Friday, April 8, 2016

First Women from Osaka University Excel in Technology Commercialization program


The von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center and Global Connect worked with Osaka University in 2014 to design a program for students and faculty from universities in Osaka, Japan to learn about technology acceleration and transfer.  Through a combination of lectures, guest speakers, site visits and practical experience, the Osaka teams learn the basic steps involved to commercialize scientific discoveries and technology ideas.  On February 1st through February 12th, the third cohort of students participated in this two-week workshop at UC San Diego.  Since women are an underrepresented group in the fields of science and technology both in the U.S and in Japan, it was a pleasant surprise when the third cohort included three women.  

Jonathan Masters, the lead instructor, said, “My favorite part of the program is seeing the groups coalesce around a vision and understanding of their project.” Masters believes this group of students provided a better balance for the program with the addition of female students, partly because they were more prepared to begin with.  Program participants come prepared with their specialized technology innovation and they work in teams to begin the process of commercializing their new ideas.  

Although women in Japan have reached a largely equal footing with men in terms of legal rights, there remains a strong unspoken discrimination towards women in the workplace ( Women-in-Business-in-Japan.html).  At the very top of corporate Japan, the “bamboo ceiling”—so-called by women for being thick, hard and not even transparent —is starting to let in some chinks of light, but they are few and far between (The Economist, Mar 29th 2014).  Against these odds, the 3 women from Osaka, Japan who participated in the CLIC-Edge Program are worthy of note. 

Sunri Lee is a graduate student and scientist at Osaka University in the field of electronic devices with organic materials.  She developed $800 eye glasses made of flexible liquid crystal lens to correct vision and develop the cerebral nerves of Amblyopic children.  Ke Zheng is an accountant, currently working on a medical tourism platform for foreign patients from China and other countries who want to travel to Japan for high quality medical treatment.  Rieko Ogura, a PhD researcher at Yokahama National University, is currently working in the field of genetic engineering of plants and plant pathology. In 2014, Ogura founded a start-up company specialized in developing a screening system to identify plant activators for sale to chemical and agrochemical companies.  Click here for more details on the projects that these three pioneering women brought to UC San Diego.

Sunri Lee is working on her Ph.D. in the Department of Chemistry at Osaka University.  She brought a prototype of the eye glasses that are designed specifically for children with Amblyopia, an eye disease that causes their vision to change frequently.  These inventive glasses are flexible, so they family does not have to buy a new pair of glasses as often as before.  The substantial savings to the family budget is one of the major benefits of the flexible liquid crystal lens.  Another benefit is that the lens helps to develop the cerebral nerves of Amblyopic children.  The team is also considering adapting the eye glasses for adults with vision problems.  
While participating in the Innovation Program at the von Liebig Center, Lee enjoyed the session on customer discovery, where she practiced conducting customer interviews.   This role playing exercise is designed to make it easier to talk to customers when the team returns to Japan.  Lee feels that the practice gave her the skills and confidence needed to conduct face-to-face market research.  This will help her team to gather the information needed to decide whether to sell the glasses for children, adults, or both.  
As a Chinese student studying in Japan, Ke Zheng believes there is a market for her online business from prior experiences with family/friends who wish to travel to Japan for medical treatments.  Zheng and her team are making a wellness and medical tourism platform to help people who cannot receive first-class healthcare in their home country, but hope to receive quality care in Japan. The goal is to improve physical well-being and quality of life. Zheng said, “Our healthcare service covers some precise and detailed examinations, physical examinations, beauty treatments, spring therapy and so on. We are providing a one-stop service through our website and a treatment package medical tour to Japan. By using our service, every consumer could get a fantastic experience to improve their health and enjoy their overseas trips at the same time without any worries.” 
About her visit to the von Liebig Center, Zheng said, “I think the whole program is perfect. It not only offered us the entrepreneurial education but also [other] connections and experiences during the two weeks. It enabled us to communicate a lot with others, which is [a] pretty valuable, exciting challenge. In the educational aspect [of the program], the courses include many different topics and related workshops. We gained a lot from these classes.”  The program made Zheng realize the importance of knowing the customers well, which decides the fate of a startup/ new business. She said, “We learned some advanced knowledge on how to do market research, how to interview potential customers, how to find the customers’ real needs, what are the challenges they face, and who our target customers are. What impresses me most is realizing when [the] customer will make a buying decision and what will influence them on that decision. We don't have enough resources to develop a perfect product with all of the functions in the early stage so setting the right priorities is becoming very important.”
Since there are many challenges in starting a new business inside and outside, Zheng plans to remain flexible enough to handle any problems, because you never know what will happen tomorrow. Therefore, it is important to keep calm and stay motivated. After the program, Zheng and her team realized that the earlier they can foresee problems, the more initiatives they can take.
Rieko Ogura, PhD, post-doc researcher at Yokahama National University, is creating plant activators in order to elicit plant immunity and foster environmentally friendly agriculture.  Her company provides a screening system that reports results to Chemical or Agrochemical Companies on whether the substances can induce plant immunity.  
At UC San Diego, she learned that the most important thing is providing services from the customer’s viewpoint. Now she has started to visit potential customers to ascertain their needs and help them adapt to her company’s technology.  Ogura said, “It will make us expand our customers not only to Chemical and Agrochemical Companies, but also to other manufacturing [fields] such as medicine or food.”  
Since Ogura’s company has been in existence for the past 2 years, we asked her for her opinion on how business differs between US and Japan.  She said, “In the US, each employee has authority, therefore decisions are made quickly. In Japan, we need a lot of approval in the organization [before] deciding on one thing.”  

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