Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Yuka Tomitori is a Certified Public Accountant with experience in developing management systems for start-up companies. Prior to Xenoma, she conducted audits for manufacturing, retail, and consumer service industries with PwC and often played the role of solving problems related to surprisingly unusual accounting processes and audit procedures. From when she was focusing on hands-on support with strategy consultants, Yuka’s mission is to propel business, not only to support, with financial and other ‘supportive’ functions. Based in Tokyo, Yuka strives for the world of “e-skin” – where everyone wears the smart apparel anytime, anywhere.
What is idea behind Xenoma?
Xenoma is founded as a spin-off company from Someya Lab in the University of Tokyo to create a value-added business utilizing its stretchable electronics technology. In Japan there are few start-ups born from research and development in academics, and it aims to create a new business by connecting state-of-the-art technology in academics and various manufacturing infrastructure in Japan.
“e-skin”, its product, is a textile-based solution for a natural and comfortable connected life. Xenoma is the first company to develop and manufacture a Printed Circuit Fabric (PCF), which is a whole stretchable electric circuit printed on a fabric. Since PCF is stretchable, an apparel made from PCF is comfortable for a user to wear just like a typical shirt. The first “e-skin” is for measuring motion and respiration which can be used for a gaming controller or personalized fitness/sports coach. Not only for these, its stretchable electronics technology is applicable for other sensors and devices – e.g. temperature sensors, ECG, haptics and many more – which can be a new interface between man and internet.
When did all start and how long did it take you to be where you are now?
The very beginning of this project is to seek for a hardware application using the stretchable technology in a national R&D project at Someya Lab started from August 2014. It took 15 months to make an apparel-based motion-capturing prototype. I joined the national project in September 2015 and supported establishing Xenoma in November 2015. As CFO we finished the seed-round funding in April 2016 and now we’ve come to unveil our e-skin Developer’s Kit at CES2017.
“e-skin” is not made of existing modules but a combination of novel original materials and manufacturing processes. It requires a variety of specialists in our team – electronics and apparel engineers of course, materials, mechanical designers, algorithm and software engineers, designers and sales/marketing persons. We started recruiting after funding and it took us some time to get all the members in our team, but we’re now working together in a really good condition. And needless to say, we are going further with more new members!
What was the biggest obstacle?
I’ve been thinking every problem can be solved in some ways and it is just a time issue to solve them. For this reason, nothing seemed to be an obstacle to me.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in?
Nothing special compared to other markets and industries. We don’t have enough resources, we don’t have enough time or information to make decisions sometimes, nor we don’t know how to make prototypes or products which did not exist at the moment. In such situations, the key to overcome these challenges and problems for me is, a dream for the future. The world where this product will lead to always gives me an energy. The potentials of e-skin are endless for gaming, fitness/sports, healthcare and medical markets. Especially, once everyone wears e-skin, a big data brought by e-skin can tell us something valuable such as predicting diseases – for example, if someone was hit by a heart attack, his ECG data BEFORE the heart attack can be very unique and useful for predicting others’ heart attack.
I believe this technology has great possibilities to change the world and therefore such challenges cannot stop me running.
What are your biggest achievements to date? What are your projects you are currently working on within Xenoma company?
I’m in charge of fulfilling what we need for being a team or a company, which includes finance, legal, PR, recruiting/HR and business strategy. At latest, I was working on planning CES, from looking for a booth design and constructing partner and thinking of what is needed to make our booth attractive, to planning and directing the development of apps for live demonstrations. The fact that I’m not an engineer led me to a deeper understanding of concept and technological implementation in e-skin and I believe it works better than when I was an engineer.
In such a position, the biggest achievement for me is not to raise $1.7 in the first round but to have a great team with diversity and passionate working for a shared goal. Since our team members have very different backgrounds, it comes to be easier to make conflict or misunderstanding. But at the same time, we believe this is a key to make an innovation. A new combination of people, a new combination of industry is what we are focusing on. It is quite limited a single person can do, and so we are working together as a team.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and smart textiles industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
The point should be how easy for users to wear it. A statistical survey says that more than 50% of smart watch users stop using it within 6 months, and we consider this is because it did not fit to the users’ lifestyle to wear a watch tightly for a long time.
Compared to this, it is obvious that everyone wears clothes – that’s why we regard smart apparel is the most preferable interface for human. Also that’s why we are working hard on making e-skin as comfortable as possible for users.
In the near future, smart apparel will be the next identifiable device which everyone has his/her device to interact each other, just like iPhones and smartphones are today.
Why is #WomenInTech movement important to you?
Surely I’m encouraged when I hear that a woman is working well in tech startups. However, to be honest, it is not important for me that a woman is working in tech industry. I believe it more important that each person is happily and passionately working on his/her job regardless it is major or minor, usual or unusual in a so-called common sense today.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female entrepreneurs out there?
Follow your heart. Not someone else’s, but your own.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech / smart textiles industry?
I haven’t thought like this and the reasons are below:
1) While we regard highly of diversity of the team members including specialty background, nationality and gender, I don’t distinguish men and women in my business.
2) Wearable tech / smart textile industry is not our only teacher. The market is still uncertain and we have to learn from companies in various industry. Our goal is to lead consumer to a new life with a user-friendly experience, not only to make a certain wearable device or smart textile.
3) From a different point of view, every person is inspirational for me – team members, family, competitors, friends, previous successors and all the people I see or hear about. I find a different inspiration according to the person and my own condition from each and it cannot be compared with.