Successful Startups Prove Traditional Kyoto Culture Can Power Innovation

Successful Startups Prove Traditional Kyoto Culture Can Power Innovation

For many, Innovation and startups aren’t the first things that spring to mind when they think of Kyoto. Japan’s old capital is usually associated with temples, shrines, cherry blossoms and geisha. But one Frenchman came here, took a simple, old-fashioned idea and turned it into a $2 million business. For more and more people, Kyoto is a city of opportunity, where the traditional and cutting-edge can come together to spark new businesses.

Sparking a bento box boom

“Stay hungry, stay foolish,” reads a slogan on the wall of Thomas Bertrand’s third-floor office in a small building near Kyoto City Hall. The Steve Jobs quote has inspired entrepreneurs around the world, but few have done what Bertrand has done. He moved from his native France halfway around the world to Japan, learned Japanese and set up a company selling lunchboxes inspired by traditional Japanese bento, which are trays or containers holding foods such as fish, rice, noodles and vegetables. On the ground floor of the building, a retail shop showcases some of the bento boxes he sells: some look like cartoonish ninja or geisha, some have traditional Japanese wave motifs and others look like sleek silver capsules. There seem to be bento boxes for every taste.

Established in his apartment in 2008, his company Bento&co now has 18 employees and revenues of about $2 million. Through its online sites, it sells more than 500 varieties of bento box, including its own designs. The firm sells boxes—not food that goes inside them—as well as kitchenware products, and it believes these are economical and good for the planet. Bento&co sells to people around the world. Bertrand gives part of the credit for his success to Kyoto itself.

“Kyoto can be a leading town for startups because there are so many students and active young people here,” says Bertrand. “It’s easy to hire talented Japanese and people from overseas. We can work hard and relax easily. It’s also very simple to do day trips to Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train.”

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