Wherever there is an innovative startup ecosystem, there are university spin-offs. In the U.S., Stanford University fosters many high-tech companies and is the birthplace of Google. Also in Switzerland, research-based companies are often spun out of universities, with EPFL and ETHZ playing a big role. In Japan, it is the University of Tokyo (Todai) that leads the way.
Todai, the highest-ranked university in Asia according to the Shanghai Ranking, offers a fertile environment for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to turn their research into a business. The number of companies related to the university has doubled in the past five years, reaching in 2015 a total of 224 startups with a cumulative value of 1.3 trillion yen ($10.8 billion).
The list includes publicly traded companies such as PeptiDream and Euglena, active in the biopharmaceutical and bio-food industries respectively. The majority of the spin-offs are however still early stage companies. They are young but some of them are quite far-reaching, as the satellite company Axelspace makes clear.
Yuya Nakamura was a researcher in aerospace engineering at Todai before founding Axelspace and says that his company will be able to put satellites in space for only a fraction of the usual cost. His clients include shipping companies that rely on satellite imagery to find new routes through the arctic; the fleet of 50 small satellites that Axelspace plans to launch in 2017 will provide real-time observation of our planet.
In 2014, Axelspace exhibited at the SXSW trade show in Texas as part of a program
called Todai to Texas. The project holds two demo days per year, specifically for Todai-related startups, and selects a few teams for a chance to participate in the SXSW event and get introduced to the US market. Past companies include AgIC, a circuit-board printing startup that recently raised more than $800’000 in angel funding. Looking at the list of past teams is a great way to discover the quality of university spin-offs in Japan.
While the University of Tokyo tops the (slightly outdated) ranking in terms of number of spin-offs, it is of course not the only institution churning out startups, and other universities such as Waseda, Kyoto and Osaka are also rich in this precious resource. Osaka University, for example, was recently named the « most innovative » university in Japan and we are looking forward to seeing more of their spin-offs enter the market.
Photo Credit: Nikkei