Japan’s biotech entrepreneur offers hope to those suffering from incurable illness

Dr. Tadahisa Kagimoto, CEO at Healios K.K.

Dr. Tadahisa Kagimoto, CEO at Healios K.K.

He could have taken the safe and easy route to become a clinician. Both his parents and his sister were doctors who had followed traditional career paths. Yet out of 100 medical students in his graduating class, Dr. Tadahisa Kagimoto alone chose to entrepreneur, while his classmates secured lifetime jobs at respected hospitals. Dr. Kagimoto is the 38-year-old founder of two biotech startups, one currently valued at $400 million on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Through his business activities, the doctor invents cures that relieve suffering.

Dr. Kagimoto chose to take the road less travelled after experiencing the hopelessness of patients suffering from incurable diseases as a medical intern. Then, he was asked to examine an 18-year-old patient diagnosed with malignant cancer. The patient had recently been accepted into a well-known Japanese university having taken difficult exams, before learning he had only three months to live. Unsurprisingly, he refused to be examined by the young doctor who still had a bright and promising future. Dr. Kagimoto then realized that life isn’t fair. He felt lucky only because he could expect to live longer than the patient.

Soon afterwards he lost a second patient to suicide. She was going blind because of an inflammation in the back of her eye. On steroids her symptoms were eliminated without an understanding of the disease. She committed suicide anyway worrying that she might go blind. Dr. Kagimoto felt helpless that he could not give her hope of real cure. “We could cure her eyes, but we couldn’t cure her soul,” he told Beacon Reports.

A third patient, an elderly man suffering from an advanced form of AMD (age-related macular degeneration) lost vision in both eyes. The patient asked if there was a cure for the eye disease as he had a new granddaughter whose face he wanted to see before he died. Dr. Kagimoto explained his disease was irreversible. There was nothing he could do for him. “I felt I was delivering a death note because the patient was never going to be able to see his granddaughter,” he confesses.

From these experiences Dr. Kagimoto concluded that life’s impermanence makes good use of time the sole measure of one’s success. “We are born and we will die – that’s it,” he reckons. For him, good use of time means inventing new cures.

Life’s impermanence makes good use of time the sole measure of one’s success.

His decision to redirect his career was also driven by what he calls a ‘healthy desire’ to compete with his father. His dad was a medical researcher who had climbed his way to the top of academia. Noting that most published research fails to produce cures, the doctor admits, “I always wanted to do something beyond what my father did.”

Biotechnology seemed just the ticket. As a medical student he had visited biotech startups in Silicon Valley. Using a friend’s dorm room at Stanford University as a base, he learned which biotech startups were raising money, from whom, and from where they were sourcing technology. “I could understand Silicon Valley’s startup ecosystem, so I wanted to do a biotech startup in Japan,” he thought.

Dr. Kagimoto launched his first venture, Aqumen Biopharmaceuticals K.K., when he was 28-years-old and shortly after obtaining his medical degree in ophthalmology from Kyushu University. Through Aqumen, he sought to commercialize a dye which stains transparent tissue, allowing ophthalmic surgeons to see what they are cutting during eye operations.

He and colleagues had identified and patented the dye while at the university. They chose to commercialize it over other possibilities because the compound’s low tech nature meant it could be brought to market quickly with minimal investment. Called Brilliant Blue G-250, the stain replaced a dye used on patients which was later found to be toxic.

The firm received early support from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry under the government’s ‘Hiranuma Plan’ to promote ‘a thousand university startups’. Still, Dr. Kagimoto recalls nervously traveling to Tokyo from Fukuoka where his firm was based to meet venture capitalists he had never met before. Without a track record, business experience or a global education, “It was tough,” he says, only just managing to raise the needed $20 million in small increments from forty different VCs.

Brilliant Blue was introduced into the market in 2010 and is today the preferred stain used by ophthalmic surgeons in Europe. Aqumen would never save lives, but it earned recognition as the first startup company to commercialize biotechnology emanating from a Japanese university.

For his second startup, Dr. Kagimoto set out to cure AMD using iPS cell technology. In the US alone 15 million people suffer from the eye disease. A cure would bring immeasurable relief to 2 million sufferers of its advanced form. But the doctor faced a problem. No other Japanese startup had tried to commercialize iPS cell technology before. As a result, Japan lacked an ecosystem from within which it could successfully commercialize an iPS product.

Rather than give up, Dr. Kagimoto built the biotech iPS ecosystem from scratch. “I always question when someone says, ‘There is not enough funding’ or ‘There is an insufficient VC startup ecosystem’ in Japan,” he says. Drawing on his first success at Aqumen, Dr. Kagimoto raised $30 million in a single round from strategic corporate partners to launch Healios K.K. in 2013. “I talked to them. I convinced them. I had to build it. That’s what entrepreneurship is,” says Dr. Kagimoto, whose firm listed on the small company section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange in June 2015.

I always question when someone says, ‘There is not enough funding’ or ‘There is an insufficient VC startup ecosystem’ in Japan.

In addition to capital, strategic partners supply Healios with services including those related to intellectual property, production, non-clinical and clinical trials. For example, Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma Co. recently agreed to provide needed resources to see the firm through clinical trials.

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One year ago RIKEN, Japan’s largest research institution renowned for its high-quality research, conducted a clinical study on a single patient. The patient was a woman in her mid-70s suffering from an advanced form of wet AMD, one of two forms of the disease. Healthy retinal pigment epithelium cells made using iPS technology were implanted in one of her eyes over the course of a 12-month period.

Dr. Masayo Takahashi, Project Leader of Retinal Regeneration at RIKEN, believes Healio’s treatment may have stopped the disease. Further clinical research will likely commence in 2017. If successful, a cure for AMD could be introduced to the market as early as 2020.

Dr. Kagimoto suggests he is no different from any other entrepreneur driven to achieve out of necessity. He points to entrepreneurs like Sony’s Morita and Honda Motor’s Honda who built great companies from the ashes of World War II. In his case, Dr. Kagimoto’s necessity was born from having lost three patients. “People always blame that they lack something. The truth is, if you really need something – if you’re desperate – you’ll find a way,” he says.

The doctor finds entrepreneurial success contagious. He dreams about inventing the next new cure. “If I can cure one million patients – that makes me happy. I can sleep well,” says Dr. Kagimoto.Dr. Tadahisa Kagimoto

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