HAPPEN #13: Daniel & Kana, ITD GBS Tokyo

Daniel Schwarz is an IT architect and the founder of ITD-GBS. Kana Goto is a designer and ITD’s Art and Design Director. Together, they make a great team! They combine their different but complimentary skillsets to take Daniel’s startup from strength to strength. Most recently they were selected for the prestigious Social Change Makers accelerator program powered by the Nippon Foundation and ImpacTech. The pair credit their success to each other and the Venture Café Tokyo (VCT) community. So how did Daniel and Kana leverage the power of community to build a strong foundation for startup success?

- Daniel and Kana, I hear you have very interesting stories. Please can you introduce yourselves for the Venture Café Tokyo community?

Daniel: Hello! My name is Daniel Schwarz. I’m the CEO of IT Deutschland Global Business Solutions, ITD-GBS for short. My company builds sustainable IT solutions, such as cyber security and data privacy services, to help organizations realize secure and reliable work spaces. We aim to support business between Japanese and European companies especially, by providing IT solutions that are compliant with data law such as GDPR.

I am originally from Germany where I built my career as an IT architect. But I’d always been interested in Japan and dreamed of working here one day. So in 2018 when the EU implemented GDPR, a series of data protection laws that apply extraterritoriality, I thought, this is my chance! I saw an opportunity to use my data ethics expertise to support companies in Japan to continue business with Europe, compliantly.

But starting a business in Japan was tricky. Relationships are key at the beginning and I knew nobody. I faced some barriers of language and culture. That’s why I decided to investigate VCT so I could meet people to help me build my business in Japan. I met many amazing folks there, including….

Kana: Thanks Daniel-san. Hello to the Venture Café Tokyo community. I’m Kana Goto, the Art and Design Director for ITD-GBS, and CEO of my own design company & ETINCELLE WORKS. I’m a designer with a background in architectural design. I went to high school in the US and studied architectural design at UC Berkeley. After graduating, I worked for several architectural firms.

One of these firms was a startup in New York that used IoT to do interior design for buildings. This was the first time for me to see IT used to power the design process. It was fascinating.

Even after I left that startup and went to the West Coast to work on several residential design projects, I couldn’t stop thinking about my interest in using tech to enhance design. That’s why, a year later, I left my job, travelled the world, then came back to Japan to look for opportunities to fuse my design skills with IT.

While working on my own projects, my friend invited me to a Thursday Gathering, which is where I met my future boss Daniel!

- Thank you for sharing your fascinating backgrounds! And that’s right, you both met at a Thursday Gathering (TG). That itself is a very serendipitous happen! Please tell us more about how you started working together.

Kana: It’s an interesting story. So, after I came back to Japan, I was working on my own design projects as a freelance designer. At the same time, I wanted to see if I could find opportunities to synergize my design skills with innovators in the IT field.

One project I was working on was a design for a titanium straw. It sounds pretty random, right? But in 2019, everyone was talking about sustainable replacements to the plastic straws used in restaurants. Titanium is a very sustainable material, so I explored using it as a straw. I made a paper prototype and brought it with me to a TG, where Daniel happened to be attending too. We got talking and he was fascinated by my straw.

Daniel: It’s like the kind of straw James Bond would use right? I was so impressed by the novel idea of a reusable titanium straw. And because of that, I remembered Kana. About a year later, I needed a designer for my company, so I reached out to her to offer her a job. I knew from that straw and our conversation at TG that Kana had the innovative mindset and expertise in materials that I needed.

- I guess that straw is like the tunnel that connected you two as partners. Of course, you also have interestingly compatible skill sets right?

Kana: Yes, I think we have great synergy as a team. As a designer, I’m skilled in physical design, crafts, materials and so on. Daniel is an IT architect so he’s skilled at designing digital structures. Together we cover the whole design spectrum.

Now I’m actually working on the design of a product for ITD-GBS. This project fuses IT and physical, sustainable design, which is what I dreamed of doing since the states. Daniel is building the software.

