When he realized he was not going to make it as a guitarist, Hiroaki Suga set out to find the origin of life, and ended up creating a new way to develop medicines.

Many years spent fiddling with the building blocks of the universe — combining molecules to form compounds — led to Suga developing an enzyme that opened the door to a faster method of discovering drugs. PeptiDream Inc., the company he cofounded, has inked deals with many of the world's biggest pharma firms, and shares have surged more than ninefold since listing in 2013.

"Everybody comes to PeptiDream," Suga, 53, said in an interview from his office deep in the main campus of the University of Tokyo. An electric guitar hangs from his wall.