Makoto Katayama

Sumitomo Electric Group The Professionals ~Makoto Katayama~

Building a Shared Vision to Create “1” from “0”

What to do to overcome fear

“Sumitomo Electric will establish an organization to conduct research on industrial applications of synchrotron radiation. Would you like to join it?” If a senior researcher of my university laboratory had not invited me, I would have chosen a career as a scientist. To tell the truth, while I was conducting research on nuclear fusion in my doctoral program, I was secretly envious of former fellow students from my master’s program, who had been hired by corporations. Although they complained about their difficulties, but they talked about their work with excitement. I decided to join Sumitomo Electric because I was strongly motivated to contribute to society in a more direct way.

When I was assigned to the Harima Laboratory, I was immediately put in charge of the process from planning to design to completion of a beamline.*¹ This was exactly what I heard before I joined the company: “Sumitomo Electric has a corporate culture that allows young employees to undertake projects with a sense of responsibility.” Subsequently, I undertook a project to prepare to promote the utilization of SPring-8.*² I learned what “goal- oriented basic research” means at a company. At the Harima Laboratory, we worked on commercializing yet-to- be-publicized research results and contribute to society. Namely, we were working every day to find a way to create “1” from “0”. Researchers dedicated their effort to gathering information to come up with new ideas. I also read many business books.

At that time, I came across the “fact, faith, and fear” theory of future insight. Here, “fear” means that one is not even aware of what he or she does not know. To start something new, it was necessary to overcome fear. By talking with unfamiliar people and organizations, I think I could overcome the fear of what I don’t know. I was convinced that this was the answer to creating something out of nothing. However, I was not expecting I would learn just how difficult it was, years later.

*1: Beamline: Equipment for using synchrotron radiation
*2: SPring-8: Large synchrotron radiation facility of the highest performance in the world capable of generating synchrotron radiation located in Harima Science Garden City in Hyogo, Japan

Melancholic Fridays in Silicon Valley

Later, I was put in charge of the development of optical parts at the Yokohama Laboratory. In 2008, I was assigned to the R&D Planning Division. In the spring of 2009, I received an offer to be transferred to Innovation Core SEI, Inc. (ICS) in the U.S. The mission was to explore new business opportunities in Silicon Valley, the test bed of the global market. This was the “business to promote PoC business,” which I proposed in a project under direct supervision of the president, to think about the future of Sumitomo Electric 30 years later. Honestly, I had not expected to be assigned this mission myself.

One year after returning to Japan, I visited the ICS office on a business trip and met Millard, one of my colleagues, again on Casual Friday.
One year after returning to Japan, I visited the ICS office on a business trip and met Millard, one of my colleagues, again on Casual Friday.

Immediately after I was transferred to ICS, I worked on a project to enter the development of Light Peak, the next-generation communication protocol (later renamed “Thunderbolt”), which was to be used between digital electric home appliances, such as PCs and TVs, under the initiative of Intel. At first, the Intel staff did not even remember our company name and called us “Sumimoto.” Nevertheless, I made an appointment in the afternoon every Friday and visited them with our sales team to discuss topics that we managed to come up with. We continued this routine for months. Sometimes, we could not see the Intel staff when we paid a visit because their working style was very casual on Fridays. I was only motivated to continue visiting them because I had determined to do so. I never felt so melancholic as I did on Fridays.

One day, we learned that they had a problem with a newly developed product. We proposed on the spot to study solutions. I asked for help from the Optical Communications R&D Lab, with which I was once affiliated. We were able to propose a solution in less than two weeks. In response, they introduced several Intel researchers, and we were able to build a good relationship. Our proposal to resolve the problem of twisted wires by using ultra-fine coaxial wires was also well received. Sumitomo Electric was chosen to be the first vendor for the project. This was possible because of the comprehensive capabilities of the Sumitomo Electric Group, which has various technology seeds and enables prompt collaboration among relevant departments to take action.

“Harmony among people” to achieve a shared vision

I also made it a personal rule to participate in networking events on Fridays. Silicon Valley was uniquely vibrant even after Lehman Brothers collapsed. Events were held at different locations, and engineers who just met exchanged information off-the-record over drinks. This was a common practice. I am shy around strangers, so I felt blue until I reached the venues. Once I drink, I become talkative, so I enjoyed the events.

At that time, Tech Giants, which later became known as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon), were rapidly growing by acquiring start-ups. They employed many engineers from India and China. On a public road in San Jose, I saw a company conducting an automated driving test. This was what is called proof of concept (PoC) today, which is the initial phase of a new business. This was exactly what we were trying to do to overcome “fear.” We practiced the solution to create something out of nothing in Silicon Valley without knowing it. We went out to see people, talked about our vision, and seriously asked for candid opinions. The starting point was communication with unfamiliar people and organizations.

I learned an old saying from my university professor: “Favorable terrain is more important than good timing, Harmony among people is more important than favorable terrain.”*³ I have been following this teaching.

“Harmony among people” to me, does not mean a group of playful good friends, but means a situation where individuals have motivation and belief and continue to improve themselves while working toward a shared vision.

To achieve sustainable growth of Sumitomo Electric, “Harmony among people,” whereby highly capable individuals work toward a shared vision, will play a key role. Such activity will help create new businesses.

*3: A quote from Mencius. In order of worthiness of consideration when planning an operation, from least to most, are timing, terrain, and Harmony among people.


Makoto Katayama

Joined Sumitomo Electric

Electromagnetic Application System Research Dept., ElectricPower System Technology Laboratory

Harima Laboratory

Optical Communication Research Dept., Yokohama Laboratory

Director of the Optical Precision Implementation Group,
Optical Components R & D Dept., Optical Communications R & D Labs. and Photonics Analysis Group of the Analysis Technology Research Center

R & D Planning Dept.

President of Innovation Core SEI, Inc. (U.S.)

Manager of the Innovation Promotion Office, R & D Planning & Administrative Div.

General Manager of the Planning Dept., R & D Planning & Administrative Div.

Deputy General Manager of the R&D Planning & Administrative Div. and General Manager of the Planning Dept.

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