The relationship between Kyoto University (Kyodai) and businesses is changing. The school is accelerating its efforts to parlay its academic expertise into business through efficient, flexible startups and emerging as the core of a new platform for entrepreneurship by utilizing its expertise in basic research on natural sciences.
Shin Kaneko, an associate professor at Kyodai, is hoping that a Kyodai-related startup called “Thyas” will be able to use his research to develop cancer treatment method using iPS cells for commercialization.
Thyas is the first startup that Kyoto University Innovation Capital (Kyoto-iCAP), a venture capital firm set up by the state-run university, acquired a stake in by investing in research results produced by Kyodai’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA). It revamped its management team after it achieved a certain amount of research results in June 2017 and invited Yasumichi Hitoshi, who used to work at a U.S. biotechnology firm for drug discovery, as president and CEO. “We’re aiming to conduct clinical trials in humans by around 2020,” he said.
With the availability of financial support growing, research-oriented startups are attracting personnel who have experience working for big-name corporations and starting businesses. Connexx Systems, for example, is developing next-generation battery technology that can enhance energy density by more than ten times compared to conventional lithium-ion batteries. President Hisashi Tsukamoto joined Japan Storage Battery, presently known as GS Yuasa, after he graduated from Kyodai in 1979 and was involved in the development of a thin, flat battery for the Sony Walkman. He launched the firm in Kyoto as he wanted to tap Kyodai’s expertise. Now he is working with Hiroshi Iwai, a Kyodai associate professor, to develop a small, high-capacity battery for commercialization.
FLOSFIA, a semiconductor chip developer financed by Denso, also views human resources as an important factor in success. Before becoming chief executive officer at the firm, Toshimi Hitora led another startup. He joined FLOSFIA when it was developing seawater filtration membrane technology and shifted its business focus to semiconductors.
FLOSFIA develops energy-saving power semiconductor devices by improving “mist CVD,” a manufacturing method developed by Kyodai Professor Shizuo Fujita and others. But the idea runs counter to conventional technology. “I sought advice from some engineers I know, but they all told me commercialization would be impossible. That’s actually what made me decide to pursue it,” he said.
Commercializing basic research is not easy, but it offers a greater potential for innovation. Although many entrepreneurship resources, such as people, money, and goods, are concentrated in Tokyo, Kyodai has many promising seeds of innovation. If Kyoto establishes itself as a rival to Tokyo as a platform for innovation supported by money and talent, Japan’s entrepreneurship base will grow.
Kyodai tapping public-private venture capital to give shape to accumulated knowledge
Kyodai is fostering a culture of entrepreneurship by adopting a “Kyodai approach,” in which private and public venture capital firms ally with each other to support startups. Kyoto-iCAP partners with Nippon Venture Capital and Miyako Capital to put “accumulated knowledge” in natural sciences and manufacturing to practical use.
About 80% of firms that Kyoto-iCAP has stakes in are startups that private venture capital firms are reluctant to invest in due to the high risks involved. Kyoto-iCAP President and CEO Koji Murota views Kyoto-iCAP as a “division at the vanguard of exploring new businesses” and leads efforts to excavate on-campus seeds of commercialization in close contact with the school’s laboratories.
But the challenge is a lack of management personnel. This could hinder efforts to parlay research results into commercialization. Kyoto-iCAP operates Kyoto-iCAP Entrepreneur Candidate Club (ECC-iCAP) with the support of people interested in entrepreneurship. In May, ECC-iCAP sent its first management team to aceRNA Technologies, which Kyoto-iCAP has a stake in. Maintaining such efforts is essential. (Abridged)