Business | davos special 2019

Japanese entrepreneurs among Young Global Leaders

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

Every year, the World Economic Forum selects 100 of the world’s most promising artists, business leaders, public servants, scientists and social entrepreneurs as Young Global Leaders. These people will join a five-year program that will challenge them to think beyond their scope of expertise and be more impactful leaders.

Genequest Inc. CEO Shoko Takahashi was one of two Japanese entrepreneurs named as YGLs. She was chosen for creating a startup company that provides individuals with comprehensive information on their genome.

Her company is the first in Japan to provide genome-wide human genetic testing services for consumers. Takahashi, who established Genequest in June 2013 while researching her doctorate degree on the human genome, runs the company not only as a short-term business, but also as a long-term research vehicle.

There are other companies providing partial information on human genomes in Japan, and companies looking to commercialize genome-analyzing technology tend to start with a partial information approach. These companies limit themselves to, for example, the obesity-related genome, which does not require much investment and is in high demand among the general public.

“I found the significance of using the genome data we collect. We are different from competitors in that we focus on research,” she said during an interview with The Japan Times. “Collecting more data speeds up research, which is important in creating medicine for the world.” She added that there is so much that is unknown about human genomes and studying them could potentially lead to huge breakthroughs in medicine.

It is fair to say Takahashi, who obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in March 2015, is successful in making comprehensive human genome analysis affordable for the general public, as she charges customers just ¥29,800. The price was once ¥50,000, but the rapid pace of technological advancement made it possible to decrease costs, she said.

The comprehensive information tells people their risk of diabetes, hepatitis and other diseases, tendencies on alcohol tolerance and nicotine dependency, as well as other conditions. All people have to do is to purchase an analysis kit online and send a saliva sample to Genequest. Their results come within a few weeks.

Her goal is to expand Genequest’s services, and for that she needs to collect more genome data and continue her research, she said.

Japanese have relatively homogenous genes, compared with other nationalities, which makes it easy to research Japanese genomes. As Japan is facing an aging society ahead of the rest of the world, Takahashi believes her research can help countries that may face a similar situation in the future.

The other Japanese YGL named last year was Gojo & Company Inc. founder, Representative Director and CEO Taejun Shin, who founded the microfinancing company that lends small amounts of money to businesses in developing countries.

Founded in July 2014, Gojo has lent to about 300,000 individuals and companies in Cambodia, India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. However, Shin’s experience in microfinancing dates back to 2007, when he founded non-governmental organization Living in Peace while working at a large international investment bank.

As the head of the NGO, the World Economic Forum named Shin a Global Shaper and invited him to the WEF’s meeting in Tianjin, China, dubbed summer Davos, in September 2012, where he realized an individual can create an international organization.

“Someone said the Davos meeting is like the U.N. at the grass-roots level. I fully agreed with that idea. And if the WEF could do it, I thought an individual can perhaps do a similar thing,” he said, explaining the attendance of the summer Davos as the prelude to creating Gojo.

He grew his company from scratch to an international entity employing about 1,500 people in five countries, and it is still on the way to his ambitious goal of “becoming the private sector version of the World Bank.”

Shin aims to add 67 countries to the current four as investment destinations, 43 of which are in Africa and the Middle East. His goal through 2030 is to expand to a total of 50 countries with customers numbering 100 million.

“By then, nobody will be able to deny we are the private sector version of the World Bank,” he said.

While his ambition is big, the scale of a typical Gojo loan is as small as ¥50,000. However, that amount is a good start for small businesses — it is enough to buy 10 piglets or dozens of chickens in rural areas of developing countries. Typical borrowers are small-scale agriculture, textile and manufacturing operations.

He said he typically finds customers and business partners by asking local leaders to arrange meetings with residents.

Shin has also found being selected a YGL useful, as speaking with other YGLs in the world is very stimulating, adding that he is pleased the employees of Gojo’s subsidiaries are happy for his global recognition.

Download the PDF of this Davos Special