How does University of Tokyo support innovation?

In Japan, there is an increasing focus on innovation, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and solutions to societal challenges, and researchers at Japanese universities are encouraged to work towards implementation of research results for society....

In Japan, there is an increasing focus on innovation, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and solutions to societal challenges, and researchers at Japanese universities are encouraged to work towards implementation of research results for society. The innovation support system at the University of Tokyo has been more unified and professional thanks to the model for distributing revenue amongst stakeholders and the elimination of the teachers’ exemption in 2004.

During the recent decades, there have been several initiatives to promote innovation and commercialisation at universities in Japan. Starting in the mid-90s, the Japanese Government has been launching five-year plans within Science & Technology periodically. At present, the Government of Japan is formulating its Sixth Basic Plan on STI (Science, Technology and Innovation), which will come into operation in 2021. From now on, the Government is emphasising the importance of innovation and has renamed the Science & Technology plan to STI plan. Current information on the sixth plan points to an ambition to further transform universities and promote global competitiveness and stronger contribution to innovation, not least transformative innovations. Apart from promoting international mobility, increased gender balance and start-ups, initiatives have been launched to strengthen industry-university collaborations. In Japan, the teachers’ exemption was removed in 2004 and the responsibility for intellectual property (IP) rights now resides at the university.

University of Tokyo

The University of Tokyo (in Japanese “Tokyo Daigaku”, abbreviated as Todai) was founded in 1877 and is the first and most renown national university in Japan. Among the approximately 30000 students, there are more than 4000 international students and 7000 PhD-students. It is a globally competitive university with three core campuses, with different research facilities and centres.

Annually, University of Tokyo creates over 500 inventions and conducts 1600 collaborative research projects which has led to the establishment of numerous start-ups. The Division of University Corporate Relations is responsible for innovation support at University of Tokyo. This division consists of two sub-departments: Office of Intellectual Property and Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In addition to these two units, there are affiliated organisations for innovation, such as IP and Capital Fund at University of Tokyo, Todai Technology Licensing Office (Todai TLO), UTokyo Innovation Platform and the University of Tokyo Edge Capital (UTEC). In order to accelerate cooperation between industry and university, the division of University Corporate Relations and the affiliated organisations are stationed in the same building on the main campus at University of Tokyo.  See figure below for the structure of the Division of University Corporate Relations and the different organisations.                          

The structure of the Division of University Corporate Relations and the affiliated organisations.

Support system               

The Office of Intellectual Property through Todai TLO, supports innovation by licensing and transferring the university’s inventions, technologies and intellectual properties to the surrounding society through industry networks. The organisation was established in 1998 as the first university TLO in Japan. Todai TLO engages in IP licensing, consulting and technology advice, knowledge transfer agreements, licenses for software and other industry intellectual property rights related matters. They also work with collaborations, contract research agreements, feedback for industry’s inquiries, information exchange and other industry copy rights. See figure below for an explanation of the process of licensing inventions.

The process of licensing inventions at the University of Tokyo.

The revenue from technology transfers at Todai TLO has been increasing during recent years. The revenues are divided as a percentage according to the following model:

  • 28 % to the inventors
  • 21 % to the inventors’ university department
  • 21 % to the university itself
  • 30 % to Todai TLO

This model is designed to give incentives to the inventors themselves, to the department to promote such activities, to the university, as well as to the funding of Todai TLO’s activities. The revenues can be used for most types of funding at the university, such as salaries, operating costs and equipment, but not as venture or equity funding for companies.

The Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship promotes innovation by supporting start-ups. The support includes providing incubation facilities as well as assisting the new companies with business models. Additionally, they operate a program for entrepreneurship education knows as “The University of Tokyo Entrepreneur DOJO” to help innovators and entrepreneurs in the start-up process. The office also offers other types of action-based entrepreneurship education programs to students.

For commercialisation, the university uses different instruments depending on specific cases. These can include licensing or sale of intellectual property rights to companies, as well as starting new businesses. When starting a new business, the researchers are allowed to spend some time on start-up-related activities, and they may own up to 50 per cent of the shares in start-ups. However, they should not be the CEO of the company in order to minimise the risk of a potential conflict of interest.

Reflection

Important for the University of Tokyo’s promotion of innovation is a combination of top-level research, focus on solutions to societal challenges, collaborative measures, and a support system that simplifies the commercialisation process for innovators and entrepreneurs. Together with the freedom universities have for using the revenues, the model for distributing profit to the innovator, research department and university, serves as a balanced model for incentives for commercialisation.

In Sweden, there is currently an ongoing public inquiry concerning innovation support systems at universities. Perhaps there are parts of the Japanese support system that can be of relevance for a revised Swedish system.

August Asplund, Intern at the Office of Science and Innovation in Tokyo