Founder of software company who turned down SoftBank joins ranks of Japan’s billionaires

  • Startups
  • Artificial Intelligence

Founder of software company who turned down SoftBank joins ranks of Japan’s billionaires

At 23, Shunji Sugaya had what he calls a “life-changing episode.”

It was March 2000, and Sugaya had just won an award at a business contest where Masayoshi Son, the founder of what was then called SoftBank Corp., was a judge. He sent Son an email to thank him, the two met up, and before long SoftBank offered to buy Sugaya’s idea for $2.8 million or for Sugaya to join the company and receive stock options.

Sugaya turned it down.

“It gave me a big boost in confidence, as I was a student — I was so happy I could dance,” he said. “We were very grateful for the offer but we politely declined and decided to do it ourselves.”

So Sugaya started his own company, Optim Corp., which now provides business management platforms using artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technologies. The bet has paid off, with Sugaya joining the ranks of billionaires in Japan alongside Son.

Optim’s shares have gained 79 percent this year after rising as much as 7.9 percent Wednesday, as doing business remotely has become a necessity during the coronavirus pandemic. Sugaya’s net worth, derived mainly from his roughly 64 percent stake in the company, has surged to about ¥108 billion ($1 billion), according to a calculation by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index that excludes shares pledged as collateral.

The virus has accelerated the shift from analog to digital business practices at companies in Japan, according to Sugaya, who is Optim’s president.

“Digitalization has progressed at great speed during the past three months,” he said. “It feels like quite a tailwind.”

Sugaya, now 43, was a computer programmer as far back as elementary school, when he created games and sold them to his friends for a few hundred yen.

Optim, which he founded in 2000, started out providing internet video advertising services. It got into AI and IoT as it worked with telecommunications giant Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. to create an internet connection service. Optim came up with software so that subscribers could set up the connection themselves and later developed remote support services.

Optim has since expanded its remote-control technologies. Its Optimal Biz line, a management platform for multiple devices including smartphones and tablets, helps companies control and secure employees’ mobile equipment, with functions such as remote locking and the ability to wipe lost or stolen devices to prevent data leakage.

The product accounts for about 40 percent of Japan’s mobile device management market, according to the company.

“This is a technology that can be applied in a wide range of fields,” said Kaname Fujita, an analyst at Ichiyoshi Research Institute Inc.

The company also develops remote support tools that allow sharing of screens with devices at different locations and remote operation.

With the government handing out ¥100,000 to all residents as part of its virus relief efforts, Optim decided to provide free use of its Optimal Remote product, which connects PCs to smartphones by screen sharing. That will help people avoid unnecessary trips to local government offices in the process of claiming the money, company spokesman Keiichi Yokoyama said.

Optim’s technologies are now used in industries including construction, health care, retail and finance. Major business partners include SoftBank, KDDI Corp. and Komatsu Ltd., according to the company’s website. Optim has ventured into Southeast Asia, starting with Vietnam, and it’s starting to expand into North America and Europe, according to Sugaya.

Optim also offers agricultural drones equipped with AI-based image analysis capabilities. They can recognize insects and pest damage and spray agricultural chemicals only on the affected areas, reducing labor and the amount of chemicals used.

To be sure, while the company’s stock has surged, so has its valuation. Optim trades at about 57 times book value, and about 172 times estimated earnings. The company posted revenue of ¥6.7 billion last fiscal year and made ¥117 million in profit. It has a market value of about $1.6 billion.

“I really don’t care” about the money, Sugaya said. Some two decades after he turned down Son’s offer, he says that if the company continues to create new things, revenue and profit will follow.

“In 20 years, I want us to be a company that people would point to and say, ‘Optim changed all kinds of industries with AI and IoT.’”

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Publication Date
Thu, 06/11/2020 - 00:00