Wearing his trademark fedora, Taizo Son enters the room almost running, while holding up his phone and filming. ‘I’m a video person,’ he explains on the go. It’s the second day of the Latitude 59 conference in Tallinn and he’s come to see how the kids’ area operates. It’s the first time in the history of this event that ‘future founders’ have their own designated area where they can build anything they want.
The area is hosted by two non-profits, Estonian found Eesti 2.0, and Taizo’s own VIVITA, a kids’ creativity environment model created in Japan that he now wants to import to Europe, starting in Tallinn.
All of a sudden, the already crowded kids’ area becomes busy with startup founders. People line up to talk to Taizo Son. Everyone wants to pitch their ideas, hoping to impress him. He’s known as a person who does not say ‘No’, at least not straight to someone’s face.
He speaks in a very soft and low-pitch voice, as if insisting that the listener lean in and pay more attention. Everyone is eager for his advice, and his money.
Game developer becomes a VC
No wonder people want to talk to him. In 2014, Forbes magazine placed Taizo Son at #30 among the most affluent people in Asia and more recently estimated his fortune to be $275 million. For many years in a row, the list has been topped by Masayoshi Son, Taizo’s elder brother (all in all, there were four brothers in their family), whose net worth has been estimated to be $21.9 billion. Masayoshi Son founded and runs SoftBank, a mobile telecom and investment firm.
Taizo’s own fortune comes from the online gaming company GungHo which he started in 1998, developing Puzzle & Dragons, once the world’s bestselling application for mobile phones. In 2009, he founded the seed accelerator Movida and four years later launched the venture capital firm Mistletoe. One of its first investments was Life is Tech!, a program that aims to teach the ‘art of making’ and ‘power to create’ to high school students.
Since then, he’s put $150 million into some 80 startups, backing entrepreneurs in more than ten countries. Companies in his portfolio are working on wearable monitoring devices, drones for medical emergencies and other high-tech advances.
So far, Mistletoe has one exit, SEA, an online and mobile entertainment provider in Southeast Asia, that went public in 2017. Mistletoe backed its Series D round with a group of notable Asian investors in 2016 for an undisclosed amount. In its angel round in 2008, SEA’s predecessor Garena was also backed by an Estonian investor, Toivo Annus.
Shaking up the education system
Born and raised in Japan but holding a Korean passport, he recently moved to Singapore with his family. ‘I have a 4-year-old son and as a parent I’m thinking of his future education and to be honest, I don’t want to send my boy to a traditional educational institution because the world has been changing dramatically but the traditional education system has not been updated.’
Taizo praises the Singaporean education system as compared to the Japanese system – it offers more various options – there are a large variety of international schools as well as local state and private schools.
It is appropriate to point out that Singapore ranks 1st, Japan 2nd and Estonia 3rd in OECD’s PISA-test scores and, obviously, all of the countries are very proud of their high rankings. At the same time, the countries tend not to advertise that Singapore ranks 34th, Japan 54th and Estonia 63rd in the UN’s World Happiness Index. As to what might be the reason that the countries with the best education systems create stressed and unhappy people, Taizo points out that the current education system has been designed to teach many kids efficiently at the same time. ‘The contents of this type of education are memory-centric: the definition of being smart equals the ability to memorize many things and being able to share that knowledge at the right time. It suits well for the kids who like this type of education, but makes others really miserable. They are bored, sad and don’t want to go to school any more. There is a top-down approach in the traditional education system and there are many kids who cannot keep up and drop out of this system.’
At the same time, there is a rightful concern that artificial intelligence (AI) is coming in and the machines are much more efficient in memorizing big chunks of data. Taizo believes that teachers’ roles should be shifted to become mentors or facilitators. Instead of teaching the old, existing knowledge, the teachers should also be enjoying learning new things with the kids. The world will get more and more diverse, people will live longer and we have to embrace new things and be able to constantly learn new things. ‘We cannot teach creativity by using a top-down approach. In order to foster creativity and collaboration skills, which are essential skills in the 21st century, we should instead go for a bottom-up approach – the curiosity in these kids.’
