An Invention a Month for 50 Years

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2006

Re-tec's Junichi Hisamatsu mines an inventor's fertile mind for gold.

by Terrie Lloyd

Imagine that the great-grandson of Thomas Edison was rummaging around in the family attic one day and found notes for inventions never patented or commercialized. Such notes would have great value in today's world of intellectual property. The person buying them would have a lifetime of material upon which future inventions could no doubt be based.

Being allowed to buy the IP rights for such a treasure trove is exactly what happened to Junichi Hisamatsu eight years ago, when he became acquainted with Mr. Akinobu Fujiwara, renowned inventor and one-time Hitachi researcher. The two men got talking about the fact that Hisamatsu, after a long career at Fuji Bank, was getting ready to set up his own company, and that many of the inventions that Fujiwara had conceived would never see the light of day without a commercial guiding hand.

"Maybe you should buy a CD with some of my better ideas and try and commercialize them," Fujiwara joked. Hisamatsu, rather than laugh, jumped at the idea. They settled with a JPY10m one-time royalty payment for Hisamatsu's rights to around 600 product ideas.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2000. Hisamatsu had established a company to realize Fujiwara's ideas. Hisamatsu had already decided that he wanted the company not only to make money, but also to create products that would help ordinary people better their lives. Thus moneymaking was linked to giving something back. That company was called "Re-tec," meaning multiplying technology's contributions to society. It's a name that we expect to be hearing a lot more of over the coming years.

The Umbrella Dryer
Re-tec's first project was in keeping with its aspirations - the develop-ment and production of an umbrella dryer. Japan is home to at least 500 million umbrellas -- our calculation, going by the number of forgotten brollies in the company umbrella stand -- and people prefer them to raincoats because of the need to move in and out of public transport. According to Hisamatsu, it rains about 120 days a year in Japan, and in the major cities, a shower can cause havoc not just to auto traffic, but also human traffic on the polished floors of public concourses, stores, elevators, hospitals, and schools.

Enter the high-speed umbrella dryer from Re-tec. To appreciate the commercial value of such a product, it helps to understand the social context of rain and injury/inconvenience. Although Japan doesn't have ambulance chasers, it does have a strong ethic of corporate responsi-bility, and an injury caused by slipping on a wet floor can be expensive. Then, for retail shops in particular, there is also the cost of water damage (drippage) from stray umbrellas on products, and the cost of staff at the front door to hand out and maintain the ubiquitous disposable plastic umbrella bags. In a major store, there could be as many as ten entrances, and each umbrella bag point is manned by one or two people. On a soggy day, the bags stay filled with liters of water, presenting a challenge for trash disposal at day end -- not to mention the 2.5-yen cost for each plastic bag. Most of Japan goes shopping at least once a week, so it's easy to imagine that tens of millions of umbrella bags are used during a wet spell. That's about US$2m in bags a day.

The Re-tec "Apparekun Mini" Umbrella Dryer involves no moving parts, requires no consumables, has self-contained water collectors, costs just the electricity for the heating unit, and is quick enough to handle one umbrella every four seconds. It is a marvel of high-tech and can handle up to 200 different umbrella types, stopping at triple-fold miniature umbrellas (it can do double-fold ones). It handles nylon, cotton, silk, plastic, and pretty much every material in between, and, needless to say, leaves the umbrella unscathed and dry enough for the shopper to be safe.

Hisamatsu told us that although there are other players in the market, most other umbrella dryers are crude heating units, and are as likely to damage a customer's brolly as dry it. Certainly you can't use them with folding umbrellas, or with silk and other material types. For this reason, until the debut of the Apparekun Mini, department stores have stuck to the plastic bags.

The Apparekun Mini, which costs JPY348,000 (about US$3,000), became an instant hit with department stores. Up-market Takashimaya, for example, has 10 machines at the head store on rainy days and estimates that a machine pays for itself after the 161st day. It's also a lot cleaner and more efficient. Other high-profile Apparekun Mini users include the Miyako Hotel and other leading hotels. However, corporations provide Hisamatsu with the bulk of his customers and have propelled Re-tec to about 10 percent growth (average) in sales every year over the last three years.

The Ioneat, a natural ion hair styler
Re-tec's second product, a portable hair dryer named Ioneat, was launched in late 2003. Not much original about that, you might say. But how about a gas-powered hair dryer that is wireless? Now, suddenly, you have a safe bathroom appliance. In some countries with regulations about portable electric devices in bathrooms, in fact, Ioneat enables a woman for the first time to style her hair while still damp and warm in the bath area.

The Ioneat is well designed, as one would expect of a Japanese appliance. But, in fact, the styling is more than just skin deep. The Ioneat includes many safety features that make it the first successful portable unit on the market.

