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Movers And Shakers

Tomohiro Fujita wants to help Japan reach its potential in biotechnology

The country has failed to fully harness its traditional strengths in fermentation, the CEO of Chitose Group says

by Katsumori Matsuoka, special to C&EN
July 6, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 26


A photo of Tomohiro Fujita.
Credit: Courtesy of Tomohiro Fujita
Tomohiro Fujita in June 2018

Tomohiro Fujita is the proverbial person with a finger in every pie. Active in business, research, and academia, he is described by a peer as “the hub of development for Japan’s biotech industry.” Under the umbrella of his company, Chitose Group, the Japanese entrepreneur and scientist is involved in everything from producing edible algae to manufacturing biopharmaceuticals.

Fujita argues that Japan can be a strong player in biotech if the country focuses on its core capabilities. Those strengths have given rise to a handful of food and biopharmaceutical giants—like Ajinomoto, the inventor of monosodium glutamate, and Kyowa Kirin, an antibiotics pioneer—that have roots in traditional Japanese food practices such as the fermentation of soybeans to make miso. But overall, Japan has failed to harness the power of such firms to foster a vibrant biotech sector. One reason is insufficient capital.


Born: Tokyo

Current home: Singapore

Education: Master of agriculture, University of Tokyo, 1999; Doctor of Bioscience, Kyoto University of Advanced Science, 2017

Current jobs: CEO of Chitose Group, professor at Kyoto University, member of the Japanese government’s Bioeconomy Strategy Council

Bedside reading: Books on the history of the unification of China

Words to live by: When you can’t decide on the path to follow, take the harder one

Nowadays, Fujita says, projects require investments of at least $100 million to have a chance. Japanese biotech ventures typically manage to raise only one-tenth of that, at most. “We should focus our energy on where we’ll be able to win,” he says.

Fujita is on a mission to invigorate Japan’s biotech sector. As a professor at Kyoto University, he steers collaboration between Japanese universities and the private sector. And he sits on an influential government council tasked with designing a strategy for Japan’s biotech sector.

For those cabinet meetings, Fujita, 47, wears a black suit and tie. But during his recent video seminar to talk about biotech in the post-COVID-19 era, attended by about 400 people, he sported casual clothing. In C&EN’s Zoom discussion with Fujita, he speaks freely without the prepared statements common among Japanese chemical company executives.

Fujita has always been interested in biology. At college and in graduate school, he immersed himself in the mechanics of mass-cultivating living organisms. After graduation, he spent 5 years at the consulting firm Accenture before joining Neo-Morgan Laboratory, a company headed by Mitsuru Furusawa, one of Japan’s most influential biologists. The company ran into financial difficulties, and Fujita managed to acquire it in 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis. He renamed it Chitose, a Japanese reference to 1,000 years. The acquisition was a risky move, but Fujita describes himself as a risk taker. He is still paying back the debt he took on.

Chitose is now one of Japan’s most prominent biotech firms. It has 120 employees, 80 of them engineers. Active in both Japan and Southeast Asia, it has an audacious goal: “Transforming the world to how it should be, one step at a time,” by promoting businesses that produce food, medication, and materials more sustainably.

Although Chitose is small by global standards, it has earned respect. “They have the largest number of high-level bioengineers in Japan,” says Kiyoshi Miura, managing director of Tribay Capital, a Japanese investment fund focused on renewable energy. “They aim to cover a wide area, extending from biopharmaceuticals to jet fuel, by using not only algae but also microorganisms and bacterial flora as starting materials.”

According to Miura, Japanese biotech know-how is scattered among disparate companies. One of Fujita’s strengths is his ability to organize many players around a common goal. In fact, Chitose’s main source of revenue is the fees it earns in co-development projects. It currently works with Ajinomoto, Kyowa Kirin, Mitsui Chemicals, and Kaneka on ways to optimize industrial fermentation processes.

Chitose also recently teamed up with the Japanese fuel and lubricant producer Eneos to make algae-based jet fuel. Fujita sees the market for biobased jet fuel expanding as regulators around the world mandate that biofuel be part of the jet fuel mix. “If the required ratio becomes 1%, it will be critical that we produce steadily and reliably,” Fujita says.

Jet fuel would be one market for the microalgae that Chitose is growing in Malaysia. In Sarawak state on the island of Borneo, the company operates a demonstration plant to show algal biomass can be mass-produced to make fuel and other materials. Chitose says the facility is the world’s largest in a tropical region.

Other than biofuels, Chitose is also looking at drugs. In Japan it developed an improved technique for producing antibody drugs. Offering speedy cell propagation and high antibody productivity, the method can cut the cost of production by 75%, the firm says.

Chitose’s most ambitious project is designing an actual city for the oil-rich country of Brunei, also on Borneo. There, Fujita wants to demonstrate the feasibility of a biobased economy that fully recycles all materials. After signing a letter of intent with the Brunei government—delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic—Chitose will seek partners for the project.

Intended to be open for residents in 2030, the so-called Bio Eco Town will be built on undeveloped land in the district of Temburong. Chitose selected Brunei because it was easier to secure land there than in Japan. Moreover, the strong Brunei sun favors creating a “photosynthesis-based society,” Fujita says.

The economic engine of Bio Eco Town will be low-cost fuels, chemicals, and food from algae, Fujita says. “We plan to expand production of algae using the technology we demonstrated in Malaysia,” he says, noting that both lipids and proteins can be extracted from the same organism. “The world won’t be able to put algae into practical use unless we design an industrial structure based on algae.”

The world won’t be able to put algae into practical use unless we design an industrial structure based on algae.

Chitose is developing metrics to measure the environmental sustainability of the project. Wastewater will be treated with a duckweed-based system that is common in Malaysian palm oil plantations. In addition, the city will manage soil fertility by turning the solids from water treatment into fertilizer.

Fujita dreams big, a trait he shares with many scientists. But Miura, the investor, cautions that, in the business world, ambitions often hit brick walls. “The bio business needs a lot of money to develop technology to a stage of maturity,” he says. “It is useless to talk about science alone if you want to collect the funds you need.”

Chitose’s strategy for raising those funds involves constantly looking for ways to commercialize its capabilities. For example, after acquiring more land in Malaysia to expand algae output, Chitose found it had enough room to grow Japanese strawberries and vegetables. The produce is sold to 5-star hotels in Singapore.

Another commercially successful business is Tabérumo, a Chitose subsidiary that markets ready-to-eat spirulina in Japan made from algae the firm grows in Brunei. Tabérumo is one of 10 companies now under the Chitose group.

To ensure further success, Fujita needs to train his scientific staff in sales and marketing, Miura says. Staffers must learn to describe their science as an “equity story” that appeals to investors who want to be part of breakthrough technologies.

“They need the narrative capacity to sell dreams to the capital markets,” Miura says. Mastery of such skills will be critical both to Chitose as well as Japan’s biotech industry as a whole if it is to become globally competitive.

Katsumori Matsuoka is a freelance writer based in Japan.


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