Many readers of this blog work in the biopharma industry, naturally, and of those, many are in and around the (few) locations where a great many of the companies in the industry are born. I myself am in the Boston/Cambridge area, famously thick with companies large and small, and then you have the Bay area in California, the original Cambridge back in the UK, San Diego, and so on down the list. But that list is rather concentrated in the US, and there are some scientific and technologically prominent countries where it’s most definitely not concentrated.
One of those is Japan. This recent item in Nature was titled “Japan’s Start-Up Gulf” and they have a point. I remember having a talk with a Japanese professor visiting Cambridge a couple of years back who had an interesting discovery, and I asked him if he’d formed a company around it. “Not in Japan”, he said. “If I want to do that, I should come here”.
. . .analysts point out that, despite years of effort, blockbuster academic–industry collaborations in Japan are still far from routine. “Everyone talks about PeptiDream because it is unique,” says Suga. He believes a large part of the problem is the old-fashioned view among professors that commercialization efforts will taint the quality of their academic work. “Researchers engaged in industrial applications are less respected than those involved in basic science,” he says, though that attitude is slowly changing.
Others point to an incongruity in the competencies of scientific and industrial fields. “The pharmaceutical sector is not very strong,” says Jun Suzuki, a science and innovation policy analyst at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS). “The consumer electronics industry is quickly shrinking. And there aren’t many good researchers in the artificial intelligence and computer fields.”
This is not exactly in line with the popular/lay picture that many have of Japan, but I think it’s unfortunately accurate. There’s strong research there, for sure, but not quite as much (in some fields) as you might suppose, and Japanese industry is the same way. Remember William Gibson’s early science fiction in the 1980s? One the big, shadowy corporations in the Neuromancer world was “Mitsubishi-Genentech”, which combination now sounds sort of quaint.
Around 100 new university-connected startups were launched in 2017 in Japan, as opposed to around a thousand that year in the US. And this is after several years of regulatory and financial encouragement of that sort of thing by the government. The article quotes the president of a technology transfer office working with the University of Tokyo saying that when he started in the area in 1996 that most university professors had no interest in filing patents on anything at all. As mentioned above, PeptiDream is a rare exception in the Japanese biopharma space, and the article also mentions Vedanta – but notes that they couldn’t raise money in Japan and had to come to Boston to do it.
Some of this is cultural, naturally – a startup requires taking on a good deal of scientific, professional, and financial risk, and that takes getting used to. I would add that it also takes a certain attitude of “Hey, you other guys are doing it wrong, check this out” which is not, from what I’ve seen, a big part of Japanese society. Overlaid on these, honestly (and on top of everything else in Japan) is demographics. The country is aging; their demographic pyramid has been inverting for many years now. On its current course, Japan is just not going to be a “What are those young creative types going to come up with next?” sort of place. I know that there’s been a small boom the last couple of years in “Japan turns it around” articles, and I hope that they’re right, but I’m waiting for a more data because that’s a big vessel to turn around.
Another country that hasn’t had as much of a start-up culture is Germany, with another Nature piece taking a look at the situation there. That one might well be taking off, though. Investment in start-up firms nearly doubled in 2017 from the year before, the article says, as part of a ten-year funding and organizational effort at both the national and Länder (state) level. I’ve generally been baffled when I go to European meetings and see the acknowledgement slides with their blizzard of acronyms and logos for various consortia, partnerships, agencies, institutes, and alliances that crisscross the EU research funding landscape, but people definitely have the incentives to learn to navigate them. Not that there aren’t still some cultural factors:
Bringing in business talent is essential, because the majority of German researchers lack industry experience. “Most researchers have never had the experience of working at a company, let alone running one,” says Jasper Emeis, a business-school graduate who is working with Schmitt to get Grown Valve off the ground. “They’re totally overwhelmed by the business part. . .
. . .And there’s a lingering cultural bias against researchers commercializing their own work. “Many medical doctors and researchers want to be entrepreneurs, but don’t feel comfortable with the way business is done,” says (Shari) Langemak, who trained as a doctor before earning an MBA. “They struggle to communicate why this is a great product.”
That’s a step up from the Japanese situation, though, where the desire to be an entrepreneur may often be lacking as well. The article mentions that the number of people coming in to the German university system from places with more established start-up traditions (the US, UK, and Israel specifically) have had an influence. The missing part of the system might be the number of investors who are willing to step in at the different early stages, and that’s one of the ways where the places with longer histories have a real advantage. There’s a lot of investment money sloshing around Cambridge these days, to be sure, but one good part is that a lot of has, so to speak, been around the block before and is being handled by people who have experienced the risks. And they can also call on a workforce, from the bench up to the boardroom, with that same sort of experience. There’s a critical-mass effect as well, with people being more willing (at all those levels) to take a chance on Startup Company X when they know that there will be several Startup Company Y candidates around if things go wrong.
But you have to start somewhere, and I really hope that the Germans make a success of this. Giving new biopharma and technology ideas a better chance to get tried out in the real world is a good thing, and (speaking as an American) I think that the experience of doing more of that will also be a good thing for the German research community. For a long time now, the choices there have too often been (a) try for an academic job, (b) work for a really large company, or (c) move to the US or UK. And as much as I appreciate the influx of German (and other European) talent into my own country, I’d be happy for them to have a wider range of opportunities.