Once a hotbed of trailblazing innovation and freethinking pioneers, Japan seems to have lost its entrepreneurial mojo. iNTOUCH examines what needs to be done to reinvigorate that startup spirit. Words by Rob Goss Illustrations by Nagisa Mochizuki
ith his polite, easygoing and softly spoken demeanor, Dr Ryo Kubota doesn’t fit the stereotype of a successful biotech entrepreneur. But his business-minded tenacity has brought his Seattle-based startup, Acucela, to within reach of finding a treatment for the leading cause of blindness in the over 50s worldwide. “My dream is to make a product that will change the world,” says the 46-year-old Japanese ophthalmologist of his work to develop a cure for diseases like macular degeneration and glaucoma. “We could have a simple pill accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world, and treat them without the need for surgery or expensive medical infrastructure. That would be a great medical advancement.” Sitting in the plush surroundings of a Tokyo serviced apartment residence lobby, the dark-suited former University of Washington researcher explains in his American-accented English that he started Acucela in 2002 with an initial investment of $2.1 million. The United States sees a relatively high number (between 20 and 30) of new drugs approved annually. This number, though, represents only a tiny fraction of research programs that ever make it to the product stage.
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