Science and Business: Turning innovation into enterprise

How can new scientific breakthroughs turn into successful business enterprises? A recent conference held at OIST aimed to find out.

On March 2nd, 2018, 23 speakers from five different countries converged at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) for the Okinawa Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit, to discuss the future of integrating science and business with a focus on fresh startups. The speakers came from both the academic and private sectors to exchange experiences on connecting novel scientific developments with practical applications in the marketplace.

Proceedings were kicked off by Dr. Robert Baughman, Executive Vice President for OIST Technology Development and Innovation Center (TDIC), who outlined upcoming programs at TDIC to help scientists take their ideas to markets hungry for innovations: a “startup incubator” facility to house seed stage startups and connect them to the broader OIST community, as well as the first international startup accelerator program in Okinawa to provide aspiring entrepreneurs recruited from all over the world with funding, space, equipment and support needed to launch their technology ventures right here in Okinawa.

Dr Robert Baughman begins the Okinawa Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit

It’s an approach that has already paid off for the University of Cambridge, whose Cambridge Enterprise has commercialized research now at work in some of today’s biggest brand names: from the tech underpinning digital assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, to the genome sequencing at the heart of modern medical applications. The CEO of Cambridge Enterprise, Tony Raven, encouraged institutions to find success by getting out of their comfort zones: “you don’t invent the lightbulb by researching better candles!”.

Dr. Tony Raven of Cambridge Enterprise “There is no Secret Sauce - you have to find out what makes your own institiution special”

An innovation success story was presented by the next speaker, Horacio Melo, former executive director of Startup Chile, who showed how the open source startup accelerator overcame Chile’s geographic isolation to create an attractive business ecosystem for entrepreneurs around the world. By offering government-backed funding for pilot schemes and aggressively pursuing alliances with universities and corporations, Startup Chile has supported individuals from over 141 countries in establishing their first startups, with one in three going on to secure private investment after participating. It’s a model that has been emulated by fifty countries, and has put Chile on the map as an incubator for fresh business ideas.

Horacio Melo shows why Chile is becoming the new global hotspot for startups

Closer to home, Daisuke Yamanaka, founder of Yamagata Design took the floor to tell of how he made the bold switch from designing Japanese shopping malls as a real estate developer to redeveloping the industry of Shonai in Yamagata Prefecture by expanding science parks – spaces for science focus companies to set up with the resources that they need to flourish. Integrating these facilities with community spaces like a hotel and restaurant serving locally-grown ingredients, children’s playground, and onsen have provided a gateway for local people to engage with the science on their doorstep, and for science to give back to their local communities. “We have an obligation to create a paradigm shift in people’s thinking,” says Yamanaka, “this is capitalism for common benefit”.

Daisuke Yamanaka of Yamagata Design: “You don’t need to be in real estate, there are unlimited opportunities to create successful communities”

The second session saw a panel discussion on how local regions can promote innovation ecosystems. Tim Romero of the “Disrupting Japan” podcast moderated the panel. Joining the previous three speakers were Steve Sakanashi, founder of Sekai Creator, Lu-Sheng Hong of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan, and Akikazu Shimoji, COO of the Okinawa Industry Promotion Public Corporation.

Tim Romero of the Disrupting Japan podcast moderates the panel discussion.

Each spoke briefly about their personal experience in promoting entrepreneurship: Sakanashi created a system based on sports coaching to develop talent in Seattle and Tokyo; Dr. Hong outlined the Taiwanese government’s programs of mutual support with Japan to foster research and development; Shimoji detailed Okinawa’s nurturing of the biotech industry through local provision of subsidies and facilities.

The panel concluded with a question on how can the barrier between academia and the private sector be crossed? Tony Raven had a definitive answer: “Walk in your customers’ shoes, understand their perspective.” Once scientists can begin to relate how business success to their own personal goals, they are on the road to becoming the next big startup.

Afternoon sessions explored how scientists can turn their research into commercial opportunities.

The summit continued for two additional sessions across the afternoon, the first focusing on how scientists can forge pathways to turn their research into commercial opportunities. Five scientists discussed how their curiosity-driven research can have an impact on society. The last session was exciting and fast-paced, organized as seven 15-minute pitches. Startup founders from Wantedly (Japan), Umbo Computer Vision (USA and Taiwan), and Nanolux (Japan) shared their stories and advice for budding entrepreneurs. They were followed by investors and promoters from 500 Startups Japan based in Tokyo, Bio-sight Capital, based in Osaka and Okinawa, Taiwan Startup Stadium, and Sultan Ventures, based in Hawaii, who discussed the state of venture funding for startups around the world.

The day concluded with closing statements by Dr. Baughman, and registrants were provided the opportunity to attend a networking session to put their collated ideas into practice. The next big thing might just start at OIST!

The gathered speakers at the 2018 Okinawa Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit

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