A hero’s journey

Joseph Campbell wrote about mythical stories transcending time and culture. Often, he noted, the stories follow a familiar pattern. The hero’s journey is one such archetype. A protagonist, facing a crisis, embarks on an adventure to overcome adversity. Against all odds, he or she fights many battles and suffers many setbacks. Finally, a big battle culminates in hard-won victory. The hero then enjoys the fruits of success.

In modern-day life entrepreneurs embody the hero archetype. They take on huge challenges and undergo enormous hardships in their journey. Most fail along the way. Those who succeed may enjoy enormous wealth. A few, like Sofbank’s Son, Rakuten’s Mikitani and Uniqlo’s Yanai become legends—inspirations to the next generation of wannabe startup venture heroes.

Their stories often enthrall, which is one reason this author enjoys telling them.

Today’s hero is Ken Isono, a Japanese entrepreneur who loves nature. He comes from the mountainous region of Nagano prefecture. When Isono was ten years old, he moved to Los Angeles with his family where he enjoyed snowboarding in Northern California. “Nature is part of my life,” he says.

Returning to Japan after high school, Isono studied at Keio University, traveled the world and began working for a large Japanese company, Recruit Co, Ltd. He learned a lot at the firm but wanted to take on bigger challenges to change the world for the better. “How can I make a big impact for the blue planet?” Isono rhetorically asked.  

At that time, climate change, expanding world populations and dwindling natural resources raised global interest in the nascent renewable energy industry. Isono jumped on the bandwagon. In 2006, he joined Japanese renewable energy startup company Clean Energy Factory. At the firm he learned how to build wind power plants.

Japan, however, was slow to adopt renewable projects. The island nation, with few natural resources and questionable neighbors, placed nuclear policy at the center of its plan to achieve long-term energy self-sufficiency. Isono realized he had to work outside Japan if he was to make a big environmental impact.

Everything changed after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. The crisis prompted Japan to shut down the nation’s 54 nuclear reactors and rethink its energy policy. Sensing opportunity, Isono and two colleagues launched renewables startup Shizen Energy. “We thought we have to do this!” says Isono, adding, “Maybe we were too optimistic, but we were young enough to take action without full understanding.”

The founder’s strength was their experience building renewable power plants when few in Japan knew how. Isono was an ideas man. His partner, Kenji Kawado, specialized in finance. Operations oriented Masaya Hasegawa knew how to deliver on promises. But the team lacked engineering skills. Perhaps only three or four large Japanese trading houses had that expertise. The team filled the gap by partnering with German company juwi, a firm which specializes in the field.

The founders invested a total of ¥1.5 million in Shizen Energy. Without a reputation and little capital, they struggled to find initial customers. Through luck and personal contacts, they landed a ¥600 million order which gave them a boost.

Still, the team faced huge hurdles. Power plants are expensive to build. Who would finance the firm? Isono had no other choice but to sign personal bank guarantees.

Many new energy firms raise venture capital. However, these companies, under pressure from VCs to IPO or exit in two or three years, can easily lose their local community reputations. Isono says large development projects typically take 3 to 5 years to complete, time needed to resolve conflicts which often arise within local communities.

Instead of raising venture capital, the team sought organic growth by partnering with established firms. “We wanted to work in a way which aligns the timeline of project development with the interests of local communities,” explains Isono. “I found our style and philosophy gained many supporters,” he adds.

Thankfully, an executive at Mitsui Fudosan liked the founders approach to business. This helped Shizen Energy to enter into financial partnership with the developer in less time than it normally takes to build a working relationship with a big Japanese company. The firm also partners with Tokyo gas in a similar fashion. “This is how we overcame the money problem,” recounts Isono.

Today, Shizen Energy still builds renewable power plants for third-party firms. They also manage a nearly $400m infrastructure fund in partnership with Kenedix, one of Japan’s largest real estate asset management companies. The fund buys and manages renewable power plants, including those Shizen Energy builds. The firm also sells energy it produces to consumers, businesses and municipalities.

Shizen Energy has developed plants producing 1 gigawatt of renewable energy, about the size of one nuclear reactor. The firm employs a staff of around 220 people. “We want to expand up to 10 GW by 2030,” says Isono.

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