Landing in Tallinn
To solve this problem, a year ago Mistletoe launched an environment to empower creativity in kids in Kashiwanoha, on the outskirts on Tokyo. ‘At VIVITA we want to provide kids of any type of background with a sense of no limit, that anybody can create anything,’ Taizo sums up his idea. VIVISTOP, the physical space of VIVITA, is a learning center that has no curriculum and no teachers but offers the kids an environment to test their ideas. This fall, another VIVISTOP will open in the heart of Telliskivi Creative City in central Tallinn.
‘It was Kaidi Ruusalepp, the founder of Funderbeam, who introduced me to Taizo,’ says Mari-Liis Lind, who runs VIVITA’s operations in Tallinn. Kaidi visited VIVISTOP in Kashiwanoha with her sons last November and they were all fascinated by the concept, so she suggested that similar activities be set up in Estonia. For the past 5 years, Mari-Liis has been running the DigiGirls projects to get teenage girls excited about technology, so the topic of encouraging youngsters to try out new things and fostering 21st century skills is close to her heart.
’Initially, my plan was to visit Kashiwanoha just to get some inspiration for setting up a similar space in Tallinn,’ she says, ’but after a number of meetings and wholehearted discussions with Taizo and the VIVITA team in Kashiwanoha, we decided to develop this into a global movement and brand. I believe that Estonia, being one of the world’s most digitally advanced countries, is an ideal location to setup the second VIVISTOP.’
Taizo insists that he does not want to be a disruptor in the field of education but to provide a new environment on top of the existing one so that kids can get experience interacting with diverse people. ’Therefore, I’m very excited to see that we are creating VIVITA Tallinn with a local partner and creating an interaction with VIVITA Tokyo, VIVITA Singapore, VIVITA Taipei or VIVITA Rwanda (the last three have not been created yet – author) using video conferencing so that kids can interact with each other to create new things. The best way to predict the future is to invent it! I strongly believe that we have to provide the latest technology and the latest thinking to children as in 10-20 years they will be the main actors in society.’
Not just for the kids
The world knows far too many stories of the founders who did not exactly excel at school or even dropped out of universities to start their companies. While studying at the University of Tokyo, Taizo was not exactly a top student either but unlike some VCs who would insist that young founders drop their studies, he does not necessarily speak against obtaining higher degrees. As a matter of fact, his latest venture Mistletoe Foundation will join forces with Y Combinator and Singularity Institute in Silicon Valley to launch the WaveMaker Project this fall. The project will provide $10 000 grants for PhD-students who want to create new projects with startups in the area of mobility and sustainability. ‘We are looking for the Elon Musks of tomorrow,’ says Naoko Okumoto, who runs Mistletoe operations in the United States.
Taizo makes it clear he does not like any rankings nor cares about the success rates of his investments. He insists that sticking with one’s passion is far more important. And to him, making an impact on the education system, is an obvious passion.
‘I’ve met many entrepreneurs all around the world and the common characteristic of them is that they are not afraid of the risk or danger. I believe that the failure or success do not matter but what matters is my mission; to make the world a little bit better.’
Mistletoe’s investments in Estonia:
In September 2017, it was announced that Mistletoe is a lead investor in a $4 million series A round of Jobbatical, a platform that helps companies and individuals throughout the recruiting and hiring process. Jobbatical is the solution for the people who want to find new jobs abroad, and also assists with immigration to countries such as Spain, Germany, Finland, Estonia and more.
In 2017, Mistletoe announced a $2 million investment in Funderbeam, a 2013-founded marketplace for early-stage investments.
Funderbeam offers the opportunity for startups to raise growth capital, thereby providing immediate liquidity to investors worldwide. In essence, it is a stock exchange for pre-IPO growth companies, and anyone can invest and trade through the platform.
In May 2018, it was announced that Mistletoe was among a round of $2.3 million investors in LIFT99 Skillsharing Platform, which aims to transform the way startup founders share their expertise and experiences.
In June 2018, Mistletoe set up VIVITA International in Estonia to create a global network of creativity accelerators for children. Currently, VIVITA operates a VIVISTOP in Kashiwanoha in Japan. The second VIVISTOP will open in Tallinn in autumn 2018.