Mr Hideki Kobori President Representative Director Asahi Kasei Corporation

Mr. Hideki Kobori, President, ASAHI KASEI CORPORATION
BN: First of all thank you, it’s an honor for us to conduct this interview with you. Asahi Kasei is one of Japan’s most iconic companies that can look back on a very long and rich history. The Asahi Kasei story is one of constant innovation and world-leading technology. With that said, what can you tell our readers about Asahi Kasei’s approach towards innovation and how it is reflected in the daily business?

HK: Our group’s leitmotif is “Creating for Tomorrow” and this vision forms the bottom line of all our actions. We want to contribute to a better living of people around the world. We want to foster harmony between human beings and the environment. To achieve this, we are constantly innovating and creating new solutions, new approaches to old problems. We are particularly looking at two major challenges society is facing: sustainable and clean energy production as well as aging populations and health related issues. Our company operates in three business fields: materials, homes, and healthcare. We are focusing on high value added businesses in each of these divisions; we want to come up with truly valuable solutions to society’s challenges.

Looking at our material division for instance; it is important to see that we can build on our vast experience that we gained throughout our long history and the numerous cutting-edge technologies we have developed. Our expertise in fibers technology, that forms a main pillar of our company since its inception, is particularly noteworthy in this context. Adding to this, we possess unique skills and know-how in spinning and weaving. Talking about chemicals, we have our organic synthesis technology for example. Also, looking at processing technologies, we also have our distinctive membrane technology. In electronics, we have compound semiconductor technology as well as silicon-based LSI technology. These are just a few examples of what we combine as a company. Based on our various key technologies, we have diversified our businesses over the years. Today we have a highly diversified range of businesses. This allows us also to make new combinations between our different businesses and business models, and create new value through new combinations.

As I said, sustainability and environmental friendliness are two key values of our company. We are constantly striving to reduce the ecological footprint of our operations and develop solutions for our clients and the society to do the same. Particularly interesting for your audience in Germany in this context could be a recent topic that we are working on – actually in Germany. We are working on a project to utilize extra renewable energy. At certain times there is more renewable energy available than what is needed in this specific moment in time. We are now working on a technology to make use of this abundant extra energy. Through alkaline water electrolysis we are converting it to hydrogen that can be used as an additional sustainable energy source. We are doing a verification test on this right now. Originally, hydrogen has been made based on hydroelectric power, then, it was made from fossil fuel. Now, we can utilize extra renewable energy; when there is extra renewable energy, we can make use of that, and this is in itself a CO2-free process of generating hydrogen. This project is a great example to underline the key values of Asahi Kasei and our corporate vision of creating a society of clean environmental energy. This is especially relevant for Germany that plans to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 and is in need for new technologies of renewable energy generation.

Another interesting project that we are working on is our UVC LED technology. We are working on an LED lamp that produces deep ultraviolet light (UVC). The important thing to note here is that this LED emits UV light at a wavelength of 280 nanometers; this is the wavelength that proved to be most effective for disinfection. With that said, our LED can be used to disinfect water, air, or surfaces. This technology allows pinpointing exactly on the spots you like to disinfect. So this technology can be used not only in healthcare, but also to disinfect drinking water, for instance also for high volume water treatment. This technology can also be used for many other things that pertain to our daily life, such as disinfecting baby bottles for example. We have high expectations for this technology. We are now in the process testing and developing different applications. Of course, UV light is used for disinfection already, but, ordinarily, up until now, you needed to use a mercury lamp. Our product will not only consume much less energy than a traditional mercury lamp, but will also be much safer.

On the back of all these technologies I mentioned and our strong position in various fields, we are aiming at growing and diversifying our business further substantially. From a management point of view we are looking at the long-term growth target of reaching net sales of 3 trillion Yen and an operational income of 280 billion Yen by 2025.

BN: One pillar of your strategy to 2025 is also “acceleration of globalization”. What is your view on Germany in this context?

HK: We see how Europe, and in particular Germany, is leading the way in setting environmental standards, adopting regulations and shaping the way towards more sustainability in energy production and consumption. With its agenda of abandoning nuclear energy completely by 2022, Germany once again seizes the mantle in this regard. Germany is also taking a leading role in the field of green mobility, such as in the development of e-cars. Sharing the same mindset and vision we are of course interested in being part of this and work with closely with German partners in this venture. We have a lot of technologies and expertise that we can bring in.

