Low-cal ‘bentos’ on the cheap

By Komaki Ito and Tomoko Yamazaki  /  Bloomberg, Tokyo

Wed, Feb 05, 2014 - Page 12

Osamu Ito, a former Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co banker, is setting up a crowdfunding company that will raise money online to invest in startups including a Michelin-starred chef’s bento box business.

Ito, who left the brokerage yesterday to become chief executive officer of Tokyo-based Crowdfunding Inc, is seeking to raise ¥35 million (US$345,747) to start making diet lunch boxes in Japan. The business would be overseen by Shintaro Esaki, who has won three Michelin stars for five straight years at his eponymously-named nouveau Japanese restaurant in central Tokyo.

Ito, 34, joins a growing trend globally of crowdfunding Web sites that allow businesses too small to attract banks or venture capitalists to seek finance for specific projects and raise money from a large number of individual contributors. Crowdfunding platforms raised an estimated US$5.1 billion in 2013, compared with US$2.7 billion in 2012, according to Crowdsourcing LLC’s research Web site Massolution.

“I am only interested in projects that will set the trend in the new era,” Ito, who was selling financial products at Morgan Stanley MUFG to institutional investors and companies, said in an interview in Tokyo. “I want my investors to feel and be excited about how they can change the world with their own investments.”

A working group under Japan’s Financial Services Agency has been discussing ways to lower barriers for crowdfunding platform operators that are required to be registered with the regulator, while protecting potential investors interested in such investments.

GROWING ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Entrepreneurship in Japan was about half the level in the US in 2010, partly because of a lack of risk-money that was willing to support nascent businesses, a report by the group showed in December.

Ito and Esaki want to sell ¥50 million of the low-sugar, low-calorie lunch boxes, or bentos, in the first 12 months, ¥80 million to ¥90 million yen in the second year and about ¥120 million in the third, Ito said. Investors would receive about 10 percent to 13 percent of the total sales annually during the six-year period the project, he said. Investors can start from ¥500,000, he said.

The “Oishi Plus” bentos will start selling at about ¥880 per box in Tokyo, Ito said. They will go on sale once Ito’s company is registered by the financial watchdog, he said.

Ito wants to expand his platform by seeking other entrepreneurs with plans that will meet demand in a rapidly changing environment, he said, declining to specify the next targets.

Ito was a vice president at Morgan Stanley MUFG in Tokyo. Before that, he was a salesman at Nomura Holdings Inc, which he joined in April 2002, he said.

“Providing capital to those who are in dire need at appropriate times is the role of financial firms,” Ito said, adding that many of the venture capitalists don’t provide such capital until the businesses have matured.