Welcome Speech at OIST 10th Anniversary Ceremony

May 22, 2022

Welcome, honored guests! Thank you for joining us to celebrate our tenth anniversary—whether you are here on our beautiful campus or joining us online from your home around the world.

Welcome.
From politics, PM Kishida via video, Speaker Hosoda, Minister Nishime, Governor Tamaki, Mayor Nagahama, Parliamentary Representatives, Assembly Members. 

From the business and academic communities, Suntory CEO Takeshi Niinami Welcome to the Board of Governors, including Chair Cherry Murray and Vice Chair James Higa, and the Members of the Board of Councilors, with Chair Albrecht Wagner. Welcome President Emeritus Dorfan and Renee Dorfan

Colleagues and friends, the OIST community, welcome.

Watching the previous video a moment ago reminds us of what a journey OIST has made — what a journey we have made over the past ten-plus years.

The journey started with a man and an idea. It was a bold idea, one that many people considered an unrealistic dream.

But as we can see today, the dream is in motion! This miracle occurred through inspiration, boldness, trust in people, and a readiness to invest.

The man with the idea was an influential and seasoned politician. Koji Omi. On April 14 this year, Mr. Omi passed away at the age of 89. As we mourn his death, we also know that we will never forget his accomplishments. We are very grateful to be joined today by his daughter and member of house of representatives, Asako Omi. OIST honored his legacy in 2018 when Mr. Omi was the first person to receive an honorary doctorate at our very first graduation ceremony.

More than ten years ago, Omi understood that he needed more than a bold idea. To make his vision a reality, he needed the best and the brightest, the most influential in their fields, and the most pioneering of individuals.

He travelled the world to gather Noble laureates and world-renowned science managers who could help him shape his vision.

The vision — as you all know and support — is an international, world-leading university in science, education, and innovation in Okinawa. The goal — that we are all working toward — is to transform the science and innovation system nationally as well as the economic system locally. Through OIST, Okinawans standards of living should be brought into line with that of the people on the mainland.

I am delighted that two people from the pioneering group of visionaries are here in this room with us today:

  • Kiyoshi Kurowaka, and
  • Tim Hunt, to this day, researcher and mentor here on campus.

Welcome!

As we celebrate together, we want to commemorate two other outstanding individuals who could not be with us: Akito Arima, who passed away in 2020, and Sydney Brenner, who we lost in 2019. Arima was a world-renowned scientist, politician, and leader in science management who knew what Japan desperately needed in OIST. Sydney Brenner was a Nobel Prize laureate and was the Okinawa Institute Science and Technology Promotion Cooperation’s founding president, establishing the key principles that shape our university today. We will treasure their legacies.

Omi managed to inspire these two leaders — along with outstanding scientists and brilliant minds from around the globe — to join him in bringing the vision to life.

They knew

  • it had to be an international environment.
  • It had to have a cross-disciplinary approach in science and education.
  • It had to be without the traditional borders of departments.
  • And it had to invest in people through high-trust funding.

They looked to build this vision in Okinawa — rather than in Tokyo or on the West Coast of the U.S. Everyone knew that science and education could change living conditions in Okinawa, and everyone understood that this should be the place to build a university from the ground up.

Omi also worked very closely with Hiroyuki Hosoda, making a powerful team. And together they overcame another critical hurdle. They showed the Government of Japan how important it was to invest in this vision, and they also gathered essential support from the Governments of Okinawa and Onna-son.

The enthusiasm of creating a new kind of university, of providing science with a new platform, and of doing it here in Okinawa, was infectious. An idea sparked by one person became a mission for us all.

I will never forget my first visit to OIST when I was invited by the Board of Governors Presidential Search Committee. The spark was instantaneous. Since then, I have had the pleasure of watching people come to us as visitors and leave OIST as supporters and friends.