A good indication of Hisamatsu's passion for building quality into his products is the gas canister powering the Ioneat. This canister is filled with one of the safest flammable propellants, Isobutane gas, and has a special screw-in top that prevents the valve from operating until the canister is firmly in place. Secondly, the gas is dispersed into the system by a high-precision, high-strength valve and needle assembly, where the needle is only micrometers in diameter, providing precision control to the flow of gas.

Next, there is a battery-powered DC brushless fan, which eliminates any possibility of sparks. Then there is the complex ignition-control device, which starts up the unit in an escalating set of heating steps to prevent sudden emission of heat, and, finally, a safety shut-off device that detects situations where the gas is being supplied, but there may be no ignition. The Ioneat has already passed all of Japan's stringent safety tests and standards. What's more, Hisamatsu has received International Civil Aviation Organization approval for carrying Ioneat on board aircraft, making it possibly the only gas-canister-fuelled device allowed on airplanes.

The esthetic market
While portability and safety are major selling points, in fact, Hisamatsu created the Ioneat for another reason -- neutralization of positive ions. Young Japanese women are very aware of the condition of their hair -- for which we can thank P&G, Kao, and other shampoo and conditioner makers. But in the asa-shan (morning shower) culture, jumping out of the shower entails a fast blow dry with an electrical hair dryer, the flood of positive ions from which can undo the benefits of shampoo and conditioner.

A negative-ion hair dryer prevents such damage, but while such machines exist, they are too big for the average twentysomething's bathroom. Now, with the Ioneat, negative ion drying is just an arm's reach away. According to Hisamatsu, the Ioneat canister contains a surplus of 2.8 million negative ions, and as they flow over the hair during drying, they help it retain moisture and body so that it does not get brittle and dry.

Brand name companies
One of Hisamatsu's main strategies for Re-tec is the high-quality design and production of the units. Such is their appearance you'd be forgiven for thinking the units are the output of a major manufacturer like NEC or Sanyo, rather than a company of 15 staff. Well, that's because they are. After conceptualizing the basic product idea, Hisamatsu subcontracts the heavy lifting of R&D, design research, and production to major Japanese manufacturers. Apparekun Mini is an NEC product, while the Ioneat is from Sanyo. Hisamatsu reckons that the major companies are dying for new product ideas and are willing to share the risk of development to receive potentially huge orders later. For the Ioneat Hair Styler alone, Re-tec estimates the order volume will be above 1 million units a year globally, not to mention the untold number of canisters.

Although originally a banker, Hisamatsu has a natural instinct for product design and distribution. Now, with unique products and in-built quality, he is looking for the edge by approaching brands such as Sanrio and Disney to co-market the hair styler. After all, a product targeting young women is an ideal licensing partner for such brands.

Hisamatsu won't let on what invention number three is, but hints he has already had strong interest from a number of Japanese tier-one manufacturers. He is savoring the moment, while recognizing that as quickly as he turns out products, someone somewhere will come out with a knock-off. Hisamatsu feels that his secret to longevity is to only produce high-precision or hard-to-copy products, so that customers will consider safety a premium worth paying for.

What about the other 597 inventions?
Hisamatsu, at the age of 58, is realistic enough to know that even his blistering pace of development is not enough to take full advantage of the IP treasure house he now possesses. He plans to hold on to the most concrete designs, and to provide the others as IP for companies looking to create new products now that they can no longer compete with China for sheer manufacturing any more. He has already started forming ties with a wide range of manufacturers and investors who are interested in supporting a renaissance of Japanese product development.

At the same time, he plans to set up an "IP Bank" and provide both IP management and realization of the designs of other Japanese inventors. He makes the point that there are thousands of dedicated home inventors like Akinobu Fujiwara, who get little or no reward from their developments. Indeed, owing to commercial inexperience, whenever they show a product idea to a major manufacturer, they inevitably see a variation of it appear several years later without a royalty payment in sight. Hisamatsu, on the other hand, with a wealth of commercial experience, is quick to organize patents, licensing agreements, independent finance, and back-office staff who can help insulate the inventor from the pressures of large companies.

Hisamatsu says he has his hands full with Japan, and is now looking for both equity and sales/production partners overseas. With Re-tec growing at a fast clip, he expects to do an IPO of the company late this year or in early 2007. He wants partners who can handle their regions as stand-alone operations, with production occurring initially in Japan, but with the possibility of manufacturing licensing-on kits and non-critical components as a consideration.

We asked Hisamatsu what he did with the CD-ROM he bought from Fujiwara 10 years ago. He smiled slyly and said, "It's locked away, waiting for the next project." JI

President: Junichi Hisamatsu
Address Headquarters: Nine-One building, 1608-28 Hanasaki, Ohtsuki-machi Ohtsuki-Shi, Yamanashi 401-0015 Japan
Tokyo Office: Komagome SK building, 5-73-3 Honkomagome Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0021 Japan

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