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Rebel CEO of defunct Livedoor still shoots for the stars

Fails and jail have yet to deter the colorful entrepreneur and his space startup

Takafumi Horie has always had lofty goals, first as head of a well-known internet services company, now as founder of space startup Interstellar Technologies.

TOKYO -- Some people always have stars in their eyes. Take Takafumi Horie, poster boy for Japan's cocky yet savvy high-tech entrepreneurs of the early 2000s who rose to riches on the back of the internet boom.

Since then, Horie's life has been a roller coaster, a journey that has swept him from startups and boardrooms to campaign trails and prison cells. Now, the colorful 45-year-old entrepreneur stands on the frontier of outer space as founder of space startup Interstellar Technologies.

Horie's interest in space exploration began at an early age when he wondered if humans would ever live beyond earth. In November 2004, while CEO of Livedoor, an internet service provider that traced its roots to his days at the University of Tokyo, Horie was approached by a group of dreamers who shared his passion for space.

The coterie, including science fiction writer Yuichi Sasamoto and cartoonist Yoshitoo Asari, asked for Horie's financial help in building a single-seat spaceship. The entrepreneur agreed and the following year formed Natsu no Rocket Team, a group of engineers and other experts familiar with rocket science. After failing to procure a Russian engine for their rocket, the group decided to develop one on its own.

Horie's arrest and subsequent conviction for financial irregularities tied to Livedoor doomed the business, but not his space odyssey. "Being in prison did not stop our rocket development," said Horie in a recent interview. "I didn't think managers had to be there constantly, and I could stay in touch with my business associates even while behind bars."

Horie has always been a serial entrepreneur, and had high hopes for where Livedoor could take him. As the company began generating huge sums of cash around the turn of the century, he decided to branch out, leading to a failed attempt to acquire a professional Japanese baseball team in 2004. Undeterred, he quietly bought a large stake in media conglomerate Fuji Television Network, attempting a hostile takeover in 2005, which also flopped.

The same went for a bold plan to take over Sony and sell its core businesses -- including TVs and game console PlayStation -- to finance development of a mobile communications device similar to today's smartphone. Around this time, Horie also tried his hand at politics, narrowly being defeated in a 2005 bid for a seat in the country's House of Representatives.

Then, in January 2006, the flamboyant Horie flamed out: He was arrested and jailed over charges stemming from the shady dealings of Livedoor's finance department. Proclaiming his innocence, Horie fought the charges for nearly five years while on bail. His conviction was ultimately upheld and in 2011, the unrepentant Horie was sent to prison to do his time, leaving Livedoor in ruins, investors empty-handed, and the country fed up with startups.

Takafumi Horie, during his heyday as president of Livedoor in 2005, announces a plan to introduce free WiFi in central Tokyo.

Amid the Livedoor furor, Apple had kicked off the mobile era with the release of the iPhone. By then, however, Horie had turned to his other ambition. While still incarcerated in January 2013, he established Interstellar Technologies in Hokkaido from the Natsu no Rocket Team. On March 29, 2013, just two days after his release, Horie was at his new company in time to witness the launch of its ultrasmall rocket, christened Hinamatsuri, which exploded immediately after liftoff.

Later that day while discussing the failure with team members, Horie approached Takahiro Inagawa, a graduate student who had been volunteering part time on the rocket's electrical system. Horie had heard of the talented student while in prison and asked him to join the company full time.

Inagawa had been scheduled to work for Japanese camera maker Nikon, but changed his mind, moved by Horie's passion for the rocket business. After only his second year with Interstellar, Inagawa was named president, a post he retains to this day.

The president recalls that he wasn't particularly impressed with Horie when he headed Livedoor, but fully bought into the founder's dream of exploring space. He now wants Interstellar to tap into the growing space market with its own microsatellite launch service.

Capitalized at only 49.6 million yen ($436,000), Interstellar has to rely on crowdfunding for each launch. Horie also kicks in with money from some of his other companies.

Interstellar Technologies' launch of what would have been Japan's first privately developed rocket to reach outer space failed on June 30.

Despite its efforts, however, Interstellar has yet to achieve success. Its Momo-2 rocket that launched in June exploded seconds after liftoff. This was preceded by Momo, which failed in a July 2017 launch, although it did manage to reach an altitude of 20 km. Some experts think the company is underfunded, forcing it to cut corners on prelaunch inspections and tests.

Through it all, Horie has remained unfazed. "Watching [a successful] launch is not really important. What is important is to move the business forward," he once said. The company is planning another launch in 2019, although its near-term goals are not quite as lofty as those of U.S.-based startup SpaceX, which -- according to its founder and CEO Elon Musk -- is headed to the moon in 2023.

Horie laments the time lost fighting the law and falling behind contemporaries such as Musk, who he met in 2004. Still, as the global space race heats up, Japan may again find that it is enterprising -- and sometimes unconventional -- businesspeople like Horie who will lead the country's technological advancements, this time into outer space.

Nikkei staff writer Mitsuru Obe contributed to this report.

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