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#25 Transition to a sustainable industrial society through the use of "biodiversity"!
-New business development support to maximize the function of the ecosystem


  • Sunlit Seedlings Ltd.
#25 Transformation to a Sustainable Industrial Society by Utilizing "Biodiversity"! -Support for new business development to maximize ecosystem functions

Achieving a sustainable society through biological diversity - that is the vision of Sunlit Seedlings, Inc. With such a vision, Sunlit Seedlings Co., Ltd. is trying to apply biological diversity of animals, plants, insects, fungi, and bacteria to industries such as agriculture, fisheries, and industry. The company visualizes how living organisms relate to each other and coexist in harmony, and is working to realize "soil that grows crops well" and "an aquaculture environment where fish can stay healthy" in order to make biodiversity useful for industry. The company is developing a business that makes biodiversity useful for industry. Ultimately, the company aims to realize a "nature-positive" global society, where biodiversity loss is reversed and the sustainability of human life and industry is enhanced. We interviewed Sota Ishikawa, CEO, and Hirokazu Toju, founder, director, and professor at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Bioscience and Biotechnology, about the company's history and its vision of the future with biodiversity.
(Interviewer: Sae Ito)

A "sense of urgency" about biodiversity and academic research encouraged the company's founding.

What prompted you to establish Sunlit Seedlings Ltd.


I have loved living organisms since I was a child, and after entering university, I did fieldwork in which I went out into the field to collect, analyze, and observe living organisms. From there to the present, I have been doing basic biological research on plants and insects. So in the beginning, I never envisioned that I would be involved in entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, however, I was concerned that biodiversity was rapidly disappearing from the earth. I worried that once biodiversity is lost, it is lost forever, and that my next generation will not be able to see and study a variety of organisms.... The public did not care much about the conservation of organisms and ecosystems, and I was also concerned that simply advancing basic research would not fulfill my responsibilities as a scientist.

In the midst of all this, I was selected for Kyoto University's "Hakubi Project*" in 2010. It was a very active project that brought together researchers from diverse fields, and I was afraid that I would not be able to compete with them unless I did very aggressive research. I came up with the idea of applying technology to comprehensively visualize biodiversity using next-generation DNA sequencers to analyze how organisms interact with each other in the outdoor environment.

As part of our research, we analyzed the roots of dozens of plant species in a single forest. Since plant roots have symbionts, including fungi, we looked at what kind of ecological networks were being built underground in the forest. In total, have we detected tens of thousands of species of fungi (mushrooms and molds) and bacteria for a total of about 400 plant species so far? With such a vast amount of data, the development of techniques for analyzing it is also progressing. As I continued my research, I began to collaborate with companies, and the research I had done began to be linked to industry. Eventually, it became difficult to manage a single laboratory, and I decided to start my own company.


*The Hakubi Project: Launched in 2010, the Hakubi Project is Kyoto University's "Kyoto University Next Generation Researcher Fostering Support Program. This is an initiative to foster visionary researchers who will lead the next generation by employing outstanding young researchers as specified faculty members (associate professors and assistant professors) on an annual salary basis and providing them with a free research environment so that they can devote themselves to research.

(Hirokazu Toju, Founder and Director)
Hirokazu Toju Founder and Director

How did President Ishikawa become involved in your company?


My previous position was at the Institut Pasteur in France, where I conducted research on infectious disease epidemiology. What was strong in my mind from that time was the awareness that implementing research results in society would also help protect the future of academia. I felt this way largely because I felt that social attitudes toward academia and research were markedly different in Japan than in Europe and the United States.

When I told the general public about my research while I was in France, I was surprised when they responded, "Your research protects our lives from infectious diseases, doesn't it? In Japan, people would often ask, "What good is your research going to do? I was keenly aware of the fact that in Japan, academic research has become less important to society, with people saying, "What good is this research going to do? I thought about what I could do to solve this gap, and decided to enter a university-launched venture where I could make my own examples of how the results of research are useful in business.

You decided to participate in a venture company in order to make the results of your research useful to the world.


To be honest, I also felt that it would be difficult to continue to eat as a researcher. In both Japan and France, researchers must survive through fierce competition in order to survive by doing only research. I decided to broaden my horizons to a non-research way of life, and officially joined the company in April 2020 as Director of Research and Development.

Sota Ishikawa, CEO
Sota Ishikawa, CEO

Why we were able to keep moving forward and not rot in the face of the Corona disaster immediately after the company's founding

What were some of the challenges you faced after establishing the company?


In fact, at the time the company was launched, the new coronavirus was just beginning to spread, and for a while we were not even allowed to enter the university where the laboratory was located. Of course, this was completely unexpected. My first task after joining the company was to write an application to get a grant to help small and medium enterprises. We didn't have a company car, of course, and I even had to pedal my bicycle to the prefectural office to submit the paperwork. It was not quite the start I had envisioned, and I worried about when we would be able to start our main business as a company, and what if the company collapsed? However, I believe that in order to work in a venture company, no matter what the situation is, you should not let your thinking become entangled. The reason for this is that venture companies, both in management and technological development, are driven by logic, but in the end they come down to the point of "you won't know until you try. The important thing is whether or not you can say, "I have no choice but to give it a try. I think I was suited to the kind of work that requires a physical, hands-on mentality.

