Bright idea pioneer shining a light on innovation in Japan6 January, 2016 / Articles
From the instant the prototype blue light-emitting diode gleamed into life more than two decades ago, Shuji Nakamura knew his invention was going to change the world.
It would take a few years, but the invention would lead to a billion smartphones, solar-powered street lights, high-powered bicycle lamps, iPads, toy lightsabers, Kindles and flatscreen televisions. And now, the blue LED’s next miracle, under development, is on course to be at the heart of the next generation of communications — the “LiFi” networks that will use light to create massive bandwidth networks.
Professor Nakamura foresaw some of this. Then a pugnacious engineer from Japan’s Ehime prefecture, he knew even in the early 1990s that if the 20th century had belonged to the incandescent lightbulb, the 21st would live, work and play in the glow of LEDs — his blue one making all that possible.
What he did not know was how stock options worked or how poorly Japanese inventors were rewarded for their work
Nor did Prof Nakamura, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his invention in 2014, foresee the blue LED’s shattering impact on corporate Japan and a lawsuit that reverberates today. He had perfected an intensive, energy-efficient form of light, but had no idea how harshly it would glare back at the Japanese industrial system that produced it.
The trick of the blue LED was that, combined with red and green, it completed a long-dreamt-of trio that would produce white light requiring a fraction of the power of a traditional lightbulb. Despite the relatively high price of each LED, Prof Nakamura’s technology looked primed for immediate dominance. Instead, its colonization of the dark has merely been steady. It is only recently that Japan has called time on traditional incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, stopping sales of either after 2020.
In 2015, in recognition of the blue LED’s contribution to energy conservation, Prof Nakamura won the Global Energy Prize, an award founded in Russia in 2002 that seeks to encourage innovative technology.
As the blue LED slowly began to work its way into homes, vehicles and gadgets from the early 2000s, the innovation triggered a series of equally profound changes to Japan itself and its approach to intellectual property. The country began to fight itself. A nation of inventors, conditioned from birth for company loyalty, started to see their worth in starkly personal terms; intellectual property laws came under pressure to change; truculence and litigiousness set in. Japan Inc began to fear lawsuits brought by its finest minds.
It started innocently enough. Speaking by phone from Santa Barbara, Prof Nakamura recalls how he was first introduced to the concept of stock options by US scientists he met in North Carolina in 1997. When the explanation came, Prof Nakamura looked back at his mother country in disgust. The bonus of about $200 he received from his employer, Nichia Corporation, for perfecting the process for blue LED production now looked derisory.
“After the invention, I kept going to conferences in the US to talk about it and every time, Americans said, ‘You must be so rich’. I told them my salary was $100,000 and they just laughed and told me that if I had been in the US, I’d have $100m. I love to work in research, and I wanted to be very loyal, but I wanted to be rewarded too,” he says.
Prof Nakamura wrestled with the situation. Across corporate Japan, he perceived exploitation. Japanese companies routinely assumed ownership of all commercial rights to any innovation produced within their research departments: royalties or percentage cuts for the inventors were exceptionally rare.
His response, according to his version of events, was to quit Nichia in 1999 and head for the US. He first took an academic post in California and later cofounded a company, Soraa, which is now pushing the next, violet-hued , generation of LED technology. The quality of the light will improve dramatically, he says, and LED technology will be used to create super-efficient water purification systems that could be used wherever supplies have been ruined by pollution.
Crucially, when he left Nichia, Prof Nakamura refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In 2000, Nichia, breaking with Japanese traditional avoidance of litigation, sued its lab coated former superstar. “A lawsuit has such a bad, bad image in Japan,” he says: “I didn’t want to do it, but the company sued me. I got so mad, I did a countersuit.”
There followed an epic cultural clash as Nichia, with the backing of corporate Japan, fought to protect the old ways of loyalty and selfsacrifice against what it saw as a potential tide of selfish western greed. At the heart of the battle was a single word of Japanese patent law, gorisei — the term guaranteeing inventors “reasonable” compensation from signing patent rights to their company.
To the horror of Nichia and Keidanren, the Japanese business lobby, Prof Nakamura won and was awarded about $200m, an outcome that forced change across the country as panicky companies tweaked their rules to offer “reasonable” cuts of the spoils to the scientists making them possible. Prof Nakamura’s award was later reduced on appeal to $8m, and Keidanren continues to lobby the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for even more business-friendly amendments to intellectual property law.
While most people believe Prof Nakamura’s lawsuit will have a lasting effect, he himself remains scathing. Asked if the research departments of Japan are a good place for a young, aspirational scientist to head for, he replies: “No, no, no. There is still too much brainwashing.”
The problem, he says, is that changes to the reward system did not alter the nation’s chronic malaise: an inability to think globally about products, and accordingly a tendency to underplay the worth of inventors and inventions.
He points to the lack of proficiency in English in corporate Japan. The failure in the past to think globally about semiconductors, TVs and mobile phones, he says, is primed for repetition as the world gets to work on setting global standards for LiFi and the next, perhaps most significant, role for the blue LED.
“Japanese company bosses sit there saying that we can make the best product but we cannot be part of the standardization negotiations. Those discussions need native English, you have to make friends. That is the most basic part of standardization,” he says. “They will lose LiFi and the LED lighting market because of that.”