For a future where everyone can fully utilize his/her own genetic information
Awareness of the current situation prompted me to start up a company in the U.S.
In 2017, I started a business in Silicon Valley in the U.S. together with three other co-founders. The company develops and provides new services utilizing genetic information (genome) data. I am currently serving as CEO of the company.
In five to ten years from now, everyone will be living with his or her own DNA data on hand. When the data is given to a doctor, medical treatment based on the patient's own disease risks is offered. At a sports gym, a very effective exercise menu based on the member's physical constitution can be arranged. Such a time is nearing reality.
However, the existing genetic test services require you to purchase a test kit and present DNA samples such as saliva to a testing company, which in turn sends you a results report on certain specific items only. The process ends there. Despite the fact that the collected DNA sample carries much more information, the tested person cannot utilize it any further, and no infrastructure is there to enable services to make use of such information.
With this backdrop, we thought we would create an infrastructure to make it possible to utilize collected DNA data as many times as needed in a number of different situations in the life of the tested. I started this initiative as a weekend project with the members who had experience in introducing DNA-related services and shared the same vision. When the project became more realistic, we decided that starting up a company was the most reasonable way to go forward.
We chose the U.S. to start a business as there was a huge market with 40 times more people who obtained their own DNA data than in Japan, and Americans' approach to the ownership of DNA data was different from that of the Japanese. There is no doubt that my curiosity and desire to simply initiate this challenge in the U.S. became a driving force. Investors often say, "Entrepreneurs are categorized either in the risk-taking type or risk manager type." I am the latter in that sense. Frankly speaking, I took into account that failing in the U.S. works only positively to my career.
Three out of the four founding members were friends I made while studying at ICU and their friends, although by pure coincidence. After graduating, each of us went on different career paths. I have never imagined that I would be working with my former classmates from the English Education Program (currently English for Liberal Arts Program) to start a business.Currently, we run a web-based platform named Genomelink for consumers where individuals can deposit their own DNA data obtained from gene tests and can access various information and services. Our main focus now is offering educational content with which anyone can learn about his/her own DNA information through the most up-to-date science. We also offer access to various applications through the platform. In the future, if presentation of DNA data can help to make medical tests more efficient, expensive medical tests can be offered at lower costs, which will lower the financial hurdle for getting tested. As all of us have DNA data, we are aiming at creating a platform that all 7 billion people on earth will use.
A theme, "Make use of the power of business to contribute to the betterment of society," found at ICU
When I was in high school, I had a vague hope of "doing a job that can help people" and "working at the United Nations or an NGO." I looked into which universities were turning out a high number of graduates who were working at the United Nations or succeeding on the world stage. ICU was one of them.
I also looked at ICU's past admissions exam questions, which were quite unique and simply made interesting reading. At the time, I had not even heard the expression, "liberal arts," used in Japanese. I had an impression that ICU was a very unique university. As my nature directed me to do something different from the ordinary, I decided to choose ICU, thinking, "It must be fun to learn there."
Soon after entering ICU, the university offers a one-night-two-day orientation for freshmen called a "retreat." I still remember the shock I experienced there. Peer students who were placed with me in the same room told me one after another that this professor was famous in such and such research field or, "I want to take this class," and so on and so forth. I was taken aback to realize these peer freshmen already knew what they wanted to or should achieve and to see how advanced they were compared to me.
After that, out of awareness and desperation that I needed to find the theme I wanted to learn on my own, I came to choose classes by asking myself what I really wanted to do. Further, if I became even a little interested in a subject, I took a class one after another to acquire the knowledge. At first, I studied and researched the subject of peace. However, I gradually recognized that I must have expertise in something that serve as my tool first to address social challenges, and I kept looking for what fit me the best. The ultimate answer was business.
Because of those reasons, I chose Cardiff University's business school in the UK for the exchange program in my 3rd year. However, learning at the university alone did not satisfy my curiosity. I sent an email to a Japanese businessman who was working in London at the time and trying to solve social challenges through his business. I asked her to teach me various aspects of business. I was fortunate that she let me get involved in his work as his apprentice. Our relationship continued even after I returned to Japan. As I was graduating from ICU Graduate School, my mentor decided to set up an organization to support start-ups in Japan, and I joined her in her initiative, which was the starting point of my current career.
An ability to pose meaningful questions leads us to the next stage
The very starting point of setting up my own business was when I became interested in the genomics field and asked myself if there was any way to further utilize DNA information. Posing meaningful questions is really about building one's awareness of problems concerning a theme in which one becomes interested. And the ability to pose good questions has become the base of my current business and it is the most important skill I acquired while studying at ICU.
Classes offered at ICU really forced us to think for ourselves on what other views are there on a theme and what approaches can be taken to solve problems. We were asked over and over to have our own views. I strongly feel that, through such learning that was different from the conventional education to lead students to set correct answers offered in Japan, my awareness of issues and the ability to construct questions were developed steadily.
Both starting a business and innovating involve a process of finding, framing and posing a question where there is no existing base and creating and verifying a hypothesis that leads to an answer. When everyone become able to access his/her own DNA data, what challenges would arise and what type of business would be needed? How can users' experience be improved? How can we improve key metrics in products and marketing? In the process leading from creating a vision to performing individual tasks in the actual operation, I think the most important thing is to pose the right questions on our own and spell out the challenges. As we often discuss internally at our company, putting a right question to ourselves will lead to the next action that would solve the question. This is the source of innovation and self-propulsion, and in practice, this ability paved the way for starting my business.
What is important is not know-how but thinking skills including posing meaningful questions, thinking on our own, solving problems, and creating new value. If you can nurture these skills during your university years, I believe you can make your life after graduation flourish.
Tomohiro Takano Co-Founder & CEO, AWAKENS, Inc.
2011 B.A. in Arts and Sciences (Social Sciences)
2013 M.A. in ICU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Public Economics in Public Policy and Social Research Program)
After completing Master's Course at ICU Graduate School, Mr. Takano participated in setting up Impact Hub Tokyo to support entrepreneurs who would create impacts on society. In 2015, he joined a medical venture, M3, Inc., and got involved in establishing a new genomics related business. In 2017, he established AWAKENS, Inc. in San Francisco, California, the US, aiming at building a platform to promote DNA data utilization.