Please ask yourself:

  • Why do you work for OIST as a Board of Governors or Board of Councilors member?
  • Members of the OIST Foundation, why do you get involved in fundraising?
  • As business leaders, why do you engage with us—why is an innovation part essential?
  • Why do you, graduate students, postdocs, principal investigators — trust OIST with your career?

For example, think of Professor Kenji Doya some 20 years ago joining us in the preliminary Uruma labs — this was before we were an accredited university. He could not know if this was the beginning of a great institution or a dead-end for his outstanding research. What made him join?

I believe the answer is this: We are all convinced of OIST's vision. To bring it to life is our mission.

What you witness today is the result of the outstanding work and dedication of many. I’d love to thank all of you personally who have contributed for your trust, support, and hard work but time allows only a summarily expression of gratitude.

  • The Japanese Government. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Kishida honored OIST with a visit to our campus. Today he sends his strong support by video, as we will see later.
  • The Okinawa Government
  • The Okinawa Promotion Council
  • The Japanese taxpayers
  • This community here in Okinawa and especially Onna-son
  • I would also like to extend my gratitude to leaders of the scientific community, supporting OIST early on.
  • Former President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan could not be with us in person due to COVID-related travel challenges, but he shared his keynote address through a video.

And so many individuals:

  • Jonathan Dorfan. My predecessor designed the transition of the OIST Promotion Corporation to a graduate university. His tenure was marked by many firsts—including welcoming the first students to campus.
    1. Together with his wife Renee, Jonathan shaped the lives of many individuals.
  • In establishing the new graduate university, Jonathan was joined by our first dedicated and enthusiastic executives, many of whom are here with us today—
    2. I see former Vice CEO Bob Baughman, former Dean and Senior Advisor Ken Peach, and former Vice Presidents John Dickinson, Neil Calder, Maki Kubo.
  • I also like to thank our colleagues on the Board of Governors · Colleagues on the Board of Councilors
  • My current executive team of vice-presidents, deans, and advisors
  • Graduate students and post-doctoral researchers
  • Technicians, research support specialists, and staff scientists
  • Faculty.
  • All administrative and research staff—some of whom have been with OIST since its very first days as a research unit in Uruma, while most others joined our journey more recently.

Thank you all so very much. You are part of history because you have made history. You were instrumental in so many positive developments in science, in education, in innovation, and in the life of our community. You are the OIST family.

As the OIST community, we enjoy watching the little ones in our Child Development Center. They grow up speaking at least two languages and being at home in at least two cultures, on a campus with a United Nations of science and education. Renee and Jonathan Dorfan, thank you so much for laying the groundwork for the Child Development Center!

As a family, we reach out to our neighbors. I believe Nobel Laureate Jerry Friedman was the first person who went to Okinawa’s schools to teach students about the wonders of science. Many others, from Nobel laureates to graduate students, followed his example. Every year, we stretch into local schools and we welcome Okinawans to our campus.

As a community, we honor all who belong — and once belonged — to us. We were shocked and saddened when we lost staff member Shohei Suzuki in an incident in the service of duty. We mourned his death and, with the help of his family, set up the Shohei Suzuki Research Safety Fund.

As we move forward together, we are striving to develop and improve on every level — as scientists, as innovators, as administrators, and as community members.

Over the past 10 years, our results in science and education have built the necessary basis for technology transfer. Science and technology development are intertwined and together, they fuel incremental and breakthrough innovation.

Now, as we look to the future, we know to fulfill our vision it is time to ambitiously broaden our commitment to innovation. We are working on two goals.

First, we are expanding our innovation partnerships to facilitate the translation of OIST research from intellectual properties into products and services.

Second, we are attracting entrepreneurs to develop their startups at OIST and co-create the innovation ecosystem in Okinawa.

It is the quality of our science and education, the soft-landing portal and business support, and the partnerships with venture capital firms and the OIST Venture Fund that attract young entrepreneurs with the ambition to launch their businesses in Japan and expand globally.

