Japanese Frontrunners of Intellectual Property Rights - vol.3
Government, Industry, and University: Creating Opportunities for Growth
-An Interview with Mr. Tomohiro Terasaki

By Eunice Lee

Interviewed on June 20, 2016

(Published on May 17, 2017)

A government official with over ten years of experience working in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Tomohiro Terasaki discusses the need for greater university-industry collaboration in Japan and the crucial role of university startups in encouraging such growth.

Tomohiro Terasaki, Deputy Director, University-Industry Collaboration Division, Science and Technology Policy Bureau, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT); Councilor, Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ) (as of June 20, 2016)

Q: What led to your decision to pursue a career in government?

Mr. Tomohiro Terasaki: I received my Bachelor of Science in Immunology from Kyoto University and later entered into the science department of Kyoto Graduate School, but I left those courses and decided instead to begin working at the Ministry. After working for five or six years, however, I returned to school and studied education policy and management overseas in the United States, where I received my Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I then returned to the Ministry, where I have been in charge of policy for university-industry collaboration, technology transfer, and academic start-ups for the last three years. From July 2013, I also began temporary work for the Innovation Network Coordination of Japan (INCJ), a unique public-private partnership that seeks to promote innovation and enhance the value of Japanese businesses.

Q: Did this experience studying overseas influence your perspective on Japanese policy in any way?

Mr. Tomohiro Terasaki: Japanese people tend to have a critical view of the state of our education system – as well as health care, science, and other systems in general – but after studying at Harvard, I found that the Japanese compulsory education system is actually quite good in comparison to those of many other countries. I believe that an important step forward in education policy is to adopt a realistic perspective of our education system and learn to recognize, and further develop, its advantageous aspects.

Q: What are some of the main responsibilities of your work at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), and how does it relate to your research interests in intellectual property?

Mr. Tomohiro Terasaki: I am in charge of industry-university collaboration policy in the field of science and technology – essentially, my responsibility is to plan various programs and initiatives for subsidies. After implementing these programs, I conduct analysis and review in order to improve the conditions of university-industry collaboration in Japan. In short, the primary goal is to promote technology transfer from universities to industry.

The number of startup companies in Japan remains low in comparison to other countries.

At the University of Tokyo, my research work in intellectual property is related to my interest in university startups. In comparison to other countries, the number of startup companies in Japan is still low. From the perspective of a government official, I would like to activate the development of university startups, as they can be a crucial driving force for contributing to economic growth in a country. When existing companies regard intellectual property from universities as a high-risk investment and do not evaluate the technology as it is, a start-up company from university plays a crucial role in the utilization of research results. Academic start-ups generally are willing to take higher risks than existing enterprises and can serve as a means to produce new industry with the technology. Thus, my research question deals mainly with examining the important factors that are conducive to encouraging the development of university startups – indeed, beyond intellectual property rights and policy, other elements such as government subsidies and management play a very significant role. My goal is to analyze and clarify these various factors in order to inform my work in developing government programs that can better target the appropriate levers.

(Source: Yamamoto, Takafumi. “University-Industry Collaborations in Japan.” Presentation, TODAI TLO, Ltd., Tokyo.)

Q: In the case of Japan, what is the role of the government in university-industry collaboration, and what are some of the barriers to successful implementation of technology transfer?

Mr. Tomohiro Terasaki: Universities are important players in science and technology policy, serving as the source of basic research, which is essential to both scientific discovery and the creation of innovation. But because universities are not themselves equipped to handle commercialization, the intervention of industry is crucial to developing useful technology and products. The relationship between industry, university, and government is mutually enforcing – collaboration between industry and university is very important to government because stimulating business can increase a country’s GDP, and consequently, the government provides subsidies to universities to encourage economic and societal benefit. Affirmative action is necessary to bring about such collaboration.

However, there are of course challenges inherent to this process, such as differences in culture between universities and industry that can make communication and negotiation between the two parties difficult. Another problem is “risk-tolerance.” Notably, not all technology from university is transferred and commercialized at existing firms – this is because universities’ technology is far from commercialization and takes a considerable investment of both time and money to be developed while it is still in the stage of being radical or new. Companies are often said to try to avoid taking risks, as risk translates into a cost. From the perspective of industry, therefore, the goal is to receive technology as late as possible in the development stage, as this is when the relative risk that a new technology will ultimately not be useful or successful is decreasing. Consequently, a gap arises between university and industry during the technology transfer process, and breaching this gap is a critical issue for any country’s government.

The prioritization of intellectual property management by universities is crucial in the current stage of Japanese national university incorporation.

Q: The Japanese National University Corporation Law of 2004 is now well into its implementation stage. Can you briefly discuss the key elements of this law and its potential implications for the management and utilization of intellectual property at Japanese universities?

Mr. Tomohiro Terasaki: In 2004, Japanese national universities that had previously been state-owned institutions under MEXT were incorporated and their management was changed to introduce a more private sector system. This entailed greater independence in terms of the dissemination of research results and university ownership of patents. The expectation was that ideally, universities would prioritize the effective use and management of intellectual property. However, the situation has developed a bit differently from this expectation. In general, it appears that universities do not view intellectual property as being a matter of great significance. The government, on the other hand, is concerned with the possibility that if domestic universities do not effectively manage patenting, then foreign companies could potentially obtain IP from Japanese academic research findings that were funded by Japanese government subsidies. As such, promoting the effective management of IP by universities is a critical and continuing issue.

Interviewer: Eunice Lee

4th-Year Student, Department of History and Science, Harvard University (Class of 2017)