Japanese college dropout builds US$560mil fortune through AI firm

Toguchi has joined the ranks of Japanese founders building fortunes in AI, thanks to a stock-market rally that turned his company into one of the nation’s most richly valued. — GERD ALTMANN/Pixabay

Taku Toguchi knew he wanted a career in artificial intelligence as far back as when he was a teenager.

Now 36, the college dropout and serial entrepreneur has joined the ranks of Japanese founders building fortunes in AI, thanks to a stock-market rally that turned his company into one of the nation’s most richly valued.

AI inside Inc, which went public in December and specialises in digitising handwritten documents, has been among the biggest beneficiaries of surging investor optimism toward companies that use AI and other technologies to enable remote working. While some analysts have questioned whether the stock’s almost ninefold gain is sustainable, AI inside has ambitious plans to expand outside Japan and into other business lines.

“It feels like we’re being hugely recognised,” Toguchi said in an interview. His 51% stake in AI inside is worth US$560mil (RM2.38bil).

Toguchi started his first business in 2004, a web portal that provided restaurant information. Then, from 2007, he traveled throughout Asia, Europe and the US. From 2010 to 2015 he founded a string of businesses, before eventually starting AI inside.

“What I really wanted to do was AI, but there was a period when that couldn’t be done easily,” Toguchi said.

His company’s main offering reads handwritten documents and converts them into digital files. Corporate subscriptions to the service, named DX Suite, topped 3,000 in early June, up from about 500 in December.

New users jumped after the company launched a “lite” version, which charges a cheaper monthly fee and processes fewer documents than the regular service.

“That’s what made things take off here,” said Tim Morse, a Singapore-based director at Asymmetric Advisors, which provides investment advice on Japanese equities. “Clearly, the potential for this year is for a massive amount of signups.”

Toguchi isn’t worried that the cheaper version will cannibalise the regular service. He said his goal is to make AI cheap and easy for everyone to use.

“Our policy is to sell good AI tools to a broad base of people at cheap prices,” he said.

AI inside’s sales more than tripled to 1.6bil yen (RM63.64mil) in the fiscal year ended March. The company reported a profit of 419mil yen (RM16.66mil) for the period, compared with a loss of 183mil yen (RM7.27mil) the year before.

Katsuyoshi Sakase, general manager of Aizawa Securities Co’s equity research department, expressed scepticism about the surge in AI inside’s stock.

“Profits are increasing at a fast pace, but total sales are small at 1.6bil yen (RM63.64mil) for a company with a market capitalisation in the 100 billion yen range,” he said.

The stock closed on Thursday with a price-to-earnings ratio of 245, one of the highest among Japanese companies valued at more than 100bil yen (RM3.97bil), according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Toguchi, whose next goal is to expand the business somewhere in Asia this fiscal year, says the stock’s rally reflects expectations that he believes are achievable. His company has drawn positive attention from some brokerages, with Iwaicosmo Securities Co and SBI Securities Co both initiating coverage with buy ratings this year. Iwaicosmo has a target price of 40,000 yen (RM1,591), about 26% higher than the current share price of 31,650 yen (RM1,258).

Tomoaki Kawasaki, a senior analyst at Iwaicosmo, said the company was benefiting from increased working from home in Japan.

“We can expect medium to long-term growth given the increase in remote-working practices, which require digitisation of office work,” Kawasaki wrote in a report in June. “On top of that, the company is pushing to create a platform that will allow its AI technology to be used in a variety of industries, which could make AI inside a leading AI firm.”

Learning center

Kawasaki was referring to Toguchi’s latest business, called the AI inside Learning Center, an industry-agnostic system that allows clients to build customised automation software using AI inside’s technology.

A waste-processing company, for example, could use it to create a program that would automatically remove hazardous material from a garbage conveyor belt, something employees still do by hand. An employee would instead monitor the belt by computer and click on items to be extracted. The computer would then learn from this information.

Morse of Asymmetric Advisors is less enthusiastic about these plans.

“They’re trying to educate companies” about AI, he said. “I guess the idea is to monetise it later. It’s not likely to be an earnings contributor any time soon.”

Toguchi says he sees strong growth potential in his main business, but his sights are also set on bigger things.

“It’s not optical character recognition that I wanted to do,” Toguchi said. “I am still looking for something much more exponential.” – Bloomberg

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