BreakThrough Interview

Aiming for a Full-scale Commercialization of a University-Initiated Handwritten Character Recognition TechnologyiLabo Co., Ltd.


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Mathematical Formula Recognition Engine

  • This article covers the challenge of an academic startup aiming to launch an automatic scoring system in the education market based on its core handwritten character recognition technology, which has become well-known to the public through tablet and smartphone apps.

Starting an academic startup based on the technology developed at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology

When writing a Japanese letter on a LCD display of a smartphone or tablet device with an electronic pen, the handwritten character is immediately converted to a text. This is made possible by a technology called Online Handwritten Character Recognition. iLabo Co., Ltd. is a venture company that develops and commercializes the core engine behind handwritten character recognition technology.

iLabo’s engine was developed by Professor Masaki Nakagawa of the Nakagawa Laboratory at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. Professor Nakagawa has carried out research on character recognition technology from the perspective of the interface that connects humans and computers. In the 1990s, he received a grant from a public institution, and also conducted joint research with a major company. A turning point came when his research was selected for the Supporting Program for Creating University-Initiated Ventures of Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) in 2008. Because this program was aimed at establishing a business and commercializing the research resultsit rapidly spurred research and development aimed toward practical use. In December 2011, iLabo Co., Ltd. was established with Masanobu Horiguchi, a 20 year acquaintance of Professor Nakagawa,, as CEO and Professor Nakagawa as Board Director.

Principle of character recognition

Handwritten character recognition became commonly known with the appearance of iPad

When Horiguchi was devising a business plan for iLabo, the greatest challenge was the device on which the handwriting would be entered. Ideally, the device would be a combination of an LCD display with a computer, but the only device like that on the market back then was the high-priced pen computers, and it was unrealistic for iLabo to manufacture a device on its own. However, this predicament was completely rectified with the release of the iPad in April 2010. iLabo was able to start business against the backdrop of spreading use of iPad and Android tablet devices, which could qualify as ideal devices for entry by pen.

iLabo’s handwritten character recognition engine boasts 95% (free writing) recognition rate, supporting Japanese characters of kanji (JIS Level 1 and Level 2), hiragana, katakana, as well as the English alphabet, Greek characters, numbers, and symbols. It can recognize even quirky handwriting, script, vertical writing, and diagonal writing, and the high-speed conversion occurs simultaneously as handwritten characters are entered. Software companies have developed and sold various kinds of handwriting recognition apps based on licensing of this technology from iLabo. Now, handwritten character recognition has become widely known by the general public through tablet and smartphone apps using the company’s engine. In 2014, iLabo received the Encouragement Award at the Tokyo Venture Technology Award.

Developing an automatic scoring system to accommodate written tests

The business sector that iLabo considers to be most important right now is the education market. The company says it receives many inquiries from correspondence education companies, cram school businesses, and education-related publishers. Its engine is capable of scoring middle school level math problems through recognition of fractions, square roots, and exponents. It also provides a character copying and learning system for elementary school students, which can judge the stroke order and balanced shape of kanji written on a tablet device. In October 2015, it was selected for the Grant of Subsidy to Industrial Technology Development Expense under a Specific Theme run by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), and it is currently advancing efforts in “Development of automatic scoring system for answers written on tablet devices.”

Based on the reform of the preliminary university entrance examinations administered by the Japanese government, scheduled in 2020, the test is expected to switch from the conventional bubble sheet format to a written format. iLabo believes that the use of a character recognition engine will be essential in the future for the quick scoring of tests taken by several hundred thousand people, and it explains that it will start with the development of an automatic scoring system for elementary and middle school students toward realizing such a scoring system.

Engine that judges the stroke order and prettiness of kanji

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iLabo Co., Ltd.

iLabo Co., Ltd. is a venture company that develops and commercializes the core engine behind handwritten character recognition technology.

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