Academe urged to think in yen

November 30, 2001

During the boom years, the Japanese government never minded that the huge subsidies paid into university research and development produced little that was commercially exploitable.

But with a decade-long economic slump and more to follow, the government has begun to ask academia to do its part for the stagnant economy.

It wants professors and students to become more entrepreneurial. Last year, the government lifted a ban on university professors serving with companies as directors or consultants. With automatic tenure for life as the norm, there was hardly a rush from academics to cooperate with the private sector.

According to the education ministry, only about 130 companies have emerged from Japanese universities since 1980, compared with 2,256 in the United States.

But the government is determined to foster the entrepreneurial spirit among Japanese academics and has set a target of 1,000 spin-off companies by 2005.

This year, the education ministry established a financial assistance fund for firms launched by academics. Start-ups with potential will be given a subsidy of 44 million yen (£250,000).

The ministry will also allow private companies to use R&D facilities in university labs and let start-ups locate their head offices on campuses.

To provide even more motivation, the ministry is considering the introduction of academic salaries based on merit and the commercial value of their research rather than seniority.

The plan is already slated to begin at two top research labs at Tokyo and Osaka universities, where researchers can theoretically earn more than their university presidents if their research becomes a commercial success.

Waseda University, one of Japan's elite, is leading the way. Next year it will open Japan's largest R&D and incubation centre at its central Tokyo campus. The 1.7 billion yen facilities will be open to students as well as professors and companies. "We hope to meet 10 per cent of the government's target," Takayasu Okushima, university president, said.

Despite the various government initiatives, many feel it will take time before the entrepreneurial spirit filters through Japan's academic landscape.

A computer software firm, for example, offered Hiromasa Suzuki a consultancy role after being attracted by his research into geometric modelling. The move was so novel that when Professor Suzuki, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Tokyo, told his students he was spending a few days a month at the company they thought he was leaving the university.

As one professor commented: "It's going to take more than a few years to change a mindset that has been around for decades."

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