When Keio University professor Masaru Tomita accepted an offer in 2000 to head a new science lab in the city of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, his fellow researchers — shocked at what they evidently considered his relegation to the countryside — warned him that his career was done for.

“They told me that no matter how hard I try, the lab will never succeed as long as it remains based in Yamagata,” Tomita recalled.

Nearly 20 years into the endeavor, Tomita prides himself on having proven them wrong. Today, the lab and a sprawling community of spinoff biotech startups have evolved into a rare industrial cluster in Japan, something a local bank credits with slowing Tsuruoka’s depopulation and reinvigorating its economy.

The path trodden by Tsuruoka’s Science Park, as the whole community is known, has been a rocky one. Residents initially saw it as a gargantuan white elephant. Politicians lambasted the city for wasting taxpayer money.

A mix of factors, however, led to the biotech hub getting to where it is today, including the unusual lengths municipalities have gone to in funding the initiative, as well as Tomita’s encouragement of risk-taking and his challenge against what he sees as Tokyo’s overblown status as a symbol of upward mobility.

Municipal commitment

Tsuruoka, currently home to a population of about 130,000, was grappling with a shrinking number of people when it teamed up with Yamagata Prefecture and Keio University in 1999 to develop the prefecture’s Shonai Field — vast swaths of countryside that occupy the western part of Yamagata.

The plan was to revitalize the Shonai region by creating a bioscience hub — an ambitious project that involved developing 21 hectares of paddy fields that sit about a five-minute ride away from Tsuruoka Station.

Between 2001 — when Tomita’s lab, the Institute for Advanced Biosciences, was launched — and 2018, Tsuruoka and Yamagata invested a total of ¥4.8 billion and ¥5.3 billion, respectively, in the project, according to city official Yutaka Sato.

Today, Science Park is centered around a lab home to Spiber Inc., a startup that has rocketed to stardom with its groundbreaking development of synthetic spider silk, and other businesses pursuing similarly unorthodox ventures. Those include Metabologenomics Inc., which analyzes feces to improve intestinal health, and SalivaTech Co., which explores saliva’s cancer-detecting potential.

But hidden behind the project’s veneer of success is its complicated history with local residents, who at first looked askance at Tomita’s lab. It has also frequently dominated talk in the local political arena, with opposition members of the Tsuruoka Municipal Assembly repeatedly grilling officials over its legitimacy.

“What do taxpayers get in return by having such a stupendous amount of their money spent on this project?” asked Shinichi Kusajima, an independent assemblyman, in 2006.

“The truth is, taxpayers were initially getting no economic benefit in return,” Tomita now recalls. “It would’ve been a different story if their money had been spent attracting a whole department of Keio, with the prospect of hundreds of students flowing in, but we were starting out with a lab of only a dozen or so researchers.”

But undeterred by such criticism, ex-Tsuruoka Mayor Yoichi Tomizuka, who championed the Science Park project from the beginning, pressed ahead with the investment nonetheless. Tomizuka died last year.

“Tomizuka was bold enough to declare the project was not about benefiting current taxpayers, but about ‘planting seeds’ for the sake of future generations,” Tomita recalled. “He said if Tsuruoka didn’t start sowing some kind of seed now, the town would disappear in 30 or 40 years’ time.

“His long-term perspective truly amazed me. Not so many Japanese can think this way.”

‘Paradigm shift’

Despite Tomizuka’s push, local skepticism continued to dog Science Park in the years that followed. And when former Mitsui Fudosan developer Daisuke Yamanaka relocated to Tsuruoka in 2014 to work for Spiber, he found the city was hesitant to forge ahead with further development of the 21-hectare area amid simmering local misgivings.

“Many taxpayers were angry back then at the idea of their money going to financing some small group of researchers who had come from outside,” Yamanaka, 33, says.

“So the city was at the point where it would face a huge backlash should it take the initiative in further developing the area, of which 14 hectares still remained untouched.”

As a former real estate developer, Yamanaka says he felt a calling to step in.

So it was only two months after he joined Spiber that he quit the startup to launch his own firm, called Yamagata Design, with a mission in mind: cultivating the remaining paddy field in a way that would dispel local animosity toward Science Park.

Ultimately, he found the answer in Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrasse, a 143-room establishment designed by globally acclaimed architect Shigeru Ban that looks as if it is floating on the vast expanse of rice paddies. The hotel opened in September last year.

His idea was to build something that — unlike professional facilities such as Keio’s lab and Spiber — would open up Science Park to the general public and make it something of a tourist destination.