Looking at the automotive industry for example, we are very eager to strengthen existing and foster new ties. As a part of this effort, we have recently developed our own concept car, called AKXY. AKXY stands for Asahi Kasei (AK) multiplied (X) by you (Y). With “You” we refer to the automotive manufactures, who are our customers. We are eager to extend our ties with the automotive industry, particularly with automotive manufacturers and their suppliers in Germany.
AKXY is an electric vehicle that runs on lithium-ion batteries and that has 27 of our products and technologies installed; some of which are already sold in the market, some of them that are still in the stage of development. AKXY combines our know-how in materials, such as our plastic and fibers technologies, such as artificial suede and airbag fibers, but also our sensors technologies. A very relevant example of our state-of-the-art sensors is the oxygen sensor that is built in the car. This sensor monitors automatically the oxygen in the car. If the concentration of oxygen becomes too low, the drivers may start feeling sleepy, what is of course dangerous while driving. So our system automatically regulates the amount of oxygen inside the car.

Overall, an advantage that we have is clearly our very broad product and service portfolio. Once again I would like to stress that Asahi Kasei combines knowledge and products ranging from fiber and plastic technologies, to synthetic rubber for tires, to battery separators for lithium-ion batteries, and sensors and electronics. Having this widespread and comprehensive expertise allows us to offer an all-embracing approach to vehicle manufacturers and tier one suppliers. We are able to be their comprehensive partner for the development of their next generation vehicles. The fact that we were able to produce AKXY, a car that is actually drivable, clearly demonstrates the practicability of our products and technologies. AKXY showcases very well how our expertise and our unique products can make a contribution to the cars of tomorrow and a greener and more sustainable mobility. We do have expectations and hopes that the technologies and products used in AKXY soon will be installed in the cars that your readers will see in the streets in Germany and in German cars all over the world. Of course, we are not going to be the ones who will manufacture the cars, but with our unique technologies we are making it possible for car manufacturers to develop next generation vehicles.

As I said initially, besides contributing to greener ad more sustainable energy production and consumption, and mobility, Asahi Kasei also specializes in finding new answers to health and aging population challenges. Of course, as a Japanese company we are predestinated to do so. In the face of our demographic situation here, earlier than other countries Japan had to delve into solutions to the aging population challenge and therefore today as a country we are a world leader in this regard – and for our part, we as Asahi Kasei are proud to be at the very forefront in building the know-how and necessary technologies to make this possible. Germany, with the second oldest population in the world after Japan, is of course facing similar challenges as Japan. We as a company therefore also see Germany as an opportunity for us to make a difference.

As you may know, Asahi Kasei has a long history with Germany and always had close ties with German businesses. One example is Cupro fiber, the brand name is “Bemberg”. We are now the only company in the world to make this material. Originally, we licensed it from the Bemberg Company in Germany. Also, in our home division we maintain close ties with Germany. One of our main products in this field are Hebel houses. These high-performance housing solutions, very resistant to earthquakes and fires and with good insulation, have their origins in Germany. Also our stretchable fiber, Spandex, originates from Germany, from the company Lanxess. Another collaboration that might be noteworthy in this context is our partnership with a German company to exclusively distribute “Frosch” here in Japan. Frosch is a very environmentally-friendly type of cleaning and cleansing agent. The green and sustainable concept of Frosch is in line with our own philosophy, so we are distributing it here in Japan.

Now looking at current challenges in energy and health, as well as at new opportunities opened by IoT and AI, we are of course closely looking at Germany. Germany is well-positioned in the field of IoT and AI and how to apply it in order to connect and integrate industrial production and build what is called Industry 4.0. We are also working on new solutions how to apply IoT into our manufacturing processes, and, also, utilizing IoT and AI to a higher degree in our business model. Looking at Germany, we think that there is a lot that we can learn from each other.

BN: In a nutshell, what would be your message to the readers of DIE WELT?

