Gang Xu

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2001

He's a computer science professor at Ritsumeikan University, but he's also something else: an entrepreneur.

by Kyoko Fujimoto

Gang Xu is interesting for several reasons. First off, he's a professor-entrepreneur, and thus a sign of the changes under way in Japan. Second, he's a successful, prominent Chinese-Japanese who's lived in this country for 17 years -- so he knows a thing or two about meeting and overcoming resistance to change. He is, then, an agent of change, in a sense.

Xu is currently a professor of computer science at Ritsumeikan University, as well as a member of the Kansai TLO. (See our special report on TLOs in this month's Investor section) His company, 3D Media, focuses on technology that converts 2-D images to 3-D. One of the company's 3-D projects won a venture business prize at the Kansai Silicon Valley Venture Forum in March 2001. In the same month, a semi-governmental METI organization called NEDO funded a research and development project being carried out by 3D Media, Ritsumeikan University, and the OGIS Research Institute.

Xu says that in Japan there are a number of barriers preventing university-born technologies from being utilized in industry. Sumie Kawakami asked him about his experiences with these and other barriers.

What kind of patent do you have?
My area of expertise is in 2-D/3-D data conversion. Convert-ing digital photos into 3-D images is one example. I have a business-model patent for Web-based 2-D/3-D image conversion software. This is an ASP model in which users can visit our site to use the software on the Web. Instead of downloading the software into their own PCs, they can download only the resulting 3-D data. We would charge them only for the user fee, not for the software. That way, they don't have to buy expensive software that they may use only once or twice.

I applied for the patent through the Kansai TLO, in which I am a member. According to the agreement, royalties will be distributed among Ritsumeikan University, the Kansai TLO, and myself, with each getting one-third.

Technically speaking, the Kansai TLO owns the patent. But it agreed that my company, 3D Media, can use the technology, on the condition that we pay 3 percent of revenue to them in return.

It may take another two years for us to launch the product. In the meantime, the company released our latest 2-D/3-D image conversion software, 3D Mode version 2.0, in May.

Why did you decide to establish 3D Media?
I was doing a sabbatical overseas -- at Microsoft Research China in 1999-2000 and the Motorola Australian Research Centre in 2000. At that time, my American colleagues were constantly using words such as "stock options" and "venture companies." That really inspired me. Of course, the climate was good for venture companies back then, and I didn't think a professors' job should be limited to just teaching and writing articles. I didn't think that's all there was to it. I followed socio-economic developments in Japan by reading Web news everyday, and felt I too could turn my ideas into a business. As soon as I came back to Japan in September 2000, I started the preparation.

What kind of support did you get from Ritsumeikan University when you founded the company?
The first thing I had to do was convince the university, as I was the first Ritsumeikan professor to ask approval for establishing a private company. There was no clear-cut rule for that yet inside the university.

Because of the changing social environment -- there has been an increasing awareness among universities that university-industry cooperation is vital for the good of both sides -- many welcomed my idea, saying it was a great move. Yet, there was a group of others who didn't feel comfortable with it. One argument was that the quality of education might go down if more and more professors start to get involved in private practice.

My case raised a controversy on the campus. The final verdict was put into the hands of a university director, who approved my case as an exception. As you may know, Ritsumeikan is known as a leader of university-industry cooperation. Together with Kyoto University, it was the founding member of the Kansai TLO. Boosted by increasing social expectations inside the region for the university to lead the move, I guess my case became a good precedent for others.

After all, the greatest support I got from Ritsumeikan was that they approved my case, and I am grateful for that.

Being a Chinese professor, do you think there are barriers for foreign-born professors to pursue their academic career in Japan?
As far as Ritsumeikan is concerned, I don't see any structural barrier. However, when it comes to national universities, the story is a lot different. The greatest obstacle is that they don't usually grant tenure to non-Japanese professors.

I had served three years as an assistant professor, and another three years as an associate professor, at Osaka University. At public universities, there is institutional discrimination against non-Japanese professors. I have said many times that this situation must be corrected, and I will continue to speak against it.

Cooperation between university and industry in Japan is relatively weak compared to other parts of the globe. What has been the obstacle to Japan's achieving such cooperation? Are there cultural factors within the society that prevent the move?
Not allowing tenure for non-Japanese professors is one. The kouza, or seminar, system is the other. Inside Japanese universities there is a clear-cut hierarchy, with professors at the top. Young researchers are constantly worried about their seniors and how they perceive them. They spend so much time and energy doing errands for their professor during their most creative years, leaving no time for them to focus on their own research. When they get older, they too get involved in management and politics. They end up forcing the same kind of treatment they had received from their senpai, or seniors, on their assistants. This situation must be changed, although I suspect it may take a long time before it happens.

Can you give me profiles of your company members?
When I decided to establish a company, I convinced two of my students, Takahisa Nakayama and Hirohisa Teramoto, to come along with me. They were in the middle of job-hunting. I told them it was a good chance to put their research into practice; the business experience could also be used for their theses, et cetera. Now the two are the company's directors, and they are involved in major business decisions. Turning a professor-student relationship into a business one was a natural course of action for me. I had worked closely with them even before launching the company. I didn't find it hard. They are now in the position to supervise me, too. Apart from those two, we have a few part-timers. We are under-staffed and looking for enthusiastic staff with knowledge of what we do.

In April, the company signed strategic technology cooperation agreements with Lattice Technology, which was founded by a Keio University professor. What are the advantages of the deal?
Since our expertise is in 3-D modeling and theirs is in 3-D compression and processing, I thought we would both benefit from the cooperation. Also, I felt close to the company because it was founded by a Keio University professor.

But the economic situation in Japan is no longer favorable for ventures. How do you view that situation?
I take it as a good sign. Right now, we may be on the bottom, but the climate for ventures will surely go up.

How do you view the future of university-industry cooperation?
The social environment is changing constantly. Transfor-mation of national universities into independent administrative corporations is on the way. The government may even be looking at future privatization. With this in mind, competitiveness will be taking place even among national universities, not to mention private universities. Changes are slow, but surely taking place.

What are your future goals?
In the short term, we would like to see English, Chinese, and Korean versions of our products. We would like to see ourselves as a global player.

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