“We started out with making people want to visit Yamagata’s Shonai region, which very few people would even think of visiting in the first place,” Yamanaka said.

“It is with this mindset that we came up with the concept of a wooden hotel overlooking rice paddies, so that people can experience a semblance of an agricultural lifestyle for themselves.”

Similarly, Yamagata Design has also built Kids Dome Sorai, an indoor playground for children, adjacent to Keio’s lab to make Science Park further accessible to the public.

“Local residents used to feel uncomfortable with Science Park because they had no idea what was going on inside these industrial facilities,” Yamanaka said. “But places like Suiden Terrasse and Kids Dome Sorai made it a place everyone can visit. We believe it was quite a paradigm shift.”

In a report published in March, local Yamagata Bank estimated Science Park, which has created about 500 jobs and in fiscal 2017 alone attracted about 3,000 visitors, is generating economic ripple effects worth about ¥3 billion a year in the city. The report added that if combined with effects spawned by nascent projects such as Suiden Terrasse, total economic benefits will likely rise even higher.

‘Tokyo-first’ pushback

Tomita, for his part, attributes the rise of innovative startups like Spiber partly to the idyll of Tsuruoka, with its tranquility, good food and fresh air. Creativity, he says, flourishes most when you are away from the hurly-burly of urban life.

“If you look at developed countries overseas, universities are often located in rural areas. I can’t think of any other country that has such a high concentration of universities and research institutes in a metropolitan area to the extent Japan does,” Tomita said.

The resulting Tokyo-centric mentality, he said, is also evident in how office workers often regard their transfer away from the headquarters in the capital as a demotion.

“I think there is an inherent tendency among the Japanese people to regard Tokyo as the ichigun (first-string team) and rural areas as a tad inferior.”

Kazuhide Sekiyama, who co-founded Spiber in 2007, agrees that Tsuruoka’s bucolic lifestyle — including its lower cost of living and the escape from hellish rush-hour trains it offers — has contributed to his peace of mind. The 36-year-old also says his company’s distance from Tokyo has helped it recruit the most “committed” bunch.

“You would have to be really motivated and clear about your objective to migrate all the way to a place like Tsuruoka,” Sekiyama says. “In other words, the fact we’re based in Tsuruoka automatically screens out uncommitted applicants.”

Sekiyama himself is a protege of Tomita, having joined his lab as one of the first batch of students. It was during a heated — if drunken — debate with his fellow Keio students in his senior year that Sekiyama first came up with the idea of commercially producing spider silk — the “dream fiber” deemed stronger than steel of the same weight and more elastic than nylon.

After trial and error, Spiber in 2013 announced what it claimed was the world’s first development of technology that would allow for the mass production of synthetic spider silk, a feat it said had long eluded top-notch researchers worldwide, even including those in the U.S. Army.

Today, Sekiyama says Spiber goes far beyond its initial innovation by delving into the broader world of protein, the main component of spider silk, to explore what he said were its “infinite” possibilities.

“Protein has formed the foundation of living organisms on Earth over the course of 3.8 billion years. While we have mastered its use biologically, its industrial use has pretty much been limited,” Sekiyama says. “If widely applied for industrial purposes, protein can provide a very environmentally sustainable and versatile material.”

To this end, Spiber is currently tying up with Aderans Co. — Japan’s leading wig-maker — to develop protein-made wigs to resolve the ethical and environmental concerns that arise from wigs made of human hair and chemical fibers, Sekiyama said.

Looking back on his venture’s heady ride over the past 12 years, Sekiyama said he was always encouraged by Tomita’s “high tolerance for failures,” whereby the professor doesn’t hesitate to let his students take a stab at projects that have little guarantee of success.

Tomita himself acknowledges this aspect of his teaching ethos. Gone are the days, he said, when postwar Japan was booming to the extent that the only key to success in life was to “diligently study and work as told,” as he put it.

“In an era when our GDP was growing steadily, all we had to do was work blindly at whatever task was in front of us, without getting sidetracked by things like launching a venture,” Tomita says. But now that an economic “tailwind” pushing Japan forward is gone, diligence that demonizes taking risks will only stifle growth, he says.

“We’re now in an age where the government, municipalities and individuals in Japan have to take a gamble every once in a while,” Tomita says.

“We might lose if we take a gamble, yes, but we’re destined to keep losing — bit by bit — if we don’t take a gamble at all. That’s the kind of era we live in.”

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