One of the startups, EF Polymer, was awarded “Green Startup of the Year 2022” in Japan. As the number of startups grows, we are eager to build a second incubator and subsequently—together with our public and private partners from industry, business, and governments—set up an Okinawa Innovation District in the proximity of OIST.

Today, as we celebrate the past and look to the future, we also know that we have arrived at a crossroad.

We received two excellent ten-year reviews recently. Both panels stated that OIST needs to grow to achieve its vision. The reason is clear: cross-disciplinary work needs a critical mass in different disciplines to allow for the breakthroughs that happen at the interphase of scientific disciplines.

Yet now, instead of growing, we are faced with a reduced budget and an unclear future.

The economic costs of the COVID pandemic, the geopolitical and economic shockwaves of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a global economy shaken by disrupted supply chains are putting a strain on Japan and the world.

But if we read these events as reasons to reduce funding, we read them very wrong.

On the contrary, this is the time to be courageous. This is the time to invest in the future. This is the time to secure the essential competitive advantage we find in science, technology, and innovation. Japan’s shrinking talent pool needs an influx from across the world. Japan needs to attract venture capital and prepare the ground for entrepreneurs. Japan’s industry sector needs new startups and digitalization.

That’s why OIST was developed in the first place. I am daring to hope, as the PM already indicated, that our government wants to invest. At the ceremony of the 50th reversion of Okinawa to Japan last Sunday, Prime Minister Kishida said he will “promote world-class education and research at OIST. . .and will provide strong support to ensure that the results of research benefit our society.” Further, he stressed the importance of high-value industries, entrepreneurialism, and the startup ecosystem.

Yes, this is our purpose and our destiny!

But to be candid: This will not happen if we freeze OIST at the current size. This is, by no means, sustainable. We need to grow to fulfill our vision, and we need the financial means to do so. At OIST, we are committed to diversifying funding sources and raising third-party and private funds. However, the main share needs to come from the government, because basic research lays the groundwork of all inventions, and our stable financial support provides the seed we need.

My colleagues and friends, many — maybe all — of you who are with us today, in Japan and around the globe, have believed in OIST’s vision from the start. The Government of Japan started to invest in OIST when it was little more than a promise.

Today, we are proud that we have fulfilled that promise and exceeded expectations scientifically. This has been possible thanks to all of those in the OIST community—from the very beginning to now. Tomorrow, we must continue the journey.

Imagine OIST in 20 years. Imagine our university with 200 or 300 faculty, double and triple the 85 today.

Imagine the impact of those faculty and of the around 500 graduate students they will guide. Over 2000 employees will be working and discovering. Imagine the beacon that OIST will be on the international scientific map, contributing to solutions for our planet’s most challenging problems; fostering the next generation of science and technology talents; creating Japanese and international entrepreneurs through incubator and accelerator programs; and attracting venture capital, innovators, and entrepreneurs to Okinawa.

Imagine the first phase of the Innovation Park where people will live, work, and play. Imagine this campus with sustainability features and a vibrant mix of local and diverse cultures offering jobs, housing, education, and wellbeing for a community of several thousand people.

We know that if OIST’s effort to seed an innovation ecosystem is supported, the GDP per capita of Okinawa will be boosted significantly. With 10 high-quality job at OIST we can generate more than 20 others. The direct and indirect economic impact from OIST, OIST-affiliated startups, business support services, and tax revenues together is estimated to generate substantial employment and fill a significant fraction of the gap in GDP between Okinawa and the rest of Japan.

We need to seize the opportunity to fill that gap and bring more prosperity to Okinawa.

My dear friends, today, OIST’s vision is just a few steps away.

I implore you not to give it up, not to accept the current stagnation and cutbacks in investment. Why? Because realizing OIST’s vision means the most significant game-changing impact possible on Okinawa.

Today, as we remember the vision and drive of those who made an idea a reality, we must be just as ambitious and aspirational. We need your support to let OIST become what it has always supposed to be.

A beacon of research. A facilitator of education. A driver of economic development in Okinawa.

Join us!