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Former Sony, Toyota engineers accelerate Japan aerospace startups

Experience with jets and robots advances 'flying cars' and moon exploration

SkyDrive demonstrates an experimental "flying car" in August 2020. (Photo courtesy of SkyDrive)

TOKYO -- Former employees of Japan's major manufacturers are increasingly making their presence felt as CTOs at the country's aerospace startups.

These individuals have brought the know-how and experience they acquired at their former employers to help solve issues, speeding up time-consuming processes that require advanced technology. They not only help ensure safety, quality and cost reduction, but demonstrate great skills in their companies' management and sometimes even hiring.

This article profiles such chief technology officers at startups entering uncharted territory such as moon exploration and "flying cars."

"There's no one who doubts human beings will be living on the moon in the year 2100. It's rather a game where people are competing in shortening the time for that to become a reality," said Hideki Shimomura, CTO of Ispace, a moon exploration startup based in Tokyo.

The 55-year-old is pouring his passion into the development of a moon landing vehicle as he leads engineers for a mission to be launched in 2022.

A model of Ispace's lunar lander, whose development is being led by a CTO who once worked for Sony. (Photo by Jun Takai) 

Shimomura was a software engineer at Sony, where he was involved in the development of the first generation of the Aibo robot dog and bipedal robots. From around 2012, he was involved in human resources development and organizing teams for projects to create new businesses, using his knowledge of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Describing the level of his interest in space development at the time, he said he was "neutral" about it. What drew him into the space business was the passion displayed by the Ispace management team, including CEO Takeshi Hakamada.

Shimomura came to know Ispace people through a mutual friend, and was inspired by Hakamada's vision to "create a town on the moon by 2040." He began to have dinners with management members roughly once a month, and advised them on how to maintain a comfortable working environment for engineers and offered useful ideas on launching new businesses.

Still, Shimomura said, he "never thought I would be directly involved."

Ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada, left, and CTO Hideki Shimomura. (Hakamada photo courtesy of Ispace, Shimomura by Narushi Nakai) 

A turning point came in the fall of 2019. Shimomura, who had resigned from Sony in 2018, was working at Panasonic's new business-creation office in Silicon Valley when an Ispace management team visited him, flying all the way from Japan. When asked to serve as CTO "to expand Ispace and move it forward," Shimomura was impressed by their passion and was convinced they "were really serious." He took the job in July 2020.

Currently, Shimomura oversees the development of Ispace's moon landing vehicle. He "nearly daily encounter[s] issues, whatever they may be," but calmly deals with them armed with his experience, and unifies young engineers.

Beyond the moon exploration project, targeted for 2023, Ispace plans to launch a project to develop natural resources on the moon. The company aims to achieve sustainable growth by launching a water extraction business. Shimomura, who was involved in establishing a drone-related company at Sony, was tapped to take advantage of his experience in such business launches.

When he was involved in the development of bipedal robots, Shimomura was inspired by these words by his then-boss: "What will evaluate you guys is not your boss. History will evaluate you." Shimomura has no doubt that Ispace's vision of creating a town on the moon "is certain to be realized by someone at some time in the future, which will eventually be evaluated by history."

In Japan, there are increasing numbers of cases of R&D startups that require heavy investment early on but will take a long time to grow nonetheless succeeding in raising large funds -- and not just IT startups. They include Ispace, which raised a total of 3.5 billion yen ($31.7 million) in 2020, making it one of the top companies by amount raised. It also reflects a growing interest in the aerospace industry. Under such circumstances, more Japanese startups have hired individuals who formerly worked for Japan's major manufacturers.

"There are many cases where product development requires cooperation of major companies and development can proceed quickly if [the company] has individuals who know how things work at major companies," said President Akitaka Fujii of the Tokyo venture capital company Real Tech Holdings, which invests in R&D-heavy startups.

On the other hand, CTOs at startups are required to have skills not just in development work but also in business management and a variety of other tasks, because startups typically have few employees. This presents a challenge for CTOs coming from major companies, where typically roles are finely divided.

"Individuals who can maintain awareness of the overall business situation while dealing with hiring and organizational management are hard to come by," Fujii said.

Some CTOs with major-company backgrounds juggle two or three roles at a startup.

CTO Kazuhiro Mizuta of aircraft component startup AeroEdge, headquartered in the city of Ashikaga, also serves as chief operating officer. The 39-year-old formerly worked as an engineer for Toyota Motor.

