Driving industrial innovation in Okinawa
In May 2021, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) was delighted to welcome two new teams to its Innovation Square Startup Accelerator Program. This program, which has just entered its fourth year and is primarily funded by the Okinawa Prefecture Government, seeks to support entrepreneurs who envision launching their technology startups in Okinawa. Two new teams stood out as being passionate about their research. The first one, GenomeMiner, is developing a platform to identify useful compounds in microbes that can be readily commercialized, whilst the other, Menopause and beyond, seeks to provide an integrated approach to women’s health.
While based at OIST, these entrepreneurs will utilize OIST’s cutting edge resources and technical facilities to pursue their research and development activities. In addition to the research, this also includes business planning, marketing, fundraising, networking, and team building.
“What we liked most about these two new teams is their passion. You can tell that they really love what they do and are driven by the potential outcomes.” said Mr. Shigefumi Asage, who manages the program. “Their projects have great potential on both the domestic and international markets and are a great fit to OIST and Okinawa. We place big hopes on them becoming global game changers.”
GenomeMiner – creating an artificial intelligence-based platform for genetic engineering
GenomeMiner is a new business line for Tupac.Bio, a startup that was founded in Tokyo five years ago. Its goal is to develop a software platform to analyze microbes, like bacteria and fungi, at the genetic level. Co-founder and CEO, Mr. Eli Lyons has a background in computational biology and medical science, which allows him to pair both wet lab and dry lab experience.
“Part of the reason we were interested in coming to Okinawa is because the first set of microbes that we sampled was from here,” Eli said. “Unlike mainland Japan, Okinawa is subtropical, which means that the microbe populations are different.”
Microbes are known to produce a lot of useful compounds, like therapeutics and industrial enzymes. An example that Eli gives involves identifying microbes that produce anti-fungal compounds, and the genes responsible for producing such compounds.
“This is a really interesting commercial area,” he explained. “We plan to use microbes to remove fungal infections from both humans and crops, as opposed to industrial chemicals. One of the advantages of using synthetic biology is that it is very sustainable compared with conventional industrial chemistry methods, which can produce lots of waste.”
It is estimated that more than 99.999% of microbe species remain undiscovered, due to them being so tiny and numerous. The team is creating a software platform that will analyze microbes at the genetic level and is using the opportunity of its presence in Okinawa to start with the creation of a unique database of microbes found in the Prefecture. Eventually, the platform will be automated to identify a variety of high-value commercial products.
Eli is looking forward to working with the program team and collaborating with the researchers at OIST over the next year. He emphasized that the access to cutting-edge equipment and facilities will provide unparalleled benefits to his work.
“I’ve only been at OIST for a few weeks and it’s already more than lived up to its reputation.”
Researching Menopause and beyond
Dr. Olga Elisseeva is the leader of the team behind Menopause and beyond, a project and soon-to-be-established company which seeks to provide an integrated approach to women’s health. For Olga, who has a background in cancer immunology research, the idea to create this company was driven by personal experience.
“My own menopause experience stretched over several years, and I really struggled to find help in Japan,” she explained. “The majority of doctors are not trained on menopause, which is the first hurdle. But when I started digging through the literature, I realized that so many things are still unknown. There is a lack of research and lack of understanding on what happens to a woman’s body. I have a medical education and access to the latest scientific data on this subject. If I, with all this wealth of knowledge, am struggling so much to find proper support, it must be near impossible for the millions of women who do not have my background. What do they go through? How much and how long do they suffer before finding adequate help and support?”
In October 2020, as part of an entrepreneurship training program at OIST, Olga conducted interviews with women from Japan, Taiwan, Korea and further afield. These interviews uncovered the extent of the stigma surrounding menopause in Japan and other Asian countries, driving women to endure in silence and sometimes not even acknowledge to themselves the reality of menopause. On average, it took women three years to receive adequate help. Dr. Elisseeva realized that it was not only a health problem, but also a cultural and social problem.
“There are many things that can and need to be done in this area,” she explained. She is now in the process of establishing the company with the aim of tackling some of these issues.
“Alongside research on menopause and the development of supplements for women at that stage of their life, we will create a comprehensive online platform offering integrated support for women to thrive through menopause and beyond, providing them with communication and educational resources and access to a network of specialists around Japan,” Olga said. “My long-term personal goal is to start a women’s health research center in Okinawa that is accessible to women throughout Southeast Asia.”
Joining Olga, the team behind ‘Menopause and beyond’ consists of a gynecologist (with a private practice in Okinawa), an acupuncture and herb specialist based in Fukuoka, a clinical psychologist in Okinawa and recent OIST graduate Dr. Sandrine Burriel.