Daniel: Yes, we are a super team! I engineer sustainable digital structures and Kana engineers sustainable physical structures. Our different backgrounds enable us to see what the other doesn’t, so we broaden each other’s perspective. For example, Kana is invaluable to ITD-GBS as designer, but also as a bridge between our company and potential customers in Japan. From website design, to pitches, Kana helps to communicate what ITD-GBS does in a way that makes sense to customers here in Japan. But because of my background, I would never think of it like she does. Perhaps it’s a case of my German engineering benefitting from Japanese perfection.

- It seems VCT has been a part of ITD-GBS’s journey since you founded it in 2018. What role has the community played in your startup’s growth over the past three years?

Daniel: Well ITD-GBS and VCT have grown alongside each other. I launched my company in 2018, the same year VCT started.

TG was one of the first places I went to meet people and break into the Japanese business world. It was appealing to me because it has a global atmosphere that is welcoming to Japanese and people like me from overseas.

I ended up joining the ambassador program. Anyone can sign up as an ambassador and volunteer to support events. I started helping out, anywhere and everywhere I could. I even made use of my German roots to pour beers. This was a great way for me to meet many interesting people like CEOs, academics, government officials; the connections I needed to grow my business.

I also took the opportunity to present about data ethics at TG. A professor from Tokyo Institute of Technology approached me after and we ended up collaborating on an online course about AI and Data Ethics. It’s available for free on EdX. Things like this have helped to raise my profile across industries in Japan and I feel I could support innovation in Japan by sharing my knowledge. I was similarly motivated to become a mentor at TG to share my experience of founding a startup with the community and help others do the same.

Kana: Like Daniel, VCT was important for me as a community to connect with people and opportunities. It’s a very flat community, so CEO’s mix with students and government officials freely and easily. There’s no sense of hierarchy, which is normally so strong in Japan. Everyone comes for the same reason, because they’re curious and they want to learn.

This open environment makes it easy to share ideas with people from diverse backgrounds. It’s great for innovation. And we’ve definitely learned a lot from TG, which is where we heard about ImpacTech actually!

- I know you have been selected for the “Social Change Makers Program” run by The Nippon Foundation and ImpacTech. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little more about what it is and how you heard about it?

Daniel: Sure. “Social Change Makers” is an accelerator program powered by The Nippon Foundation and Impactech. It’s a 5 month program that supports early stage startups who focus on social change to turbo charge their growth. Over the next few months, we will get coaching, advice and workshops from ImpacTech, The Nippon Foundation and many other supporters. Basically, they will hold our hand through the process of business development.

Kana: The application process was tough! We did a lot to prepare our application and for our pitch. The pitch was only 5 minutes so I worked hard to make our business idea as concise as possible. It’s crazy to think how many hours went into making that 5 minute pitch. Fortunately, we had help from the community, like Ryusuke, VCT’s Program Director, who coached us for our pitch.

We’d also previously participated in Rocket Pitch Night 2020, where we pitched about our product idea. This was also helpful for us to get feedback and it helped us prepare for ImpacTech.

Daniel: Kana deserves a lot of credit for our selection. She worked hard to make all the pitch materials. ITD-GBS is a technical business so it’s not easy to explain to customers. Kana did a great job refining our vision and business idea into a winning pitch. It feels great to have been selected because, after 3 years of slowly but steadily growing ITD-GBS, it’s a sign we’re picking up speed.

- Well done for all your hard work. It’s also great to see you also made the most of VCT’s free services to support startups. So what do you hope to achieve by going through the Social Change Makers program?

Daniel: Well, being selected for the program means ImpacTech and The Nippon Foundation has put their trust in our Vision. So it’s our job to realize this and bring about social change with our business by helping to make people’s working lives better. The next few months is about learning and then taking what we learn and applying it so we can succeed in our aim.

- Good luck Daniel-san and Kana-san. The Venture Café Tokyo community are cheering for you!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Author: Toby Manley

About Venture Café Tokyo
Venture Café Tokyo is an organization with the mission of “Connecting innovators to make things happen”. Thursday Gathering is the flagship event of Venture Café Tokyo. Through providing educational sessions and safe & comfortable networking environment at Thursday Gathering, we aim to achieve our mission. Visit us at http://venturecafetokyo.org/

Innovation Community Builder in Tokyo.