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Sony employees' ideas get in-house incubator

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Sony Corp's legendary Playstation signage at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, last week.

Washington

AIMING to recover the Sony corporate culture that produced the legendary Walkman and PlayStation in the past, Sony Corp's Seed Acceleration Program seeks to promote new businesses proposed by Sony Group employees. Since it was launched about four years ago, a total of 13 products and services have emerged, including the "toio" toy platform that the company unveiled in June last year and for which it began filling pre-orders in January.

Toio is the first product for children made by the in-house incubator. Children use a controller to make small cubes equipped with motors and sensors move around on a tabletop or floor. The cubes are a base upon which users can build robots or vehicles, and they can use the moving objects to play action games and do puzzles.

Toio is based on a study by Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc and is recommended for children aged 6 and up. While the platform was still in development, students played with it in a collaboration with a neighbouring elementary school. They tended to concentrate for a long time, because of the platform's characteristic of allowing users to modify and operate the cubes any way they like.

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"I like to present my products whenever I come up with something interesting," said Sony senior manager Akichika Tanaka. "I think Sony style means changing lifestyles by creating new value."

The incubator started under the prodding of Sony president and chief executive officer Kazuo Hirai. As of March 2017, the company had held nine auditions in which a total of about 1,600 participants submitted about 600 entries."We are encouraging open innovation through greater networking and bringing together individuals from both inside and outside the company," said Mr Hirai at the 2015 IFA electronics show in Berlin.

"By encouraging entrepreneurship and pursuing unconventional ideas and ventures, we continue to create an ecosystem essential to the development and growth of new businesses," Mr Hirai emphasised, while holding new products developed through the seed acceleration programme in his hands.

New products and services from the programme have been garnering a lot of attention among various industries. For instance, the "wena wrist" project proposed that analogue watches could be turned into smartwatches.

The employee who proposed this was new to the company, but even they could collect about 100 million yen (S$1.25 million) using a crowd-funding framework established by Sony and seek for it to become a full-fledged business. There is also the "Huis Remote Controller," which allows users to arrange their remote control buttons as they like, and a personal aromatherapy diffuser that contains five different aromas.

In April 2016, Sony expanded the European branch of its incubator. The company later launched its smart office solutions business, which was selected by the European seed acceleration programme and introduced to European countries in September last year. This service aims to solve common office problems such as finding available meeting rooms and locating colleagues.

Sony has forecast an operating profit of 720 billion yen for the year ending March, the best ever in its 72-year history.

Some observers are saying that the time has come to move the incubation programme from a symbol of organisational reform to a fully developed business. WP