Kohei Tanaka

Mitsui & Co. Moscow LLC

When I was a postgraduate engineering student in the mid-2000s, my research area was space-based solar power generation. As part of that, I built several small satellites for experimental purposes.

Ultimately, I opted for a career in a trading company rather than as a research scientist. I felt that not enough high-quality Japanese technology was making the crossover from the laboratory to commercial applications. With trading companies active in so many fields, they struck me as promising places for bridging the gap between research and the real world.

Kohei Tanaka

I joined Mitsui’s IT & Communication Business Unit in 2007. The notion of exploring the commercial potential of microsatellites was always there in the back of my mind, but I didn’t get around to developing a concrete proposal until August 2014, when Karugamo Works, Mitsui’s "in-house open innovation lab," was launched.

Forty four people participated in the first year of the program. Some of us had volunteered and some of us had been nominated by our business units. I was a volunteer; my proposal was for Mitsui to invest in Axelspace, a company spun off from Tokyo University and Tokyo Institute of Technology and whose founder I had heard about in my student days. Axelspace is the world’s leading manufacturer of microsatellites. These cost a fraction of bigger, conventional satellites and can take frequent, high-resolution photographs of the Earth because of their low orbits.

I had a hunch that there would be applications for these images in areas such as farming, forestry, natural resource surveying, urban planning, terrestrial transport and shipping. Of course, these are all business areas Mitsui is involved in, so Axelspace seemed like the perfect fit.

The possibility of developing a business plan with people from different business units was very appealing. When I first put forward my Axelspace idea, I didn’t have a clear plan of my own. I wanted to throw the idea over to my Karugamo Works teammates and see what they came up with.

My six-person team was very diverse: we had people from the Energy, Corporate Development, Food, and Chemicals Business Units. There was also a broad age range—stretching from the early twenties to the early fifties—and a high level of motivation, because we were all volunteers.

As expected, the diversity of our experience and backgrounds sparked lively discussions and plenty of original ideas. If we lacked expertise on a specific area, generally someone on the team knew the best person to consult elsewhere in the company. Through the six of us, we were plugged into an extensive human network.

Kohei Tanaka

On the Karugamo Works program, the rule is that you devote 80 percent of your time to your regular responsibilities and the remaining 20 percent to the new business you’re working on. There’s no precise formula for how to do that. With my team, we generally blocked out time for a minimum of two meetings per week. I’d always go to work with a spring in my step on days when we had a meeting.

Obviously, I had to make multiple presentations to the Business Innovation Committee before Mitsui made the formal decision to invest in Axelspace in September 2015. The Business Innovation Committee is headed by the company’s Executive Vice President and staffed by the managing officers of Mitsui’s business units. Presenting to such senior people was quite tough for someone relatively junior like me.

Plenty of late nights were involved in getting my presentations ready. My teammates helped me put them together and polish my delivery, but when Axelspace presentations coincided with busy periods on my main job, the whole thing was rather exhausting.

Mitsui has special criteria for evaluating Business Innovation projects. They have to meet "important social needs" and have the potential to evolve into “high-value businesses” that will be a good strategic fit with Mitsui’s other operations. Axelspace certainly hits those marks: the company plans to launch three Earth-observation microsatellites that will form the basis of a multi-satellite platform to provide real-time satellite images and data for a range of applications. It will become an information provider as well as a satellite manufacturer.

Since I was transferred from Tokyo to Moscow in October 2015, another member of the original Karugamo Works team is now overseeing the Axelspace project. Here in Russia I am part of the new business development team. I get to put my experience at Karugamo Works to use on a daily basis: I make a point of talking to people both inside and outside my own business unit to get fresh perspectives. Since we’re all on one floor in Moscow, it’s actually easier to do that here than back at the Tokyo head office!

How would I sum up my Karugamo Works experience? I’d say that it gave me the opportunity to grow. The program gives individuals the chance to fulfill their personal dreams while benefitting the company. I hope to play a part in building more new businesses for Mitsui in future. Karugamo Works taught me that it’s always possible to come up with great new ideas.

Posted in May 2016