Seventy-five people filed into a Washington State Convention Center meeting room Wednesday to hear about the latest advancements in artificial intelligence. In a pitching session reminiscent of a speed-dating event, about 10 Northwest startups hurriedly shared their accomplishments and aspirations with Japanese investors eager to stoke business relationships.

Master of ceremonies Tom Sato, co-founder of Kirkland-based investing firm Innovation Finders Capital, lightened the mood by cracking jokes as he translated the English-speaking founders’ business plans into Japanese, cautioning the attendees that he faced a challenge: “I have to understand what the hell they’re talking about.”

The A.I. Age | This 12-month series of stories explores the social and economic questions arising from the fast-spreading uses of artificial intelligence. The series is funded with the help of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over the coverage.

As they pitched their businesses, startup founders spoke in rushed but relaxed tones, like debaters adept at presenting succinct arguments. One innovator who took the microphone, Marc Goyette, chief operating officer of Bellevue-based DimensionalMechanics, pitched his startup’s tools for providing AI to organizations of all sizes.

The business matchmaking event was born from a 2016 agreement on economic and trade relations between Washington state and the government of Japan, and last week’s session — co-sponsored by the state Department of Commerce, Kirkland-based investment firm Innovation Finders Capital, law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, and the government-affiliated Japan External Trade Organization — was the 13th such event in the past three years.

“When you read about entering agreements with other countries to foster business opportunities and mutual economic developments, this is the reality,” Washington state Department of Commerce spokeswoman Penny Thomas said in an interview.

For Japanese companies, Seattle is appealing as a burgeoning AI hub that’s home to large technology companies such Microsoft and Amazon, while the state has no income tax, said Yoichiro Yamada, consul general of Japan, during the reception.

Local startups that have secured funding during past events include Seattle-based DefinedCrowd, which develops machine-learning algorithms to power products for businesses.


The business courting continued Thursday at downtown’s Seattle Central Library, when Japanese companies described to the U.S. innovators the type of products they want to invest in and the business relationships they’re hoping to forge.

The networking opportunity keeps some innovators coming back, though they have yet to receive funding.

Angela Zhu, co-founder of cellphone-service provider Jethro Mobile, has attended the event four times.

“It’s great to know that Washington state is very actively bringing outside opportunities back into the states,” Zhu said, as the innovators and company heads surrounding her downed sake during the reception.

This story has been updated to include the law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP as a co-sponsor of the event.