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Science and innovation at the heart of an education revolution

Article - January 25, 2016

With a serious need to improve its industrial capacity, Japan is relying on its science universities to provide highly qualified, international entrepreneurs that will lead the country to the next stage of global competitiveness

In today’s rapidly evolving global market, Japan is counting on its science universities to provide the innovative, highly qualified entrepreneurs it needs to compete on a global scale.

Over the past decade, the country has implemented a raft of academic reforms designed to encourage entrepreneurship and technology transfer from universities to industry. Now – at leading institutions like the Tokyo University of Science (TUS) and the University of Tsukuba – those reforms are starting to bear fruit.

“We are obligated to the future of our students,” says Chairman of TUS, Shigeru ‘Sam’ Nakane. “I want them to be leaders, not followers. Our job employment ratio is excellent – the top performer in the world.”

Founded in 1881 (then named Tokyo Academy of Physics), TUS was the brainchild of 21 young scientists who had just graduated from the Department of Physics at the University of Tokyo.  At this time, there was a strong popular movement in Japan for democratic rights, where study of politics, economics and law came to the fore, while the importance of scientific research was often down played. The university’s founders, however, championed the founding principle of ‘building a better future with science’, and advocated their own movement to promote science.

Their vision lives on today, and in recent years TUS has made a number of ground-breaking discoveries with potentially limitless industrial applications. Professor Akira Fujishima’s discovery that sunlight in combination with titanium dioxide oxidizes water has been instrumental in the development of air and water purification technologies, as well as self-cleaning materials and surfaces. Similarly, the university’s department of applied chemistry, led by Prof. Shinichi Komaba, is working to help bring the world commercially available rechargeable sodium-ion batteries.

“When I first started battery research in earnest 15 or so years ago, mobile phones were just coming into vogue. Everyone was researching lithium-ion batteries,” says Prof. Komaba. “That wasn’t for me. I wanted to do something different. In my laboratory, we work to develop new rechargeable batteries with advanced performance in energy, safety and price.”

Other research projects at TUS are even more ambitious – and aim to tackle some of the greatest problems facing mankind today. In the field of space robotics, Prof. Shinichi Kimura is working to develop a satellite capable of clearing up the mass of dangerous space debris currently orbiting the Earth.

“In low orbits, satellites can only transmit communications in 10 minute bursts and only five times a day. In short, you can’t direct them to take action,” Prof. Kimura explains. “The situation is getting more serious and awareness is growing. It has reached a point where the ISS (International Space Station) has to take evasive action very often due to space debris.”

Meanwhile, the Faculty of Industrial Science and Technology is developing technology designed to harness waste heat on a global scale. This ambitious plan could one day be instrumental in helping to reduce global CO2 emissions and curbing global warming.

Other research projects at TUS are even more ambitious – and aim to tackle some of the greatest problems facing mankind today. In the field of space robotics, Professor Shinichi Kimura is working to develop a satellite capable of clearing up the mass of dangerous space debris currently orbiting the Earth

“Our overarching mission is to create electricity from waste heat to help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to minimize the greenhouse effect,” explains the mastermind behind this innovative project, Prof. Tsutomu Iida. “Today, more than 70% of primary source energy is waste heat. Imagine that –70% of the heat from vehicles is simply lost. We want to change that.”

Even with so much fascinating research already underway at the institute, there’s always room for improvement – and Mr. Nakane is keen to draw on his experience working at PoweredCom and IBM to drive the university on to bigger and better things.

“I’ve acquired my skills from IBM, SAP and Pricewaterhouse Coopers. When I served for these companies they were number one,” he says. “Information technology is my top priority, [such as] the Internet of Things, outcome economy, smart and connected component embedded sensors and Japanese technologies.”

The University of  Tsukuba– one of Japan’s oldest national universities as well as one of the most comprehensive research institutes – also has a long history of scientific innovation, boasting three Nobel laureates in the fields of physics and chemistry. Recent breakthroughs in cybernetics and roboethics show that this spirit of innovation is still thriving there today.

“There was a researcher working in computer science and we promoted him to collaborate with the medical department,” explains President of the University of  Tsukuba, Kyosuke Nagata. “He took medical science and neurobiology to combine it with machinery, and he made cybernetic robotics.  Now robots can be part of medical treatment too through robotic suits.”

These suits can form part of a structured rehabilitation program for people with damaged limbs – and have in some cases helped paralyzed patients achieve seemingly miraculous recoveries. Mr. Nagata points to an example of one particular man who was infected with the poliovirus and had lost use of his legs.

“With these robotic suits he trained for six months and now finally he can move again because another nervous system is growing and connecting to his brain,” he says.  “Medical scientists could not believe it, but this robotic device has changed everything and a new study area has been born.”

Perhaps even more exciting than that is the university’s work into human aging, where research led by specially appointed Prof. Jun-Ichi Hayashi recently proved that the aging process can be reversed in human cells. It’s hoped that these findings will eventually lead to the development of supplements to give elderly people a new lease of life.

These breakthroughs are examples of the brilliant and innovative research that’s being done in Japan today. But to maintain its position as an internationally competitive technological nation, it’s more important than ever that these innovative projects be put to use in industry. Mr. Nakane hopes that TUS’s alliance with U.S. business school Babson College will inspire the university’s next generation of young entrepreneurs to do exactly that. As part of this alliance, Babson College will offer its renowned Symposium for Entrepreneurship Educators in Japan – bringing the world-class entrepreneurship program to the Asia-Pacific region for the very first time.

“Tokyo University of Science is very honored to partner with Babson College, so highly respected in entrepreneurship education,” says Mr. Nakane. “Through this partnership, Babson College will be contributing not only to TUS, but also the future of Japan by helping us to educate and train young minds for the edge of the entrepreneurship world.”

“We are pleased to partner with Tokyo University of Science,” says Babson President Kerry Healey.  “This is a vital partnership, coming at a time when enterprises everywhere are striving to be more entrepreneurial.”