Breaking ground: OIST starts construction on two new start-up incubator buildings

New buildings to help pave the way for an Okinawa innovation hub.

OIST incubator x2 new buildings header image

On the south-west corner of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) campus, in Onna Village on the West Coast of Okinawa Island, lies a flat area of land, spanning about 17,000 square meters. Here, an ongoing initiative is set to propel innovation and entrepreneurial partnerships in Okinawa and Japan.  

On March 19, OIST held a groundbreaking ceremony, known as Kikoshiki in Japanese, to mark the official commencement of construction for two new start-up incubator buildings. This ceremony, steeped in Japanese tradition, precedes the start of construction and involves the purification of the land and prayers for the safety and prosperity of the project. The event also highlights the essential cooperation and teamwork among project stakeholders, construction personnel, and members of the local community.  

Since the inception of the OIST campus, the vision for this area was to create a research and development (R&D) zone where academia, industry experts, entrepreneurs, business professionals, government representatives, and investors could connect. 

“It’s a community space designed for innovation, where professionals can work together, exchange ideas, and find solutions. The spaces will be used for initial project testing, promising start-ups, and stimulating more innovation,” Gil Granot-Mayer, Executive Vice President for Technology Development and Innovation, stated. 

The new buildings will feature co-working spaces, wet and dry labs, conference rooms and more, and will be located opposite an existing, smaller incubation building, in operation since 2019. Together, these facilities will provide a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs to evaluate the potential of their start-ups and develop prototypes. 

Representatives participated in the digging of the first shovel of soil
Representatives from OIST, Onna Village, and construction partners participated in the ceremonial digging of the first shovel of soil at the groundbreaking ceremony for two new start-up incubator buildings. From left to right: Osamu Uechi, CEO of Nohara Kensetsu Co., Ltd.; Yoshimi Nagahama, Onna Village Mayor; Dr. Karin Markides, OIST President and CEO; Kaname Ishikawa, Tancha Ward Mayor; and Takayuki Nagano, Branch Manager of Kume Sekkei Co., Ltd., Kyushu Branch Office. Credit: Jeffery Prine, OIST
A Shinto priest performs purification rights
A Shinto priest performed purification rights on the land where the construction work is set to start, invoking blessings for a successful project at the groundbreaking ceremony for two new start-up incubator buildings. Credit: Jeffery Prine, OIST

From proof-of-concept to breaking new ground 

OIST’s flagship OIST Innovation addresses the gap between basic research and real-world implementation. Often, promising ideas and early-stage projects struggle to bridge this gap. The division's goal is to mitigate this challenge by focusing on targeted activities that elevate technology development to solve the world’s most urgent problems. Additionally, the division aims to work with stakeholders who can support and enhance the entire innovation process and establish strong public-private-university partnerships. 

“Currently we have a 500 m2 incubator building that has proved to be a successful proof-of-concept. It’s attracted many startups and served a lot of our own growing community of entrepreneurs, but now we need to expand to create a better space to encourage creativity. These new buildings will provide an additional 2200 m2 space for an innovation hub,” Granot-Mayer commented. 

OIST Innovation will support the new buildings’ occupants, which will include startups from Okinawa, Japan, and abroad. Currently, the existing smaller incubator hosts approximately 50 tenants, including local and domestic service providers and start-ups. 

“We wanted to boost innovation by creating a gathering space where different stakeholders come together, and the idea of an innovation playground was very attractive. We had a blank slate and didn’t have to duplicate what other universities do. Our vision was to create a cluster of innovation within the campus that includes external visitors and collaborators,” Lauren Ha, Associate Vice President for Technology Development and Innovation, explained. 

The current OIST Innovation Incubator
The current OIST Innovation Incubator, in operation since April 2019, has proved to be a successful proof-of-concept and emphasized the need to expand the space for more start-ups and collaborators.  

Contributing to OIST’s mission and strategic plan 

Crucial to the success of this OIST Innovation initiative is the planned opening of OIST’s Core Facilities to external stakeholders that would like to partner with OIST and access the equipment and support services available on campus. Establishing fruitful connections with people outside of OIST through Core Facilities and OIST Innovation ties in strongly with OIST’s mission – to be a catalyst for an innovation hub in Okinawa. 

Lauren emphasized the importance of opening the new buildings to the public: “Currently, none of our lab buildings are accessible to the public. Our goal is to create a welcoming space in common areas to foster connections with the local community. We’d like to create a vibrant knowledge-exchange hub that draws people from the surrounding areas.” 

“Our expansion isn’t just about enlarging our physical space, it’s also about nurturing relationships. We’re considering how to connect people and places, with mobility being an important factor. While cars are a common mode of transport, we’re looking into innovative alternatives like self-driving electric shuttles to enhance sustainability. This initiative encourages dialogue and challenges us to think beyond the obvious,” she explained.  

Stay tuned for future breakthroughs in innovation at OIST! For more information on OIST Innovation startups and initiatives, please see here

Header image: Perspective image of the two new start-up incubator buildings

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