HK: Founded in 1931, Asahi Kasei has a very long and successful history. Last year our company celebrated its 95th anniversary. Throughout our history we have launched many innovative, world-first products. We have always been frontrunners when it comes to innovation. The history of Asahi Kasei is one of perpetual innovation. Over the years we have grown into a highly diversified company with numerous businesses; yet all striving for the same vision, building a better life for everybody and fostering harmony between human beings and the environment. In the light of current global challenges, such as in energy and health, Asahi Kasei with all its strength is taking a leading role in finding new answers and solutions to it. The history of our company has also been a history of close collaboration between Japan and Germany. More than ever this transnational collaboration is important because in the end of the day global challenges require answers that build on the best know-how and technologies available, independently from the country. Germany has always demonstrated its strength as an industrial powerhouse and home of innovation. The close collaboration between our company and German car manufacturers stands exemplary for the strength of joint Japanese-German innovation. We clearly want to intensify these ties and go one step further together with Germany – within and beyond the automotive industry.

Mr. Takuma ‘TK’ Iwasa, Founder & CEO of Cerevo Inc.
BN: Cerevo is a young, but highly innovative company. You founded the company back in 2008 and since then the company experienced dynamic growth and now employs almost 100 employees and its products are present in more than 60 countries worldwide. In light of this entrepreneurial success story, can you please give the readers of DIE WELT an insight into the Cerevo story and share with them what you consider the key drivers behind your company’s excellent track record within the first 10 years since its inception?

TI: Yes, this is true, currently our products are exported to over 60 countries; however, this number is rising quickly.

I think to understand the success of Cerevo we have to look at where the company is coming from. In college I studied computer science. At that time, around 1995, I was very much fascinated by the internet and the opportunities it offered. I spent a lot of my free time with internet gaming and other things related to the possibilities of the World Wide Web. I fell in love with the internet and the internet culture. Already at that time I was convinced that the internet will revolutionise society and the way human beings live. When I graduated school in 2003 there were already big internet companies are there, such as Yahoo etc.. I thought starting my career at Panasonic would be a good step, even though internet was not such a big topic for Panasonic at that time. There was no IoT, so no connection yet between physical products and the internet as we have today. I realised quickly that the internet culture and the consumer goods culture were two very separate things at that time.

Over the years I saw more and more clearly the potential that internet-based products would have; however, I was struggling a bit because in a huge company like Panasonic I felt that I couldn’t do exactly what I wanted and what I thought there was demand for in the market.

Therefore, after 5 years with Panasonic I decided to start my own company back in 2008. My idea was to combine my expertise in internet technology with my knowledge I gathered in the consumer goods industry. Cerevo was born. Our first product was an internet-connected camera, actually an internet-live-streaming camera. At that time, online-streaming was a very new thing to do, and not as well-known as it is today. Yet, given my fascination for, and my extensive know-how in internet technology; for me it was already very clear that this would become the ‘next thing’. Of course, I also had the right contacts and knew how to add value to my product, such as connecting our camera to streaming-websites to offer our customers more convenience. At that time my company had only five people.

From then on, we started launching various new products, for different groups of customers, yet always following the same strategy. In order to decide which products we should invest in and which not to, we use three criteria. On the one hand, we are looking for the “global potential” of a product, this means to find out if there is a demand for it in the global market. Then the other question we are asking ourselves is if this product is “niche” enough in order for us, as a small company to position ourselves as a leader in the respective market and not to compete with giant companie. The third criteria is of course “internet”. We have rich experience in internet technology and this gives us a competitive edge compared to our competitors, therefore we keep specialising in it and are looking for the next big trends in this field. So, overall one can say we follow a “global niche” approach in marketing internet-connected products. All of our products are niche products and don’t cater for mainstream markets; however, given that all of them have “global potential” allows us to cater for these niche markets in various countries – today over 60. Our growth objective is to raise this number up to 100 markets quickly. As an example, you can look at our latest bike product. It’s an internet-connected product, it’s a niche product, but of course bicycles are used all over the world, so there is a global potential for it. And the product is building on two recent trends, Big Data and AI.

So an integral part of our business is to identify what could be the next big internet-connected product trends. Every day we are in touch with CEOs of internet companies, invest a lot of time in researching the market, understanding the industry and business news, etc. From a production point of view, our business model is the same as that which, for instance, we think Apple is based on. All our devices are designed and developed by us in-house, however they are assembled in China.

