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UNM Brings the Innovate ABQ Rainforest Model to Japan

UNM President Frank and his economic-development team recently returned from a trip to Japan where the UNM delegation met with several Japanese universities to formalize agreements for research, commercialization and student exchange programs. The UNM group also participated in two symposia that showcased the technology-transfer program at STC and told the story of how UNM spearheaded the beginnings of an innovation ecosystem in Albuquerque and New Mexico by adopting the ideas and behaviors of Rainforest theory to create its own Rainforest in the Desert model—Innovate ABQ.

Kwansei Gakuin University

The week-long visit commenced on March 1st with a symposium, “Boosting Local Communities with Innovation Coordinated by Universities,” held on the Kwansei Gakuin Kobe-Sandra campus at Kwansei Gakuin University (KGU) with more than 200 attendees from city government, KGU faculty, staff, and students, and the general public.

KGU is a seven campus academic community devoted to educating students from kindergarten through post-graduate training and has been selected as a top global university by the Ministry of Education.  The Kobe-Sanda campus houses the School of Policy Studies, the School of Science and Technology, and excellent facilities for advanced research activities, such as the Department of Nanotechnology for Sustainable Energy where researchers are developing new materials for efficient energy generation, energy storage, and renewable, non-nuclear energy using nanotechnology and materials science.  Sanda City is located in the southeast portion of the Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan.  It is about 16 miles north of the city of Kobe and about 22 miles northwest of the city of Osaka, and is home to Kwansei Gakuin University’s Kobe-Sanda campus.

The research and commercialization symposium was funded and hosted by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.  After welcoming remarks by KGU Vice President Dr. Takayasu Yanagiya and opening remarks by President Frank, keynote speeches were delivered by the Mayor of Sanda City, Mr. Mori, Dr. Tadaaki Kaneko, professor in the Department of Nanotechnology for Sustainable Energy in KGU’s School of Science and Technology, Dr. Plamen Atanassov, Director of UNM’s Center for Micro-Engineered Materials, Dr. Chun-Yen Chang, President Emeritus and National Endowed Chair of National Chiao Tung University (one of Taiwan’s leading public research universities), STC CEO & Chief Economic Development Officer Lisa Kuuttila, and Dr. Hirohisa Tanaka from Daihatsu Motor Company.  Keynote topics included how universities and cities can work together to spur economic development through innovation that will contribute to regional revitalization, start-up creation through industry-academia partnerships, and international university-to-university exchanges and collaborations for global innovations that can revitalize local economies.

Mayor Mori stated that Sanda City’s vision is to provide jobs for its young people, take care of its elderly population and revitalize its local economy.   The city is focused on promoting early childhood STEM education to stimulate an interest in science and technology and develop workers with global skills.  This community planning through innovation is being achieved by partnering with KGU to create university start-ups and community businesses to revitalize the local economy and a business incubator for advising new technology companies.

Dr. Kaneko, who is developing a semiconductor power device for automakers in Japan, stated that he is very interested in revitalizing the local economy through university start-ups and technology transfer that will create jobs for the next generation and take advantage of Sanda City’s retired population of skilled workers.  “The person-to-person contact of people who cross boundaries to foster innovation is critical to the success of this effort.  Organization-to-organization contacts will not foster innovation; it is person-to-person interactions that will be productive,” he stated.

UNM Distinguished Professor Dr. Atanassov explained how his catalyst technology for fuel cells was developed through collaboration with Daihatsu Motors, Dr. Tanaka, and a consortium of international research organizations, and led to the creation of Albuquerque-based start-up company Pajarito Powder.  The company is now manufacturing and selling its products to Japanese companies—the start-up’s biggest customers.

Ms. Kuuttila’s presentation focused on how to create university start-ups and on the UNM-led collaboration among academia, government and the business community to create Innovate ABQ, the research, innovation, and entrepreneurial district taking shape in downtown Albuquerque.  “An innovation ecosystem is really a human ecosystem where people with creative ideas, be they scientists or artists, business insight, and the desire and opportunity to investment in what is new, come together to nurture these budding ideas into flourishing and sustainable enterprises.  This process creates systemic innovation.  The right environment is the most important factor in fostering innovation.  The University of New Mexico is fostering this ecosystem through STC.UNM and in partnership with many other community members through Innovate ABQ.  Our raw materials are the educated workforce and the technology we transfer to the community.  We believe this approach can work for KGU and Sanda City as well.  That is why we are sharing the knowledge we have gained from our own experiences.”

