Recently, Japan has given two prominent topics, bad and good, to the global regenerative medicine community. The former is the over-promoted but fabricated STAP stem cell papers, and the latter is a rather unusual bold move by Japanese government to start flexible and relaxed regulation to advance the stem cell-based therapy. Then, what are happening in Japan?
In the July 2014 issue of Regenerative Medicine, Munisi, Xie and Sengoku wrote a Special Report, “Exploring innovation in stem cell and regenerative medicine in Japan: the power of the consortium-based approach. It is an interesting overview and analysis of what and how the multi-sector initiatives towards the regenerative therapy are progressing in Japan. I would like to give several comments to this Special Report, because I has been playing a leading role in such multi-sector consortium for almost ten years in Japan, and also, because they may be relevant not only in Japan but in other counties as well.
It is true that the multi-sector consortium can play great roles in the novel technology field such as regenerative medicine for advancement and making it real and practical in the society. The ideal situation is the seamless communication and collaboration that stimulate open innovation from the basic science towards practical technology and industry, guided by updated understanding of the global needs and market. In reality, however, the participating sectors have different interests and concerns. The academic scientists are working on their science, the industry is interested in business, and the government is mostly looking at domestic policy and budget. Thus, as the Special Report pointed at, there are several points crucial for success of the consortium by constructing smooth collaboration among participants for mutual merits.
The first is leadership, by either one leader or by mutually trusting small number of leading persons ideally coming from multi-sectors. Such leadership should have good understanding of not only the science and technology but also global needs and markets including the business perspectives.
The second is entrepreneurship. It is actually a weak point in Japan. We need many risk-taking entrepreneurs who make start-up companies to try to advance the research towards valuable application technology, although success rates may be less than a few percent. Established companies usually cannot take such a risk. The multi-sector consortium, however, can provide risk-sharing by adding public funds to those from participating companies. It is encouraging that there are increasing number of Japanese start-up companies taking risks and producing some success.
The third is culture and behavior of participating people in the multi-sector collaboration. Any single leader cannot always know which would be the right direction to the success in such complex and uncertain innovation field. Therefore, participants in the multi-sector consortium should exchange frank and straight opinions by constructing mutual trusts on equal standing. In Japan, however, there is a tendency that the academic scientists and government officials are leading discussion and planning and the industry participants frequently refrain from giving straight opinion to avoid confrontation with academia “sensei” and “bureaucrat.” Then, the leader and whole project may lose the opportunity of receiving valuable industrial wisdoms. Government officials usually try to control the whole project as the fund provider and lead the industry, although frequently they are not knowledgeable about the global needs and market. Also, even great academic scientists are usually not good in understanding the global market and business perspectives.
As a conclusion, for the great success of the multi-sector consortium, the most important components are the trustworthy leader(s) with wide and flexible views and thoughts, and the risk-taking entrepreneurs, joined by established solid companies with their reliable technology.