Business / Tech | ADVANCES IN PROGRESS

New marker's magic is ink's conductivity, user's creativity

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Tokyo-based venture AgIC Inc.’s silver magic marker looks like any other average marker. But in fact, it’s far from ordinary.

Place an LED light and battery on special paper and draw a line with the marker to connect the light and battery. Voila, the light comes on.

AgIC’s circuit marker contains silver, which makes the ink conductive, turning the paper into an electric circuit.

“The first thing I thought (upon first seeing the conductive ink) was that this has huge potential to change the (notions) of electric circuits,” AgIC CEO Shinya Shimizu said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Shimizu has a number of ideas on how the circuit marker can be utilized but sees education and advertising as the two key markets in which the technology can spawn new trends.

Students can use the marker as an educational tool to easily experiment on electric currents and, more importantly, have fun at the same time, Shimizu said.

“This is a really good tool to learn about science,” Shimizu said, adding that the product could boost children’s interest in the subject.

Some public elementary schools plan to begin using the markers in their classes starting next year.

On the advertising front, AgIC markers can make poster ads light up — an eye-catching feature, Shimizu said.

Last December, his firm displayed Christmas tree posters with LEDs at NTT Docomo’s flagship store in Tokyo. People could turn the lights on and off by touching the posters.

The innovative part of the technology is that it can print electric circuits on large paper a few meters wide. The paper, with the ink, can be folded and the ink can be erased with correction fluid as well.

In the future, Shimizu said the technology could possibly be used to install electric circuits with sensors on wallpaper to create a smart home in which walls can automatically sense inhabitants’ movements. This could potentially aid in monitoring elderly people living alone.

The company already sells markers and ink cartridges that must be used with a specific model for consumers. Electric circuits need to be drawn or printed on special paper coated with a chemical sold by AgIC.

AgIC is not the only company that makes conductive ink globally, according to Shimizu. But compared with its rivals, AgIC’s biggest advantage is that its ink dries immediately and can be printed using an inkjet printer.

Shimizu stressed that it is tough to have both features at the same time, because if the ink dries quickly, it usually clogs the heads of the printer’s ink cartridge. But AgIC, he said, has succeeded in preventing this.

The technology has won the TechCrunch Tokyo 2014 startup contest, beating 11 other rivals.

A native of Osaka, the 27-year-old Shimizu has been fond of science since he was young. He graduated from the University of Tokyo and studied mass-scale natural language processing. He also learned about electric circuits while at university and worked on it as a hobby.

He initially hoped to become a graduate school researcher, but began working for consulting firm McKinsey & Co., where he learned about business.

While working for the consulting firm, he studied business in the U.S. and watched as a number of college researchers casually began launching startups to spread the technology they had been working on. There, he began thinking that he would follow suit by introducing research carried out at Japanese universities.

“Many Japanese researchers at colleges are unfamiliar with business, but there is no boundary between venture firms and college researchers in the U.S.,” Shimizu said, adding he had hoped to spread that culture to Japan, since colleges here often deal in some of the most cutting-edge technology.

And it was in 2013 that he saw an example of this: the conductive ink technology developed by Yoshihiro Kawahara, a University of Tokyo professor.

“An electric circuit is installed in so many things that you can hardly find things without it,” he said. “And I thought this technology could be used for a wide variety of things because this is a new form of electric circuit.”

In 2014, Shimizu, along with Kawahara, founded AgIC in an effort to apply the technology to the business world.

Currently, Shimizu oversees management as CEO, but is also involved in the development and design processes. Kawahara is a technical adviser to the firm.

However, while AgIC’s technology may bloom in the near future, it is still not where Shimizu wants it to be.

One area in need of improvement is that it requires special paper like the type used for photographs, since pulp-based paper won’t work.

Shimizu said the firm hopes to improve the ink so that it can work on commonly used paper products and other materials, such as clothes, to broaden its appeal.

Another hurdle Shimizu sees is that consumers may not know the creative potential of the markers or the limits to their use.

“On our website, we will introduce what they can do with the ink,” he said, adding that he hopes users will create communities where they can post examples of what they have made.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies with business potential.