The afternoon agenda for the symposium consisted of a panel discussion with UNM School of Engineering Dean Joseph Cecchi, who is also UNM’s associate provost for national laboratory relations, and STC University Ventures & International Engagements Manager Eri Hoshi.  The panelists discussed key strategies for creating university-based technology innovation, overcoming obstacles to technology commercialization, and how to create a viable innovation ecosystem community through funding, job creation, collaboration and public/private partnerships.  Dr. Cecchi talked about how the School of Engineering successfully encourages technology transfer among its faculty and students by integrating its academic and research programs and aligning the research with commercial applications.  Collaborations with a diverse number of departments and programs at UNM and with the national labs in New Mexico are also key contributors to the School of Engineering’s efforts to accelerate technology commercialization.

Ms. Hoshi concluded with a presentation on STC’s student and professional internship academy programs and its cooperative R&D and commercialization agreements with Japanese universities.  She focused on how international economic-development outreach can contribute to innovation ecosystems and profiled the many programs and projects STC has developed, such as the UCIP partnership with Japanese universities, the Japan-U.S. Smart Grid projects in Albuquerque and Los Alamos with NEDO, the Japanese government’s largest R&D organization, and the Professional Internship Academy, including the Academy’s new online access through the ECHO® model.  These programs have led to industry-sponsored research, new joint technologies, technology marketing and licensing, significant investments in the state of New Mexico, and training for the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs among a growing number of Japanese faculty and students.  She added, “All of these activities are interconnected in the way they work together directly and indirectly to develop an innovation ecosystem on all levels—locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.  By sharing our expertise and knowledge with others, we are helping to create global innovation ecosystems that will produce research and economic development opportunities for all of us.”

Osaka Prefecture University

On March 3rd the UNM team took part in an innovation rainforest symposium, “Fledge Osaka Rainforest:  Connecting Entrepreneurs 2016,” on Osaka Prefecture University’s (OPU) at the Innovation Hub Building in front of the Osaka Station.  The symposium was hosted by OPU and co-hosted by UNM, Osaka Prefecture, Osaka City, and the MEXT EDGE program. Osaka is located in the Kansai Region and is the second largest city in the country after Tokyo.  After opening remarks by OPU President Hiroshi Tsuji and President Frank and greetings from the Ministry of Education, keynote speakers and speeches included Mr. Toshiyuki Shiga, former COO, President, and Vice Chairman of Nissan Motor Co. and President of the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ), “The Future of Innovation:  How to Create Our Own Innovation Ecosystem;” Lisa Kuuttila, STC CEO and Chief Economic Development Officer, “UNM’s Rainforest in the Desert;” and a panel discussion, “How to Create an Innovation Rainforest in Osaka.”  The Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ) is a unique public-private partnership aimed at promoting innovation and enhancing the value of businesses in Japan by investing in technologies and new companies in the areas of green energy, electronics, IT and biotechnology.

The symposium also included a student pitch session, or ideation workshop, where eight student presentations were judged.  (In 2015, STC signed an agreement with OPU for participation in STC’s Professional Internship Academy.  Since then, STC has hosted 19 OPU students who have received entrepreneurial training, including a pitch contest on the students’ last day at STC.) In his opening remarks, President Frank said:  “We look forward to receiving more students through STC’s professional internship program who will learn about best practices in technology-transfer education and receive entrepreneurial training so that they can start new companies based on their own research.”

The 200 attendees included OPU faculty, students, and staff from the EDGE program selected universities: Osaka University, Kyoto University, AIST, Ritsumeikan University, among others; individuals from MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) and JST (Japan Science and Technology Agency); government officials; financial institutions; VCs (FVC, Sunbridge, ABC); consultants such as Deloitte Tomatsu, E&Y, Mizuho Information; and companies, including Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi, Toshiba, Panasonic, Sharp, Daikin, and Daihatsu Motors.

