Synthetic biology, culture, and the stirrings of innovation from Old Japan
Jun 19,2019

Japan is a global powerhouse for life sciences research. The level of academic research in the country is impressive. Two Nobel Prize winners in the past five years have come from Japan — Yoshinori Ohsumi in 2016 for autophagy and Tasuku Honjo in 2018 for the PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor. And there is no doubt that some of the world’s best probiotics research — and one of the biggest global probiotics markets — is in Japan.

Yet, when you think about synthetic biology — one of the most powerful enabling sets of tools and technologies in the life sciences — Japan doesn’t usually spring to mind. Instead, you may think of Silicon Valley, Boston, the UK, or even China. While there are high levels of academic research in synthetic biology happening in Japan, the visibility of synthetic biology — and how it can benefit society at large — is still low in the country.

Take, for example, induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells and immunotherapies. Both have originations, at least in large part, in Japan. Yet, if you look at the number of companies working on IPS cells or immunotherapy, there are many more in the United States, for example, than in Japan. Important technologies are being born there, but they just don’t seem to evolve outside of the country. The reasons for this are a complex interplay between several factors that make it difficult to transition the amazing academic research happening in synthetic biology from academia to industry.

The stability of Old Japan

Perhaps the biggest influence is cultural: there still permeates a feeling of “old Japan” across much of the country.  Living in the midst of “old Japan” is Eli Lyons, founder of Tupac.Bio, which develops biodesign and bioanalysis tools for the Design and Learn stages of synthetic biology R&D. Residing in Japan for the past seven years, Lyons has become intimately familiar with the dominating values that drive (or hinder) innovation in Japan.

Eli Lyons, founder of Tupac.Bio

“Japan is in some ways a very stable society, so not being the first mover can often maintain that stability,” says Lyons. He adds that stability and reliability seem to be more important than having the newest features or saving five minutes of time, which is probably why Japan takes the tack of following the US, not doing anything in industry until it’s adopted and proven there first.

Lyons experiences a bit of culture shock when he returns to his home country. In the US, he says, you see investors “throwing money at half-assed ideas and founders who have no experience creating business” whereas in Japan investors “only want to invest in Japanese men who have gray hair and have the experience working in a culture that investors are comfortable with.”  In other words, while the US pendulum favors high risk, high reward, the Japanese side of the pendulum is weighted toward the tried-and-true.

Purehearted researcher or money-hungry CEO?

Equally important as the values toward stability and reliability is public perception. According to Lyons, the dominating perception people have toward academics in Japan is “pure-heartedness.”

“If you’re in academia as a researcher, it’s a respectable position, but industry is seen as something orthogonal to academia … industry is about making money [while] academics are people who are pure scientists,” says Lyons, adding that because there is such a large distance between academia and industry, it’s difficult to switch back and forth between academia and industry.

This certainly contributes to Japanese PIs feeling hesitant to transition to industry, even if their research could become the next big synthetic biology technology. But the support to help PIs make the transition just isn’t there, either. Unless you’re at a major University in Japan, you aren’t likely to have technology transfer offices that help PIs navigate the I.P. considerations involved with spinning out a company from University research.

Training and recruiting young talent

Younger researchers and entrepreneurs may not be as intimidated by such challenges and may not feel as much pressure to live up to societal expectations as older, more established PIs. But Japan isn’t capitalizing on two of the most common ways to nourish burgeoning young minds: recruitment of talent from other places, and supporting Japanese individuals that train outside of the country and then return to Japan to contribute to the bioeconomy with their newfound skills.

The Japanese culture is that once you are out, you are out — they don’t really try to recruit students, postdocs, or entrepreneurs back into the country once they leave. This is in stark contrast to other countries like the US, Denmark, and even Asian synthetic biology giants China and Singapore. These other countries also recruit top synthetic biologists from other countries to engage in research and train up the next generation of synthetic biologists, another practice that Japan doesn’t engage in.

The feeling bleeds over into funding, too, much like the “old Japan” sentiment, which is a big challenge facing researchers. Nearly all funding is domestic, he says — Japanese synthetic biologists really don’t get funding from international sources.

Despite these challenges, Lyons has a positive outlook on the future of synthetic biology in Japan. Synthetic biology research is exploding at universities across the country, and several startups (including Lyons’ own Tupac.Bio, which has a flourishing relationship with the Japanese leader in synthetic materials Spiber and will be announcing another critical partnership in July) are demonstrating the power of synthetic biology to make the world a better place.

And funding is healthy, even if directed at times by old traditions and cultural values. There are signs that Japanese VCs are becoming more willing to take risks and place their bets on startups, hinting that the next synthetic biology superhit might well come from Japan.

Embriette Hyde

A trained microbiologist with over 7 years of experience in microbiome research, Dr. Embriette Hyde is passionate about bringing science to the public. She is currently working as Managing Editor at SynBioBeta and mentors K-12 students through Schmahl Science Workshops, fostering passion for science from a young age.

Reprint from synbiobeta

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