In recent years, there has been a remarkable advancement of university-launched ventures. In the past, conventional wisdom held that even though they had great research seeds, Japanese universities could not implement them in society. For the past few years, however, more universities have established open innovation projects jointly with major corporations.
Universities actively pursuing industry-academia collaboration include Tokyo Medical and Dental University. In 2021, the university established TMDU Innovation Park (TIP) on campus to practice open innovation, creating a gathering space for large companies, start-ups, and academics.
In this interview, we spoke with Professor Kaori Iida, who is promoting open innovation at the university, about the status of industry-academia collaboration and the vision the university is pursuing for the future.
Iida joined Tokyo Medical and Dental University in 2005 and has been in her current position since 2013. Iida is engaged in the promotion of industry-academia collaboration as well as in education and research on the management of intellectual property and compliance issues including conflicts of interest related to this type of collaboration.
・Seeking to use the power of medicine in a wide range of industries: open innovation at universities is changing
・ Contribution to society, social implementation of research, and human resource education: the great significance of industry-academia collaboration
・ “TIP” accelerates research on start-ups
・Industry-academia collaboration requires information sharing both inside and outside the university
・ Key points
Seeking to use the power of medicine in a wide range of industries: open innovation at universities is changing
— First, please tell us about the status of your university’s industry-academia collaboration compared to that in the past.
In the past, industry-academia collaboration meant that companies would approach certain researchers regarding their field of expertise. In the case of our university, which is a medical school, companies that would approach us were pharmaceutical makers, medical equipment manufacturers, and other medical companies.
However, medicine has the potential to play an active role in wider fields. For example, medical research is useful in considering how to improve health before an illness occurs. This applies to healthcare including preventive medicine. We could contribute to society from a broader perspective by partnering with various manufacturers such as homebuilders and food companies in addition to medical device makers. Our university is moving toward such a direction.
— How did you go about forming a broad industry-academia collaboration? What was the first action you took?
First, we gathered information from companies outside the medical field to see if there were any problems our research could solve. We were aware that many non-medical companies were reluctant to consult with us because they thought university faculty members were extremely busy and that we would not take them seriously if they came to us. This is why we are reaching out to them from our end.
At the same time, we began gathering information within the university. Although university faculty members have ideas, it is sometimes difficult to put them to use in the university. For example, if you want to make an app, you need to have a relationship with an IT company or a system development company.
There is a growing need to network not only with companies with which the university has had relationships, but also with those with which we have had no previous ties to find partners that can help us use our faculty members’ ideas. We gather information on the needs of the university and of industry outside the university. This is our current emphasis.
— How do you start an industry-academia collaboration if a company can meet the needs of the university or has needs the university can meet?
We form collaborations on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, we contact companies, and in others, companies come to us to demonstrate their technologies. Many companies want to enter the healthcare field, and an increasing number are asking if they can apply their technology to the medical and healthcare domain. For example, if a company comes to us with a sensor technology that could be used to listen to a heartbeat, we will start by having our medical doctors and researchers use that sensor. We will brainstorm and consider the possibility thereof.
On the other hand, there are not many cases where new ideas are created from scratch. This is because there are not enough people serving as intermediaries between universities and companies to create new businesses. However, in 2018, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) established projects to strengthen the functions of 12 universities as they pursued “co-creation” with companies. One example is the “open innovation organization” project. We were selected as one of the universities, and we launched an open innovation organization. If we can make this work, we may see more industry-academia collaboration projects that begin from scratch.
Contribution to society, social implementation of research, and human resource education: the great significance of industry-academia collaboration
— Please tell us about the accomplishments of the industry-academia collaboration that began at your university.
Let me talk about the NEC case. The idea came from an orthopedic surgeon who thought that many people might be seeking advice on care and exercise that match their health conditions and physical characteristics to prevent recurrence after treatment at a medical institution. For this, we needed expertise in advanced ICT including AI. Therefore, we approached NEC.
Today, stiff shoulders and back pain are called “national diseases,” and more gyms are offering training programs to eliminate them. However, finding a service that perfectly meets people’s individual needs is difficult. Therefore, many people abandon efforts to maintain or improve their health. Therefore, this project aims to provide highly professional and reliable healthcare services by combining the medical knowledge of our university with NEC’s technology.
NEC Karada Care, which opened in Kagurazaka in June 2021, provides disease prevention services through joint research between NEC and TMDU. Physical and occupational therapists evaluate the condition of the body, provide treatment, and present improvement programs for people suffering from the aftereffects of treatment or recovery rehabilitation for various orthopedic ailments.
— I have the impression that university faculty members may not be good at determining appropriate prices for services in such a way that they can become a sustainable business, because they are more concerned about the social significance of their work than its economic significance. How did you manage to commercialize your operations?
I think faculty members’ awareness is gradually changing. The main missions of universities are research and education, but social contribution is also a primary mission.
To contribute to society, we need to disseminate products and services widely. It is very meaningful to collaborate with companies that operate with the marketplace in mind. Industry-academia collaboration is also a meaningful approach to education.