When I assumed the position of president in March 2022, I was still concerned about what I would do with my next career if the company failed to stand on its feet... but I did not want to have any regrets when I entered the coffin. In the end, I was determined to give it a try. It is in this environment, with members of the company I can trust, that I decided to take the plunge.

D., and I understand that you have been actively engaged in research.


I feel that it is an ability to solve problems and is used in all kinds of situations. Personally, I believe that a doctorate is awarded not to those who have achieved remarkable results in a particular field, but to those who have the ability to take on challenges on their own, even unknown ones. This is not limited to research or technology, but can be demonstrated at any time. Gathering the necessary information, thinking of one's own approach, and repeating trial and error in order to solve the problem - this is the kind of "intellectual stamina. I believe that this kind of "intellectual stamina" is one of my strengths.

What is your company's vision?


Our goal is to visualize and evaluate biodiversity and use it to improve the efficiency of all production activities, including agriculture, fisheries, and industry. Ultimately, we aim to shift to a sustainable industrial structure that takes advantage of biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Biological functions that can be implemented by a single species are limited. We see technology that maximizes and stabilizes the function of systems composed of multiple species (genomes) at the ecosystem level as the scientific goal to be achieved during the 21st century. As the global population continues to grow, it is imperative to shift to production systems that are more efficient and sustainable in their use of resources. We believe it is important to start now to reduce the risk of future conflicts that could result from an unstable food supply. The science of ecosystems and biodiversity is also relevant to our daily lives. In recent years, the catch of saury has declined and its price has skyrocketed. As for eels, not enough juvenile glass eels can be caught, and aquaculture is still too expensive. Don't you think that simply being able to continue eating delicious food, not just fish, without worrying about depletion of resources makes all the difference in the level of happiness we experience every day? That is a great motivation for us.

How do you incorporate these visions into your business?


We have three business missions to realize our vision. (1) to present methods and indicators that enable visualization of biodiversity, (2) to present concrete know-how on how to utilize biodiversity in industries such as agriculture and forestry, and (3) to make it a sustainable business in diverse fields. Recently, biodiversity has been included in the framework of the Task Force on Nature-related Financial Disclosure (TNFD), an initiative to visualize the impact of companies and organizations on the natural environment through their business, and we believe there is a need for visualization of biodiversity in (1).

Priority should be given to understanding and accompanying customer needs rather than our own technology.

What is the specific nature of your company's business?


We are developing projects that use the science of biodiversity to solve problems in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and infrastructure-related industries. For example, in agriculture, we focus on soil improvement and disease control. We utilize the functions of ecosystems by elucidating the ecosystems of soils that are prone to disease and those that are not, and by providing new materials using microbial resources as solutions. To measure effectiveness, we can also monitor the soil environment after materials are used. Ultimately, this will lead to reduced use of pesticides and increased yields for farmers, creating a business model that is both environmentally and economically sustainable. This business model allows for individualized intervention, such as the development and provision of devices to improve feed and water quality management in the fisheries industry, and planning for afforestation in the forestry industry.

Preparing two types of tomato seedlings for shipment in two different soil environments.
Preparing two types of tomato seedlings for shipment in two different soil environments.

Please tell us about your company's unique technology and what makes it one-of-a-kind.


I think our strength is that we do not stop at visualization and assessment of biodiversity, but provide solutions as well. Our ability to accompany our clients through the process of solving issues after assessing and identifying risks is what sets us apart from other companies.


Perhaps we are able to do these things because we have not created a fixed business model that says "this is how we will compete" since the establishment of the company. Anyway, we went everywhere, did everything, and talked to everyone. We felt that such a foundation was necessary for new business development. Technically, our strength is that our core technology, based on Dr. Toju's research, allows us to visualize networks among organisms that have been invisible at various business sites. We visualize how a particular organism interacts with another organism and the surrounding environment as an ecological network. Among them, it is possible to find modules that play a particularly important role and to predict the future of the ecosystem.

What is important to you in promoting your business?


It is important to understand what the customer is looking for. It is particularly easy for people with a research background to fall into the trap of doing business by offering what they think is good for them (technology) in a one-sided, pushy way. I am conscious of the order of thinking: what are the issues that the other party is facing, and what kind of proposal will make the most of our technology....


For example, even if we develop microbial materials, if there is a technology that can stabilize agriculture without using them, our stance is to propose that technology without hesitation. There are infinite possibilities for how to solve problems by combining various technologies, so we will not follow only the route we have found.

What is your message to aspiring entrepreneurs?


I think there will always come a time when you become valued to a certain degree and want to rest on your laurels. But I think it is important to step out from there and always continue to challenge new things.


Be aware that a venture company is not a place to do what you want to do, but a place to do what no one has ever done before. It is also important to have faith in the company's vision and business, and to have the will to do whatever it takes for what you believe in.

(Interviewed in December 2023. Affiliations, positions, etc. are as of the time of the interview)

From the Investment Officer

It is a biodiversity startup that aims to solve global issues such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, rooted in the realities of life and science, and listening to the real issues on the ground. Kyoto-iCAP will continue to support Sunlit and hopes that it will grow strongly as a company that tackles the earth's most difficult issues head-on, but from a unique perspective. Sunlit is looking for companies that are interested in solving their own problems from a "biodiversity" perspective, and for people who are willing to work with us to achieve our vision.

Masahiro Shinohara
Masahiro Shinohara

Masahiro Shinohara

Sunlit Seedlings Ltd. WebsiteSunlit Seedlings.

Sunlit Seedlings Ltd. Website


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