Interview with Shibuya’s Startup Visa Holder #1： Startup founder hacking the ageing process
In this series, Sasha Kaverina, our communication advisor, interviews successful Startup Visa applicants so you can learn about startup founders in Shibuya. Read about their stories, from what led them to Shibuya to tips on tricks on how to navigate Startup Visa application.
When France-based athlete Bilal Kharouni visited Japan for the first time, he had no idea it would take him down the startup path. But after discovering the educational gap people had about longevity, he decided to relocate via the new startup visa scheme and develop the answer to the global issue of aging with his wellbeing startup ekei labs.
Hi, Bilal! Please tell us about your entrepreneurial journey.
Prior to embarking on an entrepreneurial journey, I was really into sports and even considered a career in Thai boxing. However, a single trip to Japan in 2017 changed my mind. One of my local friends was doing research on longevity at Keio university, focusing on a recently discovered anti-aging molecule called NMN.
At first, I was skeptical but soon after my own research, got completely hooked by the idea of pushing the boundaries of a human lifespan. As a former athlete, I have a special connection with my body and the idea of staying healthy for a longer time resonates well with me.
Next year I spent educating myself about the science of longevity. I delved into the email correspondence with researchers and went to China to visit a laboratory producing NMN. By the end of 2018, I made a decision to launch my company in Japan.
Why did you choose Japan?
There are several reasons that impacted my decision. With 29 percent of its population at 65 years of age or older, Japan is the oldest country in the world. It is the most rewarding to build where the ageing problem is the most urgent. In addition, Japanese nutrition market is well developed, and many older adults here are well familiar with supplements, with 85% of them consuming them daily. There are also a lot of biology researchers at the universities that make it easy to attract talents in academia.
I came to Japan a few times to visit manufacturers and make essential connections. All these trips strengthened my belief that choosing a Japanese market for launching my solution will address the problems of many in Japan.
How did your startup evolve since your decision?
The initial solution, launched in 2019, involved making our first portion of anti-aging supplements in Japan. We were working aggressively on setting up manufacturing although made many mistakes. In 2020, the process slowed down by the pandemic and border closures, however, it helped us realize that just selling supplements won’t be a sustainable business.
Like many startups, we decided to pivot. The main problem that we tackle now is how to create a framework where people receive a customized education about longevity. If we use different biomarkers of aging to create a bio portrait, we can empower people with personalized recommendations for their lifestyle.
The most ambitious part of my business plan is to create an interactive video game based on the bio portrait of the person. I believe that it will reinvent the way we envision digital healthcare and create a new relationship between the body and interface. We will also need to work on data privacy – right now we are already in talks with a data design company in Switzerland.
Longevity will come under the spotlight in the next decades. The biggest challenges are how we can democratize it today for the larger group of people and prepare for a transition towards an ageing society. – Bilal
How did you learn about the Shibuya Startup visa and why did you decide to apply for it?
Since I was considering setting up a business in Japan, I reached out to Miho Tanaka, now a Director of Shibuya Welcome Service, to recommend an administrative scrivener and accidentally learned about the new immigration scheme. I decided to follow her advice and apply for the 1-year Shibuya Startup visa.
Aside from assisting with all the visa paperwork, Shibuya Welcome Serves helps entrepreneurs with soft landing in Japan that was one of the most appealing factors for me. The whole team seems to be really experienced and has a solid understanding of the startup structure. As a first-time founder, I feel that I will need extensive support with incorporation and other legal procedures.
What kind of steps did you take to apply for a Shibuya Startup Visa?
I prepared all the documents from this list and submitted them to the Shibuya Welcome Service. Explaining a business model was a really good exercise to summarize milestones and see my idea from a different angle.
I received feedback surprisingly fast and had to re-submit my business plan with more elaborate details on a fundraising plan. After that, I had a 30-minutes assessment presentation with the jury, followed by a Q&A session.
A few weeks later results came out that my application was accepted and an approval letter issued.
Congratulations! What are your next steps?
After an approval letter is issued, I have to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility for a Designated Activity Visa at the Immigration Bureau in Tokyo. Since I’m based in Paris now, I can’t apply in-person but Shibuya Welcome Service put me in touch with an administrative scrivener who will apply for a Certificate of Eligibility on my behalf. It will take 2-3 months for it to be issued and mailed to France where I will apply for a visa at the Japanese embassy. Considering the travel restrictions, it is difficult to estimate the arrival date though.
Once the borders are open, I will dive head first back into the startup grind with no sleep and no weekends. There are many plans to accomplish for the first 12 months: hiring people with backgrounds in biology, game design and software engineering, incorporation, commercializing the product, launching the beta of our app and a few other surprises! The critical task of fundraising also falls on me.
Big thanks to the Shibuya Welcome Service team for helping me make it big in Japan.