanese society on a daily bases.
Silicon Valley-Like Agility
“This company is agile like a Silicon Valley venture,” said Mr. Kai Yan, Chief AI Officer at Enroutelab Co., Ltd. (Saitama Prefecture), which engages in the development of drones, explaining his reason for joining the company. He came to Japan from China in 2003 and studied at the University of Tokyo. After advancing to a graduate school and obtaining a PhD, he moved to the United States and stayed there as a researcher at Stanford University. When he left the university in order to start up his own venture company, he became acquainted with Tomoyuki Izu, the President of Enroutelab.
The company’s head office is located in a typical suburban residential area which is less than 30 minutes on the Tobu Tojo express train from Ikebukuro, Tokyo. There are vegetable fields located here and there around the head office, which is a 15-minute walk from the nearest station. Enroutelab is a small company with a workforce of approximately 30 employees, around half of whom are foreign workers. A variety of foreign languages are spoken at the office, including English, Chinese, Spanish and French, in addition to Japanese. People from Nigeria and South Africa are scheduled to join the company as new employees in the near future. “Our employees include people from all five continents,” Mr. Kai Yan said.
Many foreign engineers work at Enroutelab
Enroutelab is a venture company that develops drones and other unmanned vehicles on a custom-made basis. Among the products now under development are a drone intended to transport pharmaceutical products to remote islands and other isolated locations in the event of a disaster and a drone capable of searching for people from the sky in the event of an earthquake disaster in cooperation with rescue teams. When it develops a new technology, Enroutelab releases it under an open source license. The company aims to create an open ecosystem for the development of industrial-use drones—a platform comparable to the Android operating system for smartphones.
Parts are Readily Available through Online Shopping
Mr. Kai Yan is engaged in the development of AI algorithms used for drones and other unmanned vehicles. He was creating drones for himself before joining the company, but there were limits to his efforts. “When I flew a drone inside my condominium, it damaged the walls,” he said. The first idea that came to him after joining Enroutelab was, “Here is a vast open space, so I can play with drones as much as I want.” The company stocks a large amount of necessary drone parts, and parts that are out of stock can be readily purchased through online shopping for next-day delivery. At Enroutelab, employees can constantly take on new challenges. Newly developed technology can immediately be integrated into drones for testing. Because of this agility and freedom, Enroutelab appears to be “unlike Japanese companies” to most foreign people who join the company.
Securing sufficient space within the office for flying drones freely
Some employees joined Enroutelab as mid-career workers moving from large companies. At large Japanese companies, “some people have a sense of dissatisfaction because they are not assigned jobs or positions in which they can take advantage of their skills due to a lack of Japanese language proficiency,” Mr. Kai Yan said. Therefore, many foreign workers come to Enroutelab because they “place top priority on creating something new and doing what they want to do.”
A Company Where Employees Can Do What They Want to Do
The control framework which Enroutelab has released under an open source license is used by engineers around the world to develop drones and other unmanned vehicles, and they provide feedback on technical problems to the company. “If we can do what we want, the location does not matter. In Japan, next-day delivery is available from online shopping sites, so convenience may be better than in Silicon Valley,” Mr. Kai Yan pointed out. As many of the Japanese employees speak English, there aren’t any communication problems within the office. Moreover, if they live in Japan for some time, the foreign employees can develop sufficient Japanese language proficiency to be understood. Foreign employees actively take part in official customer visits and handle customer inquiries directly. “There are similar companies in other countries as well, but being actually connected with customers and having the ability to address problems promptly are our company’s strengths,” stated Mr. Kai Yan. According to him, it is when completing procedures at government offices and bank branches that foreign employees often face inconveniences. “In those cases, Japanese employees accompany them to provide assistance,” Mr. Kai Yan said with a smile.
※On March 8, 2018, the name of the corporation was changed to EAMS LAB Co., Ltd.