We also collaborate with companies with which we have a comprehensive partnership agreement to train human resources. We provide medical education to companies, and medical students sometimes receive internship training at these companies. It is very important for students to learn about social needs and how industry works.
Recently, various career paths have become possible. There are cases in which doctors start their own businesses or work as corporate physicians at private-sector companies. The university is creating opportunities for students to have various experiences so they can consider diverse career paths.
“TIP” accelerates research on start-ups
— You are opening a new lab in TMDU Innovation Park (TIP). What kind of research can be conducted in the new facility?
Labs are largely divided into “dry labs” and “wet labs.” Dry labs are facilities where research is conducted mainly using PCs. Wet labs, on the other hand, are classified according to the risk level of pathogens, from biosafety level 1 (BSL-1) to BSL-4 (*1). The new lab will be able to conduct biological experiments up to BSL-3 and genetic research. It is difficult opening a new lab in Tokyo because BSL-3 involves multiple safety requirements such as the establishment of a controlled area and storage of pathogens.
* Four risk groups have been established in each country based on the danger level of pathogens. These pathogens must be handled in accordance with their risk level. BSL-4 pathogens include the Ebola virus and smallpox virus.
— What advantages are there for the companies that use your labs?
Companies that use our labs are required to conduct joint research with our university. The first advantage is that they will be able to conduct research efficiently and effectively because they can carry out joint research in an environment that is physically very close to medical labs. In addition, setting up a lab on campus makes it possible for companies to interact with other researchers and doctors at the university, which may lead to new business opportunities.
The second advantage is that companies can begin their research more smoothly. Normally, a company that seeks to conduct research on genes must go through procedures such as applying to a relevant committee and obtaining permission. There may also be restrictions on the location of the lab depending on the nature of the research. The lab may also have to be established in a location far from the city center to avert risks.
The use of our wet labs requires that the company conduct joint research with researchers of our university. Therefore, the university’s ethics review committees can help facilitate the procedure.
— If you can, please tell us about the type of inquiries you are receiving.
To give you an idea of the types of companies with which our university is currently collaborating as an organization, we are working with electrical equipment manufacturers, non-life insurance companies, major general trading companies, and musical instrument manufacturers. You might not expect these companies to collaborate with a medical university.
Industry-academia collaboration requires information sharing both inside and outside the university
— You must receive proposals from various companies. When a company has an idea, at what stage should it consult with the university regarding this idea?
It would be best if they consulted with us from the earliest possible stage. Many companies come to us with a proposal that has already taken some shape. However, even ideas that have been carefully considered may not be suitable for the medical field. To avoid wasting time and effort, it is ideal to discuss ideas at an early stage.
You only need to know which technology you want to use. I hope people will come to us and say, “We have this technology. Is there any way to use it in the medical field?” For this, the university must create an environment where people can feel free to consult with us.
— Many companies may be uncomfortable with the idea of taking up the time of busy university professors.
To prevent this from happening, we have a system in which companies can consult with professors for a fee. Since we receive money, they can consult with us with peace of mind because we will be bound by a confidentiality agreement.
If you come to us and say you would like to talk about such and such, we will consider which faculty member to assign. Therefore, please feel free to contact us. Of course, you can also request a specific faculty member.
— Do you have any other industry-academia collaboration projects?
We are about to launch TIP, a community that will share the latest research trends at the university, as well as the technologies and needs of participating companies and start-ups. You can learn about the research pursued by our faculty members. We hope to receive more joint research proposals from various companies as a result of our information dissemination.
We also expect this community to play a role in information sharing within the university. In general, those in a university lab have no idea what the nearby lab is working on.
— Why is collaboration difficult within a university?
I think this is because there are few opportunities to share the latest research within a university.
Researchers in the same field will have the opportunity to get to know one another at academic societies. However, if they are in different fields, they will have no contact. Therefore, we want to make TIP a place to create open innovation within the university.
— I believe that various universities face similar challenges. Please tell us why your university is able to achieve this goal.
We are a non-comprehensive university specializing in the medical field. The president and other executive members make decisions quickly, and we are flexible in considering and responding to new initiatives. I believe this is one of the reasons.
Only a specialized university can offer this strength.
There are many areas that we have barely started. We are launching TIP to build an industry-academia community close to the research and clinical sites of a medical university. It would be great if this leads to many industry-academia collaboration projects that contribute to innovation creation and if this system takes hold as a medical and healthcare ecosystem.
・Tokyo Medical and Dental University has established TMDU Innovation Park (TIP) on campus, where large companies, start-ups, and academics can gather.
・The university is partnering with various manufacturers such as homebuilders and food companies in addition to medical device makers to contribute to society from a broader perspective.
・The current focus is on gathering information on the needs of the university and of industry outside the university.
・Contributing to society is one of the university’s major missions. It is meaningful to form collaboration with companies that consider
・The new lab to open in TMDU Innovation Park (TIP) can conduct biological experiments up to BSL-3, as well as genetic research.
・The benefits of joint research include increased research efficiency and smoother applications to relevant committees.
・The aim is to expand industry-academia collaboration projects that contribute to innovation creation.