Startups From Around the World Compete in First-Ever NEC Innovation Challenge

March 22, 2023

By Shige Ihara, President & CEO, NEC X

“Changing the world in a positive way” was the theme of the competition

Technology has made an impact on society by improving and simplifying lives in an unlimited number of ways. This was the theme of the first-ever NEC Innovation Challenge, where I participated as a judge on March 10th. The challenge brought together virtually ten technology startups from around the globe to compete for prizes from NEC X, as well as NECNEC Orchestrating Future Fund (NOFF), and the BIRD INITIATIVE. These ten entrepreneurs were the finalists of 324 applicants from 66 countries. Each finalist presentation consisted of a 5-minute pitch followed by an 8-minute Q&A with the judging panel. The startups were: DeepBrain AIMagosThreedyCarbonSpaceEnergiency, BIEX Health,, and SOAP Health, and WeWALK.

The NEC X prize is to give the winner an opportunity to maximize their potential through the NEC X Venture Studio Program, where they will receive hands-on support, mentoring, funding, and access to NEC technology, with an expensed trip to visit NEC X in Silicon Valley to attend the in-person kickoff. For NEC X, and myself personally, the prize is very special because I had an opportunity to listen to presentations from ten up-and-coming startups and select one to bring into our Venture Studio Program to assist them in growth and success. And I am very excited about the potential of the startup that I selected because, in addition to the startup I chose, there’s another winner – the blind and visually impaired.

As the judge representing NEC X, I selected WeWALK, a UK-based startup with a mission in mobility. WeWALK is leveraging cutting-edge technology and AI to create a revolutionary smart cane and smartphone app for the blind and visually impaired. WeWALK detects above-ground obstacles using ultrasound while retaining the standard white cane’s ground feedback. The smart cane connects to a smartphone app for navigation to help the user venture out into the world independently with automatic voice feedback. The smart cane can provide a list of nearby shops, restaurants, public transportation connections, and more.

WeWALK founders, Gokhan Mericliler and Dr. Jean Marc Feghali, were thrilled to receive the NEC X prize. “This is such a tremendous privilege. Alone we can do a little, but together we can do so much,” said Gokhan.

WeWALK Co-founder, Dr. Feghali, is visually impaired, “Me and 250 million visually impaired people worldwide have to rely on a standard cane to get around. It’s literally a stick; it tells you nothing more than what’s directly on the ground in front of you. It’s stone-age technology. We have used our experience in visual impairment to create the WeWALK smart cane to give people mobility, safely and independently. We’ve taken a standard cane and added a WeWALK handle with all of the technology inside.”

The technology within the cane continues to evolve. WeWALK already has the product on the market and is collecting customer feedback. In addition, they are working on prototypes for extended features. And that is precisely why I selected WeWALK in this competition. WeWALK has done its market research, is working on customer validation and has a channel strategy. During the NEC Innovation Challenge selection process, NEC X has discussed with WeWALK and identified a potential match with NEC’s technology to infuse it into future new product offerings. We believe our expertise can help WeWALK deliver the most responsive and accessible navigation system to date working by collaborating with NEC Lab’s research team. I am excited to challenge the customer validation of these new features to see a Product-Market Fit throughout our boost program.

While WeWALK won the NEC X prize, all the startups had promising business and technology that will positively contribute to society. Other winners were:

  • DeepBrain AI won the NEC prize, $20,000 USD to accelerate collaboration with NEC.
  • Threedy won the NOFF prize, an opportunity for funding from the organization.
  • Energiency won the BIRD INITIATIVE prize, an access to its startup studio.

I really enjoyed participating as a judge in the competition. Each startup’s proposal was truly remarkable. I want to thank NEC Corporation for inviting me as a judge at this event. Also, thank you to the host, Masamitsu Kitase, senior vice president, head of corporate business development division, NEC, and representative director for BIRD INITIATIVE, and all the fellow judges, Motoo Nishihara, Executive Vice President and CTO, NEC; Satoshi Konno, CEO, BIRD Initiative; and Toshiya Otani, Co-founder and Managing Director, TransLink Capital. And finally, my great appreciation goes out to the Sponsoring Partners and Operational Partners. We could not have made this event successful without your support.