December 31, 2004


JFS Biomimicry Interview Series: No.3 Sekisui Nature-TechFoundation Program

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.28 (December 2004)
Technologies Learned from Living Things: Concepts and Examples - Front Line Reports

Sekisui Chemical Co., a leading Japanese maker of plastic products and prefabricated housing, launched the Sekisui Nature-Tech Foundation Program in 2002. This program provides research grants totaling 20 million yen (US$ 180,000) annually for technologies learned from nature. We interviewed Kazuo Maejima and Kazuhiko Shiratori, directors of the program, and Kayoko Aihara, a public relations officer. They hope to promote a new type of scientific technology in the 21st century.

Q. Your focus has been on unique technology learned from nature.

So far, the development of the chemical industry has been based on that magical material, petroleum, but it is believed that petroleum resources will be depleted in the near future. We are also faced with a variety of environmental problems including global warming. Sekisui Chemical considers environmental management as one of the main underpinnings of our business policy, so we launched a research grant program targeting technologies learned from nature in our 55th anniversary year. Living organisms and other natural phenomena have long been adapted to the earth's environment. It follows that technologies learned from nature must be appropriate for creating a sustainable society. We are inviting researchers from a wide range of fields, such as biotechnology that imitates natural creatures and material sciences that use renewable resources, to join the program.

Q. What response have you had in the three years since you started the program?

The total number of applications for fiscal 2004 has almost doubled to 231 from the 124 we received in the first year. Many people from a wide range of sectors, for example from universities, environmental NGOs and research institutes working on state-of-the-art technologies, have been paying attention to technology learned from nature. For example, a research grant was awarded in 2002 by the 21st Century COE (center of excellence) program of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for a study "Nature-Guided Material Processing" at Nagoya University led by Prof. Shigeo Asai (

Since fiscal 2003, we have also been holding an annual forum where the researchers who receive our grants get together and present their research. We believe that this forum provides a venue for them to communicate and exchange information and ideas with each other. We have seen a case where an agriculture researcher and an engineering researcher who met at the forum ended up starting a joint research project. Our hope is to contribute to developing Biomimicry as integrated science by establishing an interdisciplinary network among science, engineering, agriculture, pharmacy, medicine and other disciplines.

Q: Besides holding the annual forum, how else do you encourage communication?

We arrange to publish reports of our grant recipients' research projects in a Japanese science magazine, Newton, and we also post them on Sekisui Chemical's website. So far, studies on structural color development learned from jewel beetles (Chrysochroa fulgidissima), on mechanisms of micro-machines learned from water beetles, on utilization of phosphorous resources learned from peanuts, etc., have been published in the magazine and/or posted on the website. We have heard that researchers have plenty of opportunities to present their work to experts in their own fields but few ways to communicate with the general public. In view of this, some of them have expressed appreciation for our efforts to get their work published in Newton magazine or posted on Sekisui's website as ways to communicate with a wide range of people.

We also publish an annual booklet that describes grant recipients' research projects, including reports of their post-grant progress. This booklet is used as supplementary material in university classes and as educational material for a science and technology experience program for high school students sponsored by the Japan Science Foundation, called "Science Camp."

Q: You have also been recognized for good design in communications, haven't you?

Yes, we were awarded the Ecology Design Prize in the Good Design Award 2004, which is sponsored by the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organization. So far, corporations have generally promoted management designed to make a contribution to protecting the environment, that is, ecologically friendly business. In contrast, our program pursues the application of technologies learned from nature to business. We believe that this will in future constitute the real ecological business and the originality of this idea won us the prize. We plan to collaborate with researchers to develop this program into a research and development business.

Ecology Design Prize in the Good Design Award 2004

We also hope to accept applications from overseas in future. Moreover, we will be looking for interdisciplinary research projects, such as collaboration between medical and engineering researchers. To set up this kind of project, venues where relevant researchers can meet and exchange information will also be needed, so we will hope to be able to offer such opportunities in addition to our annual forum.

After the Interview--What JFS Learned

The "Sekisui Nature-Tech Foundation Program" has the following features:
- It contributes to creating a sustainable society by utilizing the wisdom of nature, which is both harmless and highly functional;
- With the aim of developing integrated science, it seeks to establish a network that supercedes national borders as well as the borders between different professional fields;
- It proposes the innovative idea of "applying technologies from natural ecology to business."

For further progress of this program, Sekisui Chemical is expected to: - Develop products utilizing nature's wisdom
- Provide researchers and the next generation of youth with more opportunities to learn from nature.

(Interviewer: Keiko Hoshino)

*This interview series is supported by the Hitachi Environmental Foundation.