President Frank tweeted about the Osaka symposium with these observations:

“Toshiyuki Shiga says by 2020 huge changes are expected in the automotive industry—new cars will be about software.  Though Japan holds 29% share of the market, after 2020, the automotive sector will need to compete with software companies using open innovation.”

“In Japan, start-ups rarely have relationships with major companies.  The Japanese ecosystem does not foster acquisition of start-ups.  Toshiyuki Shiga says the difference between Silicon Valley and Japan is (Silicon Valley) willingness to accept failure.”

The UNM delegation was also able to visit Daihatsu Motor Co. headquarters where they toured Daihatsu’s Copen Factory, makers of the Copen mini sport car, and saw the Showcase prototype vehicle, powered by a hydrazine, non-platinum catalyst fuel cell jointly developed by UNM’s Dr. Atanassov and Daihatsu’s Dr. Tanaka at the Humobility World Showroom.    The Daihatsu visit also included a tour of the technical research center in Shiga, where the UNM-Daihatsu joint research on fuel cell vehicles has been conducted.  Dr. Atanassov presented the latest developments on the fuel cell technology followed by discussions with Daihatsu top executives on the importance of joint research, new materials for the new generation of automobiles, and hiring standards for automotive engineers.

The trip also included a first-time visit to Kyoto Koka Women’s University.  The University will be sending one of its students to UNM in August 2016 for a six-month study abroad.

The trip concluded with a dinner hosted by Chairman Nikai, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (ruling party), and officials from METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry).

Cooperation Agreements

The trip to Japan was also an important opportunity to sign cooperation agreements with the Japanese universities.  On behalf of UNM and KGU, President Frank and President Murata signed an Agreement of Cooperation to “develop academic and cultural interchange in the areas of education, research, and other activities . . . and work together toward the internationalization of higher education.”  The areas of cooperation could include exchange programs for faculty, students, and research materials; joint research projects, conferences, and cultural programs; intensive language programs; and other programs of mutual interest.

President Frank and new OPU President Tsuji re-signed the General Cooperation Agreement between UNM and OPU, believing “that international understanding, education opportunities for their students, and professional opportunities for their faculty and staff would be enhanced by this Agreement . . . .”  Types of cooperation include short-term study abroad for students; collaborative research, courses, conferences, seminars, symposia and lectures and professional development; reciprocal exchange programs for faculty, students, staff, and academic information; cultural projects; and other activities of mutual interest.   The two presidents and the two engineering deans of UNM and OPU (Dean Cecchi and Dean Tatsumisago) also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to Promote Educational Cooperation between the two institutions.  The MOU is “in accordance with their mutual desire to develop further academic and scientific cooperation . . . to explore opportunities for collaboration.  The parties’ goal is to foster students with the skills of creative and critical scientific thinking who can solve the problems that both countries commonly face.”  Possible programs could include student exchanges, short-term research, internships, study tours and other activities of mutual interest.


The General Cooperation Agreement signed by President Frank and Kyoto Koka Women’s University President Masamichi Ichigo is similar to the OPU General Cooperation Agreement in its mission to provide educational and professional opportunities to its faculty and students.  Types of cooperation are also similar to the OPU agreement but would also include establishing diploma partnerships, enrollment of degree-seeking students, and English-language instruction.

In his closing remarks at the KGU and OPU symposiums, President Frank summed up the delegation’s thoughts on the value of the rainforest concept:

“The Rainforest concept is about empowering people to create innovation and economic value in their communities.  Relationships developed on an individual level contribute to the economic prosperity of one’s community. Over the past three years, we have brought together the right people with ideas, talents, special skills, and capital at the right time and in the right way to create something new that is evolving organically. Fostering these human relationships requires eliminating geographic, social, cultural, language and trust barriers that prevent successful connections, collaborations and creations. This living network is generating activity across our ecosystem.  This is the Rainforest way for developing highly productive, systemic innovation ecosystems.”