Sony launches crowdfunding site for employees' business ideas

Sony has launched a crowdfunding site to finance employees' business ideas, in a bid to bring back innovation to the Japanese electronics giant once known for its market-leading products.

The site, called "First Flight," launched on Wednesday. It currently has one project being crowdfunded, which has raised roughly half of the hoped for 5 million yen ($40,700).

The product is called Huis. It's a remote control that allows users to control a number of electronic devices in the household. The display of the remote is customizable depending on what device you have and it uses an e-ink display—similar to that used in Amazon's Kindle.

It has 51 days to raise the full amount and if the project does not reach the funding goal, the product won't go into production.

Sony headquarters in Tokyo, Japan.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Sony headquarters in Tokyo, Japan.

The crowdfunding initiative comes at a time when Sony has been under fire for lacking the engineering innovation that made its Walkman and PlayStation consoles so successful. CEO Kazuo Hirai has been on a massive turnaround drive, axing thousands of jobs and restructuring the business to focus on lucrative areas such as image sensors, games and entertainment.

Meanwhile, Sony's shares tanked 8 percent on Monday after Sony said it hoped to raise 440 billion yen in a stock and bond issue to boost its image sensor business.

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"Through the First Flight platform, Sony will support the launch and growth of new business ventures," Sony said in a press release on Wednesday.

The Japanese company is looking to operate more like a start-up. Since last year it has been running an internal accelerator program for employees to pitch business ideas. The quarterly contest ends with one winning idea being picked. The idea now is to put that winning project on the crowdfunding platform in order to judge the public's appetite for the product.

Sony could then potentially develop that on a larger scale internally, or sell that product through First Flight's e-commerce platform.

"Sony's innovation is ingrained in the company's founding spirit of `doing what has never been done before,'" said Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai in Tuesday's press release.

"Nothing embodies this spirit more than passionate entrepreneurs who give shape to their ground-breaking ideas and introduce them to the world, without fear of failure."

One striking aspect of the First Fight website is the lack of Sony branding, a purposeful move in order to give the products their own identity, according to a person familiar with the matter.

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In general, analysts have praised Sony's move, but said that the crowdfunding initiative might not work for other companies.

"The tough time at Sony it is undoubtedly taking its toll on morale and engaging employees in a way that makes them feel they are driving the company forward is a really smart move," Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, told CNBC by phone.

"The problem is if every company in the world has a crowdfunding solution, it won't be viable. But what Sony has done is unique at a time when it needs to innovative."