The Japanese TechCrunch site has an article on Clear, the sake startup associated with the SAKETIMES news site.
The company announced on 31 October 2018 that it hit JPY 75,000,000 in funding from KLab Venture Partners and private investors for its direct-to-consumer e-commerce service, Sake100.
Ryuji Ikoma, Clear’s CEO, founded the company in February 2013 with the idea of communicating the appeal of sake to the world. He started the sake news site SAKETIMES in 2014, and its English version SAKETIMES International is read in 131 countries.
He followed up SAKETIMES with the direct-to-consumer model sake e-commerce service SAKE100 (“sake hundred”) in July 2018. The concept behind the site is to partner with kura producing high-quality sake, and sell them direct online. SAKE100 teamed up with the Tate no Kawa brewery in Yamagata to produce the sake Byakkō (百光, one hundred lights?), made with organically grown Yamagata rice polished to just 18% – far below the 60% required for the ginjō or 50% for the daiginjō legal classification. Only to be attempted by a brewery that’s sure of its skills in milling. [Although most breweries buy in milled rice – the machinery is expensive, and noisy.]
SAKE100 aims to offer not just the highest quality of sake, but unique ones. Shinhō (深豊, deep abundance) is made with sake-specific rice from disused farmland that they developed themselves, and they also have a “dessert sake” brewed in the style of a dessert wine. SAKE100 also aims to break away from the standard [legal] classification model based on rice milling and brewing speed/temperature and create a higher value market.
Ikoma sees the detailed knowledge of the sake world gained from reporting through SAKETIMES as one of Clear’s strengths. They live and breathe sake, see what brewery and distributors are doing, and are among the first to notice trends in sales. He describes Clear as a group of people who know business, and whose love of sake turned into an obsession. He believes their deep industry knowledge is their key to success as a startup.
This is the first time they’ve given equity to venture capitalists. They plan to use to money to increase marketing efforts and grow their domestic direct-to-consumer business, and also expand overseas into markets such as the USA, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Clear became a subsidiary of an existing liquor store when SAKE100 launched in July 2018, but Ikoma stresses that the move was made to allow unrestricted development.
One limit comes from new alcohol retail licenses, which don’t allow sales of sake from kura that produce over 3,000 kilolitres a year. SAKE100 will need to partner with larger breweries in the process of scaling up, so his best option was to become a subsidiary of a company that already had an older licence with no such restriction.
Sake exports have risen for eight years in a row, reaching JPY 18.7 billion in 2017 and predicted to exceed JPY 20 billion in 2018. Good, but still a far cry from French wine exports, which stand at EUR 9 million per year, or JPY 1,180 billion. Ikoma wants to expand quickly and establish brands abroad in order to open up new markets.
Ikoma also sees the current sake industry as weighed down by tradition, bound to agriculture and licensing, with people becoming brewers in order to take over the family business or just because they have legal permission to brew. He wants breweries able to float themselves on the stock market, free from traditional concerns, and able to bring new value to this traditional industry.
The private investors are Genki Shiota, CEO of Akatsuki, Inc., Tetsurō Koda, COO of Akatsuki, Inc., Yasuyoshi Yanagisawa, CEO of Fan Communications, Toshio Wakimaru, Japan country manager for MIMS and former COO of MedPeer, and one other individual.