January 1, 2015 1:00 pm JST
'Internet of things'

Japan's Moff toy embraces connected world

RICHARD SOLOMON, Contributing writer

Akinori Takahagi, co-founder of Moff, displays the wearable smart toy he invented.

TOKYO -- Steve Jobs would not let his kids use the mobile devices he invented out of concern for their well-being. He might, however, have made an exception for the new smart toy invented by Japanese entrepreneur Akinori Takahagi. Takahagi's "Moff" allows children to use their imagination when playing with others, rather than sitting for hours alone before a screen.

     Takahagi came up with the idea shortly after becoming a father. The 37-year-old entrepreneur, a former Mercedes-Benz product developer, was on a trip to Silicon Valley at the time. There, he met CrunchBase President Matt Kaufman, who encouraged him to focus on developing simple devices that can connect to the Web in what is known as the "Internet of things." Kaufman said that interconnected, Internet-enabled devices were going to be the next big thing.

     After returning to Tokyo, Takahagi interviewed 40 families to find out what problems they had. He learned that parents had too many toys in the house. They piled up quickly as kids easily tire of what they own. Parents also complained that their kids spent too much time playing video games.

     He and his business partner, Motohiro Yonesaka, a former IBM software developer, then created the Moff. Worn on the wrist, the bright orange-colored band turns everyday objects into toys that make different sounds in accordance with hand gestures. For example, kids can turn a broomstick into a guitar while they pretend to be Jimi Hendrix. Or they can turn their hand into a tennis racket. Any number of play experiences can be enjoyed by selecting a different theme from within an app. Bluetooth, gyro and acceleration sensors make all of this possible with the aid of the smartphone. Moff -- which is Japanese English for "more fun" -- is also environmentally friendly as it turns everyday objects into toys.

     The founders launched Moff Inc. in October 2013 with their own money. Shortly after that, Tokyo incubator TomyK Ltd. provided a first round of angel financing and desk space from where the pair could work. They raised first-run production finance through Brooklyn-based Kickstarter. Kickstarter's crowdsourcing website allows startups such as Moff to presell merchandise. The advance revenue is then used to finance production. This form of financing has proved effective for startups looking to build the Internet of things.

     Moff Inc. had intended to raise $20,000 through Kickstarter. It surpassed that amount in just two days. When the company finished taking preorders at the end of April, they had received 1,600 orders, amounting to $80,000 in presale revenue. Mass production began. By the end of September, all 1,600 units had been shipped to their "backers."

     Now, Takahagi aims to ensure the platform's "stickiness," so that fickle children never run out of new exciting sound experiences to enjoy. To make that goal a reality, he releases new themes for free every week. Takahagi cruises store aisles seeking physical toys with sounds that he can turn into new themes.

     Startups such as Moff Inc. can get a start through crowdsourcing. Products can then be sold globally through online retailers such as Amazon. Typically, they need little explanation -- a positive for Japanese companies lacking the foreign language skills often required for overseas sales. With Japan's love for and culture of making products, known as monozukuri, expect to see many more startups that take advantage of the Internet of things sprouting from Japan. 

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