Before venturing to Bangladesh at the age of 18, Mitsuru Izumo had believed that many people in the impoverished country were dying of starvation.
But with an internship at Grameen Bank, a nonprofit organization founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus that offers microloans to the poor, he came to a realization: Malnutrition — not starvation — was rampant.
“Until visiting Bangladesh, I thought that the country was short on food,” Izumo said. “But instead, I found they had plenty of rice.”
Because other foods aren’t readily available, rice consumption in Bangladesh is roughly triple the amount in Japan, Izumo said, adding that while starvation can be a hazard in conflict-hit countries, for example, Bangladesh is not one of those.
“Most of them were suffering from malnutrition because they were only able to eat rice or potatoes,” he said. “Since there were tons of people who were undernourished, I thought I could bring food of high nutritious value to Bangladesh.”
The realization was an eye-opener, one that eventually played a key role in what would become his lifelong mission — to create a highly nutritious but cheap food that can help stamp out poverty and malnutrition in developing nations.
Enter euglena, a plant and animal hybrid that contains key nutrients.
Izumo, now 36, is convinced that euglena, which become the name of the company he later founded, holds the key to solving the vexing problem of malnutrition in poverty-stricken nations.
“Unlike cows, it’s difficult for us to get nutrients from plants because our bodies can’t produce a type of enzyme called cellulase that breaks down their cell walls,” the Euglena Co. president said.
“But since it moves around, euglena doesn’t have cellulose, and it’s one of the only plants that allow human bodies to absorb vegetable vitamins and nutrients. It’s extremely unique,” he said.
Euglena, which has evolved for more than 500 million years, was first discovered in the 1660s by Dutch tradesman and scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. It is a rare organism in that it can survive and grow on carbon dioxide, water and sunlight like a plant, while producing both plant and animal lipids and amino acids.
Japanese researchers have been studying euglena extensively since the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the world’s first mass outdoor cultivation attempt succeeded. That feat was achieved by Izumo’s firm the same year it was founded.
It didn’t take long for Izumo to discover that euglena was just what he was looking for in his quest to eliminate malnutrition.
Upon returning from Bangladesh, Izumo, then a student at the prestigious University of Tokyo, switched majors from literature to agriculture. It was there he met his future business partner Kengo Suzuki.
“Euglena was one of Suzuki’s research subjects, and he told me, ‘If you’re looking for food with a high nutritional value, it’s obviously euglena,’ ” Izumo said.
“At first, I was skeptical. But when he showed me a thesis written by Jiro Kondo, I thought, ‘This is it.’ ”
The 1989 thesis by Kondo, a professor emeritus at the university, said euglena could be used as a foodstuff to battle malnutrition. It also noted that the humble green protist could also be used to make an environmentally friendly fuel that absorbs greenhouse gas.
After spending a year working at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Izumo quit and threw himself full-time into the task of kicking off commercial production of euglena.
Mass cultivation had long proven difficult since euglena is vulnerable to other microscopic animals. But for Izumo’s company, which overcame that hurdle to produce a variety of foods with euglena, the biggest struggle was finding a company that would actually buy its products.
For three years, Izumo unsuccessfully knocked on the doors of 500 companies. It was on his 501st attempt, a visit to major trading house Itochu Corp. in May 2008, that he finally struck gold.
It was a major breakthrough. From that point on, Izumo’s fledgling company expanded quickly by striking deals with big companies including Hitachi, JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp., All Nippon Airways Co., Shimizu Corp., Isuzu Motors and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.
“Once it was accepted by Itochu, the company had a proven track record, which led to alliances with other corporations,” Izumo said. “I had no idea it would be so difficult to make business deals without previous experience.”
Six years later, in December 2014, the company became the first of the nation’s 1,773 academic startups to get listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Having faced the trials and tribulations of running a startup in Japan, Izumo lamented the conservative nature of banks and other investment funds small ventures must rely on to survive.
“Many ventures are struggling to make it, and it’s because their ideas are too innovative and unprecedented,” Izumo said. “Large corporations and financial institutions shouldn’t rely on precedents or records but develop their own senses of judgment.”
Now, with plenty of alliances in hand, Izumo says the next challenge for his company is to make euglena a household name. This can be a major challenge when your product is known nationwide as midori mushi, which means “green bug.”
“When hearing midori mushi, many tend to believe it’s some kind of a caterpillar, but it’s actually an algae, which is a kind of a seaweed,” Izumo said. “If people knew the truth, they would likely think that a shampoo containing seaweed sounds healthy.”
In one effort to better promote its supplements, beverages and health foods, the firm recently opened a temporary outdoor beer bar that offers, among other things, a green, beer-flavored cocktail.
While Izumo believes roughly half of Japan’s population is aware of the main ingredient in his products, he wants to raise public awareness further by putting it in everyday products.
“By 2020, we are thinking about having euglena included in many things that are consumed by people in their daily lives, including beer, ramen and parfaits,” Izumo said. “We want to increase the lineup of products that use euglena as an ingredient.”
But Euglena’s business is not limited to food.
In 2014, Euglena began a project with Isuzu Motors to commercialize a next-generation euglena biofuel by 2020.
Izumo is also keen on backing charity programs that he believes exemplify the concept of corporate responsibility.
“No matter how much euglena we are making, the customers won’t purchase our product, no matter how cheap it is, if we are greatly polluting the environment,” he said.
As one example of this, his company set up the Euglena Genki Program, which provides roughly 8,000 lunches per day in elementary schools across Bangladesh.
It also launched the Mung Bean Project with a Grameen Bank-tied venture in 2014 to improve farming in Bangladesh through Japanese technology.
“We are aiming to make a million children healthy and free of malnutrition,” Izumo said. “If all children in Bangladesh are healthy, many more countries will show interest in our program. That’s how euglena could become an international name — through its social contributions.”
Key events in Izumo’s life
Summer 1998 — Visits Bangladesh during first year at University of Tokyo.
April 2002 — Joins Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.
August 2005 — Establishes Euglena Co.
December 2014 — Euglena listed on first section of Tokyo Stock Exchange.
January 2015 — Wins prime minister’s award at first Nippon Venture Awards.
“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.