Discovering Japan’s $6bn English market as others get lost in translation

New innovators: A5 Technologies

In 2008, Daire O'Neill left his job with Intel to fulfil a long- held desire to work in Japan.

He spent two years as an embedded software developer with Fujisoft in Tokyo before moving to music technology company, Vextax.

O'Neill put a lot of effort into learning Japanese and this sparked the idea for what has since become A5 Technologies, a start-up company specialising in developing software to help Japanese professionals improve their English.

“I knew from my own experience of learning Japanese that the language software available wasn’t very effective. It was really just a digitised version of old methods such as flashcards and reading comprehension activities,” O’Neill says.

“I wanted to create a product that took advantage of technologies such as gamification, speech recognition and virtual reality to create a highly engaging experience for language learners.

"Japanese people spend $6 billion dollars annually on English learning. Despite this, their English speaking ability is relatively weak compared to the other countries in Asia who score much higher in standardised tests.

“This disconnect made it clear to me that there was a huge opportunity to create a vastly better product for those trying to make the transition from beginner to intermediate and advanced levels.”

Power of storytelling

Learning is most effective when the learner is engaged with the teaching method and content. A bored student quickly loses motivation. A5 aims to avoid this problem by harnessing the power of storytelling to catch and keep students’ attention.

“We create compelling stories with interesting characters and classic elements of storytelling such as conflict, tragedy and romance, to really engage learners and keep them coming back for more,” O’Neill says.

“Our content and pedagogy are designed by experienced English course designers and provide learners with a rounded collection of relevant, real- world vocabulary.”

A5’s other key differentiator is its focus on the Japanese market and the company’s software addresses the specific learning needs of Japanese students.

“Learning English is not the same for all nationalities and our software and content reflect this.

“Of course, we may expand into other markets in the future but we know from experience that to create really meaningful products, it’s important to focus on specific users,” O’Neill says.

“Our speech recognition algorithm also allows learners to practice speaking in private, with instant feedback on their pronunciation. This is a much cheaper and more convenient method of speaking practice than conversation classes, which can cost students an average of $650 per month.”

Flagship product

The company’s flagship product is called A5 Pro and it is aimed at business professionals in the 20-45 age bracket who need better English to advance their careers. It will be launched later this year as a consumer app and A5 is in discussion with strategic partners in Japan to promote and market the product there.

"It's important to have local partners as the culture and customs are so different to what we are used to in Europe, " O'Neill says.

In hard cash terms it has cost about €10,000 to bring A5 Pro to this point bring but O’Neill has done all of the product development himself and this has taken an unquantifiable amount of time over a couple of years.

He has recently completed the New Frontiers entrepreneurs' programme at Blanchardstown IT and his company is now based at the Synergy Centre in Tallaght IT.

The company faces stiff competition in the marketplace but O’Neill believes his deep understanding of the Japanese market, combined with high quality content, will give the company the edge.

A5 employs four people and is now looking to raise funds to accelerate the roll-out of A5 Pro and to expand its workforce.

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