Staff writer

Nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit could be the key to helping Japan recover from its economic slump and boosting business in the next century, according to Charles Vest, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I think somehow building more entrepreneur activities and getting more venture capital would be helpful to Japan right now,” Vest said in an interview with The Japan Times during a recent visit to Tokyo.

Vest said the role of universities such as MIT has been very important in keeping the U.S. economy strong. As the head of the prestigious institution known for its close ties to business, he has good reason to say so.

According to a study on MIT’s economic impact, the institution’s graduates had created 4,000 companies as of 1994, and these firms employed at least 1 million people worldwide, with annual revenues totaling $232 billion.

The report shows that many MIT-related companies fall into the categories of computer software, electronics and biotechnology — the main driving forces for the current robust business climate in the U.S.

Vest, who gave presentations to Japanese industry officials and members of the MIT Association of Japan during his stay, conceded that Japan is known throughout the world for high-quality engineering and manufacturing. But, he said, promoting cutting-edge research and technologies may not be enough to bring academic achievements into the real world.

“What’s more important is educating students who believe that contributing their expertise to founding companies is an important and valuable thing to do. So around such universities like MIT and Stanford, you will find lots of entrepreneurial small companies starting in particular,” Vest said.

He also stressed the importance of nurturing risk-
takers. “A combination of willingness to take risks, both financial risks and technological risks, and the recognition that advanced science and technology in products and services is the major positive force in the U.S. economy today,” he said.

In addition to nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit of its students, MIT has helped companies keep up with advances in research and access the potential of new technologies, Vest said. Currently, the institute is working with some 200 companies worldwide, including 35 in Japan — such as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Toshiba Corp.

Japanese universities are now making rigorous efforts to follow suit and forge closer ties with industry, and many of them pay visits to MIT’s liaison office in Tokyo in an attempt to study and absorb its knowhow.

Vest suggested that in tearing down the wall between industry and academia, mere systematic changes do little compared with real communication among scientists on both sides. “We’ve been trying to learn how to do this since the middle of the 19th century. It’s not something that we just learned recently,” Vest said. “So when we work with companies, what we really do is to get faculty and leaders from companies together to discuss and think about what we can do together that adds value to industry and the university. If you start at that level of scientist to scientist, you can easily spot the important problems,” he said.

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