“It is often said that Japan wins at technology, but loses at business,” said Kimikazu Noumi, chairman of the Innovation Network Corp. of Japan (“INCJ”) at a recent press conference announcing INCJ’s initiative to monetize Japanese intellectual property assets in the life sciences.
This is a welcome reversal of a trend that we have previously noted, in which Japan has not effectively monetized its abundant intellectual property assets, through licensing and similar means.
INCJ is collecting billions of yen from Japanese public and private investors to launch the “Rising Sun Fund” to purchase dormant life sciences patents from universities and public research institutions, package them, and license them to domestic and foreign companies so they can develop new medicines and treatments without fear of infringement lawsuits. The initial areas of concentration will be embryonic stem cells; cancer; Alzheimer’s disease; and biomarkers.
According to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, a main purchase target of the fund will be universities, because they use only an estimated 20% of their patents.
A Japanese version of the story from the same newspaper notes that the impetus for the fund was the 2007 arrival in Japan of the American bioventure fund, Intellectual Ventures, and its subsequent purchase of Japanese university research patents for relatively low license fees. The fund founders feared that the technologies would be developed overseas, and that Japan would not share in the fruits of medical innovations developed from patents developed at its own taxpayer-supported universities.
INCJ is expected to invest up to 1 billion yen (approximately $11.7 million), and several private companies, such as pharmaceutical heavyweight Takeda Pharmaceutical, are expected to invest millions of yen more.
On the other side of the coin, Japanese book publishers failure to license e-books has created a phenomenon known in Japan as 自炊 (jisui), or “cooking for oneself,” in which readers purchase hardcopy versions of books, slice out the pages with razor knives, and scan them into PDF form to read on their iPads. Japanese are avid book readers and big fans of compact technology, yet publishers have made only about 50,000 book titles available in e-book form, with few current best-sellers, compared to about 630,000 English language titles available for the Amazon Kindle.
How to Cook Your Own E-Books, Japanese Style
In fact, consumer demand is so great that new businesses have arisen to fill it– companies that will save readers the hassle of slicing and scanning by performing the service for about 200 yen per volume (approximately $2.38). The reader mails in the hard copy, the company e-mails back the digitized book. Between the service fee and the postage, the reader is probably paying a $4 or $5 premium (or 15 to 20 minutes of his time), over the hard copy price, to have his e-book.
It appears that the delay in making more e-book titles available through official channels is due to publishers’ fears that e-books will be sold at discounted prices relative to paper versions (as in the United States), thereby shrinking profits. But it appears that at least some Japanese readers want e-books so badly, they are willing to pay a premium over the hard copy price. It is a shame that publishers have not adapted their business model, and are leaving money on the table.
Update, 8/24/10: for a good survey of the jisui trend, see this article in the Mainichi Daily News (includes link to original Japanese article). It appears that competition in the jisui service bureau industry has pushed the price down to near 100 yen per volume.
Speaking of the iPad, the Washington Post recently ran an interesting article on how the iPad has become a hit with Japanese senior citizens who were not previously computer adept, because of its sleek design and intuitive, user friendly interface. The iPhone is also a smash hit in Japan– when I was in Osaka in late June, there were literally lines around the block of people waiting to purchase the iPhone 4. Many thought that Japanese would never become enthusiastic about a non-Japanese made electronic device, much less a smartphone, a product for which Japan has long had its own specialized, highly competitive market.
Why has Apple succeeded where so many others have failed? As noted in the link above, Japanese smartphones tend to be feature-centric, but somewhat clunky to navigate, while the Apple devices have been designed from the ground up to provide an elegant, seamless user interface among hardware, software, and abundant content. The usually compact size and sleek design of Apple devices also appeal to Japanese tastes.