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Japanese startup star has big plans for Asia

Teruhide Sato lives in Singapore, where he runs Beenext, an investment fund focusing on startups in India and Southeast Asia.

Beenext, a Singapore-based venture capital fund, is doing more than investing in promising tech companies. It is working to build a regionwide network that it hopes will take Asia's nascent startup ecosystem to the next level.

     Run by Japanese investor and Beenos founder Teruhide Sato, Beenext invests in early-stage startups across diverse sectors, primarily in India and Southeast Asia. Its initial fund, estimated at $60 million, covers e-commerce, big data, fintech and robotics.

     "We will likely focus on India in the coming 10 years," Sato said, "but we will keep an open eye on movements in the region and beyond."

     Sato, who says he has never been an employee of any company, founded Beenos (formerly netprice.com) in 1999. The Internet and e-commerce service provider combines what he calls the king and queen of business models: a marketplace and a payment solution. This "royal marriage" has served Beenos well. The company went public in 2004, and in fiscal 2015, it logged 17 billion yen (about $140 million) in sales.

     E-commerce, the backbone of Beenos, has proven a solid foundation for growth. The industry has been expanding rapidly for over 20 years, weathering bouts of economic turmoil.

     Beenos and Beenext, which was set up last year, are focusing on India and Southeast Asia, where the "magic" of the online environment can be particularly potent. E-commerce, for example, can make inadequate physical infrastructure much less of a problem, or allow consumers to shop online even if they don't have a bank account -- a prime example of technology leapfrogging gaps in development.

     "We are in a situation where technology drives innovation, and innovation will change the world," Sato said. But the conditions for startups vary widely across Asia, and because the region's startup ecosystem is still relatively young, he said, lessons should be shared across countries and industries.

     One unique feature of Beenext is its BEE Global Camp, an annual gathering that brings together the founders of all the startups the fund has invested in. The goal is to create a regionwide network of entrepreneurs to foster new business.

     Sato plans to hold the next BEE Global Camp in India. Why there?

     "India is a good example of a country that has seen substantial improvements in terms of economic scale," he said. The world's largest democracy has a rapidly growing market, and companies there receive substantial support from the government. Recognizing this potential, more Japanese businesses have begun working with startups in India.

     To boost startup growth, Sato says, Asia needs more venture capital and angel investors, as well as a higher number of mergers and acquisitions and initial public offerings. "The faster you move, the better," he said. "The others will soon follow when they see your success."

     Nikola Pavesic of Pioneers Asia contributed to this article.

Nikkei and Vienna-based Pioneers will host the Pioneers Asia startup event in Tokyo on March 23 to give promising entrepreneurs the chance to turn their vision into reality. Participating startups will be chosen from among hundreds of applicants worldwide. This is the second in a series featuring finalists of the main competition, as well as key speakers and other attendees.

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