"[Moving to a startup] can be risky, but you only live once. I wanted to give it a try at a startup," Mizuta said. He makes use of his experience in developing auto parts at Toyota to develop aircraft parts and tries to cut manufacturing costs by conducting artificial intelligence-based quality inspections.

Manufacturing processes are reviewed at AeroEdge in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. (Photo by Naoyuki Kozuki) 

After studying carbon fibers in the U.S. at Duke University, Mizuta joined Toyota when he was 27 and was engaged in the development of body parts using plastics reinforced with carbon fiber.

As it is difficult for parts using new materials to be adopted, "at first I did not think we had a chance," Mizuta said. But after all team members followed Toyota's approach of "continuing experiments honestly and trying to solve problems logically," the parts were adopted for Toyota's Mirai fuel cell vehicle.

Capitalizing on his success at Toyota, Mizuta joined Tokyo-based robotics startup ZMP via the University of Cambridge because he thought digital technology would become necessary in the future. After serving as a manager of a self-driving business for nearly a year, he was poached to become AeroEdge's CTO in 2017. He has also served as COO since last year.

AeroEdge produces turbine blades for aircraft engines. Mizuta spearheads the development of AI to streamline quality inspections and aims to make the blades commercially available in two years.

A future-oriented new business, AeroEdge makes contracted parts by using metal 3D printers, a technology Mizuta thinks can become a game changer in the manufacturing sector. "Toyota's research and development was aimed 10 years ahead, and it gave me the ability to draw up scenarios for the future," Mizuta said.

AeroEdge CTO Kazuhiro Mizuta, right, and President Jun Morinishi. Mizuta has led in bringing in the Toyota way of production and innovation. 

AeroEdge, which is partially owned by Toyota Tsusho, a trading house affiliated with Toyota, introduced the Toyota production system in 2018, immediately after Mizuta joined the company.

The Toyota system has "drastically reduced costs," according to Mizuta. "We want to build production lines unique to AeroEdge by combining AI and automation."

Nobuo Kishi, 62, is another person who takes on multiple roles at a startup.

Kishi serves as chief technology officer of Tokyo's SkyDrive, which develops an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft it calls a "flying car." He flexes his muscles also in hiring engineers, using his experience from his time in an R&D division of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, his former employer.

"Work at a startup is tiring, as I have to be present at locations for both management and development, but I never get bored," Kishi said. Kishi formulates requirements toward the commercialization of flying cars such as parts. propeller numbers and flight distances. He was involved in the development of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, Japan's first domestically built passenger jet, until 2019.

After being involved in the development of fighter jets upon joining Mitsubishi Heavy, Kishi in 2010 moved to the subsidiary Mitsubishi Aircraft and took positions such as chief engineer and vice president in charge of technology. He was supposed to retire before the completion of the domestically built passenger jet, but that dream was dashed after Mitsubishi Heavy effectively froze the commercialization of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, currently the Mitsubishi SpaceJet, in 2020.

SkyDrive CEO and President Tomohiro Fukuzawa, left, and CTO Nobuo Kishi. (Photo courtesy of SkyDrive) 

Kishi uses his experience at Mitsubishi Aircraft in developing flying cars. Mitsubishi SpaceJet had a hard time getting a type certification, a prerequisite for it to serve in commercial flight, from the government. Unlike Boeing and other experienced foreign rivals, "We did not realize how hard it can be for newcomers like Mitsubishi Aircraft to get a type certification."

The making of such rules for flying cars started only recently. Kishi, who had to struggle at a latecomer in making passenger jets, "found flying cars, for which he can be involved in the rule-making from scratch, attractive." As SkyDrive had little experience in proving safety to the government, CEO Tomohiro Fukuzawa invited Kishi as CTO to help on that score.

Kishi regrets the past failure to stress the importance of hiring viable personnel as the development of the passenger jet was postponed over and over again. "It is important for us to report to our bosses as soon as we learn the prerequisites for achieving goals," he said. At small startups like SkyDrive, swift decision-making is possible, and Kishi often offers frank advice to Fukuzawa.

Kishi himself interviews job applicants so the company can acquire the engineers necessary for development. It has been just over a year since he joined the company, but he already has been involved in the hiring of many engineers.

"I think I am having a good second career," Kishi said. Now is a good time for him to demonstrate his ability to get SkyDrive off the ground.

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