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Dialogue between Keio Innovation Initiative, Inc. CEO Kotaro Yamagishi and Shin Hatou

Left : CELLUSION Shin Hatou Right : Keio Innovation Initiative, Inc. CEO Kotaro Yamagishi

Our Reason for Supporting Cellusion

Yamagishi KII’s mission statement is “Let us help your research, your invention, your innovation change the world.” As a venture capital, we aim to contribute to the development of society by applying the research results of not only Keio University, but also all other universities and research institutions in creating new industries.
What Cellusion is aiming for aligns with our mission. We believe that the company’s regenerative medicine pipeline will play a significant role in solving the shortage of donors for corneal transplant recipients and that the business of using iPS cells has great potential, and that is why we decided to invest. Keio University School of Medicine also has the momentum to support the development of venture businesses.

Hatou Led by Professor Kazuo Tsubota, we held seminars to produce entrepreneurs from Keio University School of Medicine. I remember when Mr. Yamagishi came to give a lecture on the Japanese economy and issues in the pharmaceutical industry. I was struck by the depth of his knowledge and the breadth of his vision.
Cellusion was founded in 2015 and was the first venture company started by a one of the school’s faculty members. There was no previous instances of setting up an R&D structure, developing an organization, or building relationships with the university, so everything was done by trial and error. As an ophthalmologist myself, of course, I had no experience in starting a business. So, I wrote a business plan, presented my vision, and asked for support from KII.

Yamagishi I felt that the first challenge in bringing one of Cellusion’s treatments to market was team building, despite the company’s social significance, technical capabilities, and being backed by Keio.
To involve a wide range of people other than medical professionals and the university, it is important to explain the project in an easy-to-understand way. A good team can be built through the process of gaining their understanding and empathy for the company’s mission, thereby increasing the number of investors.

Hatou I am used to presenting at medical conferences, but this was my first experience in communicating our value proposition in an easy-to-understand way to people who do not know us. It was great to have the necessary support for this first challenge.

Yamagishi The ability to explain what you want to do is crucial for a deep-tech startup to succeed. Especially before the company goes public, it is necessary to make people who do not know anything about medicine understand what you want to do in order to attract investors or recruit new employees. To achieve this, we need to create a mission, vision, and values, as well as an edgy website to build a sense of trust and credibility. I think we are doing well in this area.

Hatou Thank you very much. The advice I received on how to explain our mission to investors, the details of contracts, business alliances with other companies, and other necessary matters during the start-up phase helped me to proceed smoothly. KII taught me how to step up as an entrepreneur, so I was able to move forward without hesitation.
In the process of growing the team, I feel that both Cellusion and myself are growing. Unlike working in a hospital, where the focus is on the medical staff, at Cellusion we need to ensure teamwork among people with various abilities and values and draw out their strengths. For this reason, I interviewed key personnel together with Dr. Hongo, a director who joined us from KII, to develop my ability to judge people. After all, human resources management is vital in a startup business. How to acquire good talent as soon as possible is the most important part. KII supported me in this area. Going forward, I think we will approach team building with a greater awareness of diversity, and I am committed to working on it while broadening my own perspective.

Yamagishi I believe we can hire the necessary talent without delay and build a strong team that meets our objectives. I expect that the more tolerant the CEO becomes, the more people will be able to play an active role in the company. From now on, it will be necessary to hire people in fields not directly related to medicine.

Hatou As you said, we will be hiring more people for finance and backーoffice positions. I feel that we are entering a phase in which it is increasingly important to communicate what the company is aiming for in clear and simple terms.

The Future KII and Cellusion Foresees

Hatou There are more than 13 million patients worldwide who are blind due to corneal diseases and are unable to receive corneal transplants. On the other hand, about 180,000 people actually receive corneal transplants each year. This number is very limited, and many people around the world do not have access to treatment. Bullous keratopathy is an area that will pose a major challenge not only in Japan, but also in Europe and emerging countries as the number of patients is expected to increase.

Yamagishi One of the key points in our decision to support this project was that you, Dr. Hatou, have clinical experience as a doctor and a realistic understanding of the issues. For example, you told us about inserting corneal endothelial cells while the patient lies in a face-down position so as not to place unnecessary burden on them. I found this persuasive because you provided us with a concrete image of what success look likes, not just an armchair theory. As is true of Keio University as a whole, being involved in both basic research and clinical practice provides a great advantage. The project is actually progressing on schedule.

Hatou We are now ready to start clinical studies in humans. So far, we have solved issues such as manufacturing cells and demonstrating safety in animal experiments. The next step is to administer the product to humans to confirm its efficacy and safety. We will continue to solve issues one by one until we reach Phase III trials, designed to simulate actual use in clinical settings.
We are also working on developing methods for cell manufacturing, transportation, and storage, so we can respond to patients in various countries around the world. We are now undertaking development and clinical trials simultaneously in order to be able to bring our treatment to the global market.

Yamagishi We have continued to provide Cellusion with financial and human resources support so it can operate independently. Since the company is growing steadily as an organization and is running on its own, as a shareholder, I would like to see Cellusion aim for an IPO in the near future. In addition, I would like to see the company establish a structure that will enable it to compete globally, including reaching out to overseas investors. We will spare no effort to support you in these efforts.
Although there are many issues to be solved, such as meeting the regulations of each country, Keio University, along with Kyoto University, are strong in the field of iPS cell-related research and have scientific capabilities that can be leveraged worldwide. I feel that there is great potential for business globally as well.

Hatou We have been leading the way as the first startup launched by an active faculty member of Keio University School of Medicine. As a pioneer, I would like to continue to inspire not only Keio University but also the whole of Japan. Furthermore, I would like to make Cellusion a company that brightens the medical community as well as the economic community and society across the board.

Yamagishi The Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear that biotech startups such as Moderna can solve social issues. Cellusion, of course, and science in Japan as a whole, has the potential to be competitive. However, Japanese startups, especially bioventures, are still facing funding and market capitalization ten times lower than their US counterparts. We will continue to support Cellusion so that it can grow into a startup that can compete globally.

This dialogue took place in August 2022. The contents of the publication are based on the information at the time of the interview.

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