BN: How do you market your products?

TI: Once we have a product and we know that there is a market for it, we follow a rather straightforward approach to market it. We visit the most important trade showsall over the world and showcase our products there. Due to the uniqueness – or some people would also call it distinctive characteristic – of our products we usually manage to get a lot of attention from the visitors of the shows and also from media, what of course is helpful for us. Normally our targets for trade shows are twofold. As for one, we are looking for media attention, and on the other, we are looking for new partners. For instance, we are looking for distribution partners that have the know-how and the network to distribute our products in the market. On the other hand, at CeBIT in particular, we were also looking for system integrators to jointly add value to our products.

BN: At this year’s CeBIT your company stood out as a young Japanese start-up combining quality, innovation and out-of-the-box-thinking, which fascinated the visitors of the fair and was echoed in the German press. How do you assess the success of the CeBIT fair for your business?

TI: Yes, we got media attention, which of course was a great thing for us. However, I also have to say that CeBIT as a B2B trade-show was still not the type of show we were focusing on at the first place; even though it was a good experience. We are more focused at the B2C shows at the moment. But given that Japan was the official partner country of CeBIT we thought it might be a good opportunity for us. The response from CeBIT was good, but not as extraordinary as it could be because of that. Yet, we also understand that this was our first time at CeBIT and we have learnt in other shows that it usually takes some time to fully embrace the potential of a show. So we are looking at the next CeBIT with a lot of enthusiasm and are convinced we will get even more attention next time.

BN: What potential overall do you see for your company in Germany?

TI: CeBIT was not the first time we have exhibited in Germany. Two years ago we exhibited at IFA in Munich. Also on a private level I have been giving speeches at Tech-Conferences in Germany. I see a lot of potential for our products in Germany. My experience with Germany showed me that Germans highly value the quality of a product, which also reflects our philosophy as a company. Also, I sense that Germans are very open to new trends and products that are ahead o time. So, what we realise whenever we go to Germany is that there is a natural acceptance for our type of products in the market and people see the added value of it. I also see Germany not as an isolated market,I see it as Europe’s economic powerhouse in a way. Germany can also serve as an ideal effective stepping stone for us to expand in other markets in Europe.

BN: I came across an interview of you from 2015 in which you “We have to learn how to build a high value brand.(…). We aim for a high value brand like Ferrari or TAG Heuer.” Along these lines, how are you building your brand?

TI: Of course, you cannot compare our brand with iconic brands such as Ferrari or TAG Heuer. What we have in common today with a brand like Ferrari is that we are both catering to a niche market. Ferrari, of course constitutes, but at the same time limits its demand by the high price of its products. We are not doing this, our market is limited by other factors, such as the question of if a customer sees an added-value in our products or not. What I wanted to stress here though is that we as a company need to be striving for more brand recognition among our potential customers.

We want Cerevo to stand for quality products, but also for products that are not standard ones, but some that are ahead of the trend, or rather a little bit crazy. This is what we want to stand for – a high value brand in terms of the products we deliver. With that said it might be better to compare us with brands like Salomon, the ski brand, or Brembo, the company that produces cutting-edge brake pads that you find in cars like Ferrari or Porsche today. These two brands are very well-known among people who have a special interest for skis or cars; however, people outside of these groups may not even recognise the brand name. We as Cerevo are striving for the same.

What is required to build a strong brand? From my point of view it is not rocket-science, it is quite simple: We have to deliver top-notch products. We need to satisfy our customers with innovative and high-quality products. In terms of brand image, I would like our customers to perceive us as the “crazy hardwar start-up company from Japan who delivers the first-class quality”.

BN: Can you unveil to our readers some of the new products that you are working on at the moment?

TI: At the moment we are looking into, for example, the concept of “third and fourth arm solutions for human beings”. We are looking at devices that give human beings a third or even a fourth arm and help them in doing manual labour. Many cases while doing manual work one of our arms is used to hold things in place. With our device you can easily use one of these additional artificial arms to do this work and the user has both arms available to do other work. The concept is not completely new; some universities are already researching in this field. However, our product might be the first available hardware for end-users.