Every year, TORCH casts a seed of new business.
──First, please tell us about TORCH.
Mr. Kawamoto TORCH is a program for creating ideas for new business. Its participants are young employees 35 years of age or younger. TORCH was named as such because it is intended to bring out young people's flaming passion for creating new things and spread this passion across Osaka Gas. The program is designed as an opportunity for the participants to get away from daily operations, work together beyond the borders of sections, and venture into a completely new endeavor.
──What activities do you have in the program?
Mr. Kawamoto TORCH is an annual program. We have held it three times, in 2017 for the first time and in 2018 and 2019. Every year, we recruit about 20 young employees who meet the age requirement of 35 years old or less for the program. They think up new business ideas in teams while learning about how to create a business through workshops. The program ends with a company contest where each team gives a presentation on their new business idea. We select an excellent idea and develop it into a business.
──Then, the number of employees skilled in creating ideas increases year by year, doesn't it?
Mr. Kawamoto That's right. That's one of the objectives of TORCH. The participants vary greatly in terms of their department, duties, and experience. Participation in this program is meaningful even to those who missed out on winning an award at the contest. They go back to their daily operations with an innovative spirit inspired by the program, and they are connected to each other organically through the "common language" of TORCH, thereby contributing to creating a corporate culture that is likely to develop innovations.
──Does TORCH provide the company with a commercially viable idea every year?
Mr. Kawamoto Yes. The idea that won the 2017 grand prix is a smartphone app that freshens the mind. In February 2020, we released the app under the name "RAMUNE" ("lemonade"). Also, ideas that won the 2018 and 2019 awards are in the process of being developed into new businesses.
──Mr. Tomita, I hear that you were a member of the team that conceived the idea of RAMUNE.
Mr. Tomita I was. When I participated in TORCH in 2017, I was a technical employee engaged in engineering work that had nothing to do with smartphone apps. The following year, however, I was transferred to the Innovation Dept. to start working on the commercialization of my own ideas and operating TORCH.
──You have been organizing the program while keeping the perspective of a participant. What is it like to have been involved in TORCH for the last three years?
Mr. Tomita As an organizer, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to draw excellent ideas from the participants and turn the ideas into products and services. We have steadily modified the content of the program through trial and error over the past three years, and we would like to improve it even further. Many of the participants are young employees motivated to support the future of Osaka Gas through the creation of new things. I am very fortunate to be able to work with them and be involved in the program as a member of the TORCH bureau.
RAMUNE is the first business idea TORCH gave birth to.
──What kind of app is RAMUNE, the first business created through TORCH?
Mr. Tomita To put it briefly, the app is for posting and browsing light topics that give the users tips about how to refresh their minds and to add a joyful touch to their same old daily routine. By turning on or off the "mood switch," the users can enjoy light topics that match their current state of mind, forming a loosely connected online community free of leader-follower relationships. Our team racked our brains to make people around us smile in their daily lives and ended up developing this app.
──Is the app almost exactly what you first came up with?
Mr. Tomita To tell the truth, neither the app's name, world view, nor design is different from what we originally had in mind. Although the theme remained "To make people around us smile in their daily lives," the app has changed from the original concept to better suit the needs of potential users through discussion from many angles and repeated improvement in the commercialization process.
──I see. You must have had a hard time handling all that.
Mr. Tomita I am the kind of person who finds some enjoyment in everything, so I didn't find it so hard ... (laughs) However, I must say that it was tough to make one decision after another while having no idea what was the right choice. For example, in the development phase, our team listened to trial users so that we could reflect their feedback in the app design. When ten trial users made different comments, I was responsible for making the final decision on which user's opinion we should value and how we should reflect it in the design. It was hard to make such decisions, but I first listened to my heart and intuition. Then, I heard the views of the other members of the team that came up with the app, and also consulted external mentors who gave us advice until I made the final decisions.
──What has been the response to RAMUNE after its release?
Mr. Tomita To my pleasant surprise, both the number of installs and the response have been beyond our expectations. What excited me the most was that many users said they liked the app. The app recorded about 1,000 downloads in a month after its release. Our goal is over 100,000 downloads in the future. To increase the number of users to that level, we are planning to step up our sales promotion, while giving top priority to even higher service quality. After reaching the goal, we would like to grow this business to make it profitable.
Engagement in the entire process of originating an idea, turning it into a business, and building it up
──RAMUNE, the first year's grand prix winner of the TORCH program, has blossomed into a full-fledged business. Have you decided on the next idea to develop into a business?
Mr. Kawamoto I cannot go into detail, but as was the case with RAMUNE, we will turn the idea into a type of business the Daigas Group has never been engaged in. We have established a system, which started in 2019, that entitles members of the grand prix winning team to be transferred to the Innovation Dept. to work on turning their own idea into a business, like Mr. Tomita did. Now young employees have a truly comprehensive environment where they can experience the entire process from thinking up an idea to turning it into a business and building it up.
──That sounds even more motivating than before. However, embarking on some business the company has never experienced before requires collaboration with other companies, doesn't it?
Mr. Kawamoto TORCH itself started as a collaboration with Loftwork Inc., a creative agency. Loftwork coordinates the program, and Osaka Gas provides the behavior observation technique. Moreover, a majority of judges at the contest are from other companies. Through efficient collaboration with external professionals, TORCH enables employees who are passionate about the creation of new things to give shape to their ideas and transform them into businesses.
Mr. Tomita When we developed RAMUNE, many different external experts supported us in the process. Also in the idea-developing phase in TORCH, external mentors from various business fields contribute to the creation of more varied ideas of higher quality. We will continue to collaborate with external experts both in idea development and in commercialization.
──My last question is on the prospects for TORCH.
Mr. Kawamoto We would like to pursue diversification as much as possible. We are considering many ways to achieve this goal, such as boosting the low participation rate of female employees and adding affiliated company employees to the eligible participants.
Mr. Tomita We would like to create a virtuous cycle in which an idea that emerges in TORCH grows, turns into a business, attracts attention both inside and outside the company, and inspires younger employees to create larger-scale ideas. In the future, we hope that the program will merge into our company's everyday routine, where employees will feel free to exchange ideas and grow good ones into businesses, as is the case in Silicon Valley.
──Thank you so much for speaking with us today.