“[My mission is] urging universities, biotech start-ups as well as big companies to change their mindset and be more open to towards innovation.”
Prof. Yoshiaki Tsukamoto, JBA
Japan is widely regarded as one of the most innovative countries in the world. In terms of the life sciences, Japan is strongest in basic research and Japanese scientists have been recognized for their groundbreaking contributions, with 25 Nobel Prize winners since 1949, 17 of which have come in the 21st century. However, bringing Japanese innovations to market has traditionally been a tricky prospect. As Prof. Tsukamoto highlights, 20 years ago when working at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and attempting to promote collaboration between academia and industry as well as technology transfer, “Japan was far away from open innovation and universities did not want to engage in technology transfer; they wanted their only focus to be on research.”
With ten years’ experience working at JBA, an organization with 350 corporate and over 600 individual members, building on former positions at the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and in academia, Prof. Tsukamoto defines his current mission as “urging universities, biotech start-ups as well as big companies to change their mindset and be more open to towards innovation.” Being open towards innovation also means being more open to risk; Prof. Tsukamoto explaining that, “In the US if a start-up fails, the next one is ready to rise but in Japan it does not work like this.” He does, however, see a positive change in this regard, with “many good start-ups emerging in the past five years.” In association with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), JBA is aiming to expedite this trend by, for example, bringing Japanese start-ups to events such as BIO and facilitating face-to-face meetings with potential collaborators. Additionally, the Japanese government is beginning to roll out an incentive system for technology transfer between academia, government and business.
Japan’s strong economy, the world’s third largest, contrasts with the country’s certain degree of aversion to risk, which has resulted in an amount of biotechnology start-ups not on a par with the potential Japan has. Prof. Tsukamoto notes how “most companies have never experienced bankruptcy and so do not know how to change their management models.” He also feels that the number of venture capital investments, a key factor behind the growth of start-up biotechs in the USA, is low in Japan because “Japanese companies have a lot of money but do not know how best to utilize their resources,” preferring instead to “save for natural disasters; just think of many tsunamis and typhoons Japan experiences.” Gradually though, this too is changing; Prof. Tsukamoto pointing to Takeda’s implementation of a corporate venture capital unit for digital technology in the US. He opines, “gradually, setting up a separate corporate capital unit is becoming part of Japanese culture. We would like to urge other pharma companies to do so.”
“Gradually, setting up a separate corporate capital unit is becoming part of Japanese culture.”
With the foundations for a stronger biotech start-up culture now in place, October’s BIO Japan 2017 conference in Yokohama stands as an opportunity for the Japanese biopharmaceutical industry to showcase its development to the world. Prof. Tsukamoto finishes by exclaiming that “October is actually the perfect season for BIO Japan as this is when the Nobel Prize winners are announced. If there is a Japanese winner, I am certain he will speak there!”
Writer: Patrick Burton