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04/17/2020

Living and learning in the Reiwa Era

AI startup co-founder, expert discuss 20 years of MITOU Program

Preferred Networks Inc. President and CEO Toru Nishikawa (left) and University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Ikuo Takeuchi at Preferred Networks’ headquarters in Otemachi, Tokyo

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s MITOU Program, known as the Exploratory IT Human Resources Project in English, was started in 2000 to identify and develop outstanding IT talent. The program, administered by the ministry’s Information-technology Promotion Agency, Japan, has helped launch the careers of about 1,700 outstanding individuals. The corporate value of their startups is now estimated to total about ¥600 billion.

One such startup is Preferred Networks Inc. (PFN), whose artificial intelligence technology is in high demand from leading businesses. The company is led by President and CEO Toru Nishikawa.

For the METI Journal, Nishikawa and University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Ikuo Takeuchi, who co-founded the MITOU Program and currently serves as its senior project manager, met to discuss topics such as the type of talent it takes to drive innovation. (This is the first half of their talk; the second half will be carried in the next installment.)

Combining talents

Takeuchi: It’s been 10 years since we last had time for this kind of discussion. Your company has grown so much during this period, hasn’t it?

Nishikawa: Fourteen years ago, Preferred Infrastructure — now PFN — was created by six people, including team members from an international programming competition, as well as my university friends.

We established PFN in 2014 to take advantage of our real-time machine learning technology that focused on the “internet of things.” We are now fortunate enough to have about 300 employees.

Takeuchi: Wow, six of you started the company and it now has 300 employees. That’s impressive. (PFN co-founder and Vice President Daisuke) Okanohara was in MITOU. Do any other former MITOU participants belong to your company?

Nishikawa: We have at least 13 MITOU “graduates.”

Takeuchi: I think that may be the largest number of MITOU graduates now working for a single Japanese company. You have grown the company through identifying outstanding individuals and putting them together as a working team. I think that deserves praise.

I’ve been involved in MITOU as senior project manager. I notice many applicants mention they “did an internship at PFN.” What does it take to successfully join your company?

Nishikawa: First of all, we look for someone who is knowledgeable about computer science. We are divided over whether we should give a coding exam to applicants, but in my opinion, we should. That’s because I think it’s important to find out not only whether a candidate understands theory, but also if they can also practically apply said theory.

For applicants who interned with us over a two-month period, we review how they performed during their internship to find out how they identified issues and how they addressed challenges.

The Preferred Networks Inc. website (https://preferred.jp/en/)
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