Growing a Pharmaceuticals Startup in Japan with Eli Lyons, Chief Development Officer at Molcure

We chat with Eli Lyons, the chief development officer at Molcure, a funded pharmaceuticals startup in Japan.

Eli, please introduce yourself…

My name is Eli Lyons, and I’m the Chief Development Officer at Molcure. I’m originally from San Francisco, and after doing my undergraduate and master’s degree in electrical engineering, I moved to Tokyo where I’m currently working on my PhD in Medical Genome Science.

I joined Molcure shortly after its founding by the three co-founders. We are based in Tokyo, near Akihabara (the otaku electronics and maid café neighborhood). We currently have two projects which have synergy. One is antibody discovery using a phage display library, next generation sequencing, and analysis.

Antibody discovery is a huge market with a lot of space for growth and innovation. Our other project is our Smart Lab Module, an experiment automation solution.

What’s the story behind creating Molcure?

The CEO of Molcure, Ryu Ogawa, was previously working at a company called Synclogue and Molcure is kind of a spin-off of that company. Ogawa-san is currently a PhD student in Bioinformatics and he’s the guy behind Abtracer software.

For those who don’t know, what are antibody drugs?

Antibody drugs provide targeted therapy, as opposed to the shotgun approach that traditional chemotherapy drugs use.

Antibodies target proteins (antigens) that are specific to, or more common in cancer cells than in healthy cells. Most of the new blockbuster cancer drugs are antibody drugs.

What are some of the primary challenges you faced when you launched?

I joined after the initial founding, but I’ll discuss some challenges we’ve faced since I joined.

First is that only one of us is full-time, the other three of us are students, so other commitments and different schedules make things tricky.

We solve this through close communication and sharing our schedules. We also have clear individual tasks week by week so we can work a somewhat independently and bring things together when we meet.

Working as a team and the willingness to help each other out with various tasks is one of our greatest strengths.

What are the benefits of being based in Japan over other countries in the region?

That’s a tough question, especially since I’m not familiar with all the other countries, although I was an exchange student in Taiwan during undergrad. Japan has great infrastructure and excellent public transportation.

Living in Tokyo is very convenient, there are lots of resources and it has a lot going on. Everything is very orderly and systematic, which is great if you work within the system parameters, but sometimes this creates a rigid, fragile system.

For example, one time my coworker Hara-san tried to order low profile head screws from a large manufacturer here, and they wouldn’t sell us the screws because we don’t have a land-line and fax number. I’ve never seen him so pissed.

I would be doing your readers a disservice if I didn’t describe interacting and working with Japanese people. One thing I really like about Japanese people is that they are very reliable, and in contrast to flaky Americans, when they say they are going to do something or be somewhere, they follow through.

When you discuss matters with Japanese, they are very thoughtful and do not rush to conclusions and impose their view on you. The assistant professor who supervises me at school is a master of the Socratic method, and he has greatly influenced how I interact with people and think about biology problems.

There are few big egos here and that results in a lot of meaningful discussion. Sometimes you even need to draw people out a bit to get their thoughts and ideas. I’ll leave it at that before this turns into an 80’s coffee-table book about working with the Japanese.

How do you see the startup ecosystem developing in Japan?

Well, the investments by VCs are typically much smaller than in Silicon Valley and even VCs here admit that investments that are too small can be a significant factor to a start-up failing here.

As far as other resources go, co-working spaces, rapid fabrication resources and start-up incubators/accelerators are becoming more common, which is great for the start-up community. However, I think the Japanese need to encourage entrepreneurship in university and graduate school more.

What advice can you share with entrepreneurs wanting to start or expand their business into Japan?

The start-up community in Tokyo is a tight community, and you can do a lot of networking by attending start-up events or entering VC contests.

I recently hosted an international start-up party at a co-working space called MONO, and I’ll be hosting another one in February or March.

I may also be working with MONO to set up some infrastructure to make it easier for start-ups to expand into Japan. MONO can become a primary resource for entrepreneurs looking to enter Japan and get office space, connections to localization companies, etc.

What startup opportunities do you see emerging in Japan right now?

Off the top of my head, I see two big ones. One is simply IT solutions for many administrative tasks and various business departments in Japan. You’ve never seen so much paper.

The second is in healthcare, the whole aging population song you’ve probably heard. Okay, maybe a third is going to be in business consulting or something, because I see a lot of Japanese companies that my friends are working at that are slowly sinking ships. Although there are already plenty of consulting companies here, so I don’t know what the deal is.

Okay, FINE, one more, data analysis, but that’s not very specific to Japan. In my humble opinion I don’t think Abenomics is having a positive effect, as far as I know wages are still not increasing significantly and there’s a consumption tax increase coming on top of the inflation. I see big problems in Japan’s near future, but hopefully that will lead to some big changes as well.

What’s next for Molcure?

We are making steady progress with our Smart Lab Module, and I believe we’ll be able to release our first module soon. In the biology and bioinformatics area, we need to create our own antibody libraries and expand our analysis software.

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