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Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Famed for research, Kyoto University now turning students into entrepreneurs

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Kyoto University, traditionally a bastion of research and a magnet for potential Nobel Prize winners, is now seeing students with a knack for enterprise teaming up with local businesses.

While the government has been encouraging closer cooperation between universities and businesses in recent years to boost Japan's industrial competitiveness, most of it has occurred between professors and large firms.

At Kyoto University, however, a 16-member group of graduate students has launched an effort to give students a dose of entrepreneurial spirit and enable small and midsize businesses to draw on their skills and knowledge.

Earlier this month, the group kicked off exchanges with small firms based in the city of Higashi-Osaka, which has become a mecca for such companies. Some of them claim the highest market share of niche technologies.

Ryo Kitada, a graduate student and head of the Kyoto University Graduate Students Business Council, said the group wants to promote cooperation with small and venture firms in the area because he is impressed by their technologies and ambition.

"I had an opportunity to work at a small company in Higashi-Osaka, and from my own experience, I thought we could create a new style of cooperation between graduate students and small and medium-size businesses," the 24-year-old Kitada said.

"Through KGC's activities, we would like to create a win-win situation where both businesses and graduate students benefit from such cooperation."

Kitada said smaller firms can act faster and more flexibly than their larger counterparts and use students' skills more effectively.

KGC's plan is to serve as an intermediary that will match member students with businesses belonging to the Higashi-Osaka Chamber of Commerce & Industry. It will also try to solve technical problems the firms face by dispatching member students to help them or by conducting research by using resources at the university.

For starters, the group is focusing activities this year on deepening mutual understanding by organizing seminars and student visits to companies. Earlier this month, nine KGC members visited two firms in Higashi-Osaka and held discussions with officials at HOCCI.

The local business organization welcomes KGC's initiatives, because small firms are in perpetual need of top-level human resources but have difficulty recruiting university graduates, said Toshihiko Naruse, HOCCI's managing director.

"Nurturing a close (KGC-HOCCI) relationship may very well lead to the creation of new technologies or new businesses," Naruse said. "Although we have been holding technological exchanges with other universities, it is the first time we have launched exchanges with university students. As KGC members are specialized in various fields, we have high expectations of the exchanges."

Millennium Gate Technology Co. in Higashi-Osaka was one of the firms KGC members visited. Isamu Takeuchi, its president, said the significance of the group's activities is that they were launched on the initiative of Kyoto University students.

If the attitude at Kyoto University changes, it will influence other colleges and businesses as well, Takeuchi said.

"As businesses also have an image of university professors being somewhat aloof, which prevents full cooperation based on mutual trust, exchanges with grad students could solve such problems."

But many obstacles remain.

One is whether graduate students can contribute sufficient time and effort to companies while they're busy conducting their own research at the university.

Kitada admits that some professors resent their graduate students doing things unrelated to research. But he said he hopes to make work-study arrangements more flexible.

Another question mark is whether adequate matches can be found between the help companies seek and the students KGC offers.

However, some Kyoto University professors fully support KGC and hope it leads students to start up their own businesses -- something the government says is imperative to sustaining Japan's economy and securing fresh corporate blood.

"I hope this new initiative by the students will lead to the creation of venture businesses. We can offer various support to those students," said Kazumi Matsushige, head of the Kyoto University Venture Business Laboratory.

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