KOTOBUKI Medical: The Story Behind Our Name
KOTOBUKI Medical is a young start-up company that began with the manufacturing of laparoscopic training boxes. Now, the company continues to gain local recognition due to its innovative konjac-based synthetic tissue. KOTOBUKI Medical gained independence from its parent company KOTOBUKI Giken in 2018. A staple in the local manufacturing industry for 40 years, KOTOBUKI Giken provides the backdrop for our dive into why CEO Seiichiro Takayama chose the name for his business.
"Kotobuki means long life, celebration, health, and a myriad of positive messages summed up in one word," Takayama says. "But what does this Japanese word mean to people around the world?"
When considering what to name his new privatized company, Takayama admits he almost abandoned the name "KOTOBUKI" in favor of a more recognizable English word.
"But, after mulling it over quite a bit, I ended up just changing the kanji into a romanized form of the word," he concludes. "I wanted the rest of the world, which has yet to become familiar with the word kotobuki, to instead associate this new vernacular with our products."
The parent company KOTOBUKI Giken (written in Japanese kanji) is named for Takayama's late father. This makes Takayama all the more determined to share KOTOBUKI Medical with the world.
"I want to take the name KOTOBUKI and use it to improve things for doctors, healthcare professionals, and patients around the world," he says. "Just like NINTENDO is synonymous with games and KAWASAKI is synonymous with motorcycles, I want KOTOBUKI to be what comes to people's minds when they think medical training."
The Spirit of Craftsmanship Nurtured in a Small Manufacturing Town
As a manufacturing company, KOTOBUKI Giken traces its roots as a manufacturing company to pre-war Japan.
Takayama remembers his childhood spent riding a tricycle around the factory, which his uncle had inherited. "The nooks and crannies of a factory were the perfect hideouts for a boy my age," he recalls. "I grew up watching the neverending movements of machines, and the figures of my father and my uncle hard at work."
When Takayama started elementary school, his father sought to establish a business on his own. KOTOBUKI Giken was officially constructed in Yashio, Saitama. The small manufacturing town sat on the edge of Adachi-ku, Tokyo. There, Takayama, Sr. built his home and his business, weaving a new life and a new manufacturing business side-by-side.
Now old enough to work part-time, Takayama worked at his father's factory to earn some pocket change. He used his savings to buy used guitars and gadgets for the band he had with his friends. A craftsman himself at heart, Takayama remembers polishing up and modifying the instruments on his own.
"Manufacturing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember," he explains. "I never balked when the topic of taking over the business came up. I had a sort of youthful ambition that I could make the factory even better when my time came to run things."
Yashio was originally known as on of the leading industrial cities in Japan. To this day, the city is well-known for its many manufacturing companies. Most of the factories back then were family-owned, including one small grouping of manufacturing plants called Sanchan Enterprises. Manufacturing was in the blood of Yashio City, and young men like Takayama were expected to follow in their fathers' footsteps.
"You don't need to get wrapped up in higher education," Takayama Sr. often told his teenage son. But Takayama persuaded his father otherwise.
"If I just do the same thing that everyone else has done," he said, "how will I make our company bigger?" Takayama was determined to gain specialized skills in advanced engineering. He entered the Muroran Institute of Technology and aimed for a degree in mechanical engineering.
Life Takes a Turn
In 1988, Takayama was 20 years old and studying hard. Back in Yashio City, KOTOBUKI Giken's sales had hit an all-time high. More than half of these sales were generated from the tires manufactured for Mini 4WD toy cars. Demand was so high, Takayama Sr. struggled to keep up. He hired part-time workers and worked late into the night each day to fulfill his customers' orders.
For his part, Takayama aspired to graduate, work a few years at a large manufacturing company, and use his experiences there as a stepping stone toward taking over his father's work.
Unfortunately, Takayama Sr.'s health took a turn for the worse. Consistent late nights and general overwork aggravated an already serious condition he had suffered for years. As a result, Takayama Sr. collapsed.
Takayama dropped out of school and returned home as soon as he heard the news. Determined to take some of the burden off of his ailing father, he assumed leadership over KOTOBUKI Giken.
"I had no regrets at all," he recollects. "I was just proud of all the networking and experience I'd managed to gain during my two years at university. Instead of being pessimistic about the future, I felt only optimism when I remembered what new skills I'd gleaned for my future."
Happily, Takayama was able to stay close with his friends from university. Instead of having their bonds cut short by this life change, he says his relationships with his former classmates were only made stronger.
By the time Takayama returned to Yashio, the Mini 4WD toy car boom was drawing to an end. Then, Takayama Sr. handed over the title of "Business Manager" to his son. He did so very literally, bequeathing the younger Takayama with business cards declaring him head of the company.
"I call it 'The Phantom Business Card'," Takayama explains. "As a 20-year-old who just dropped out of college, I had some scruples about carrying those business cards around. I barely gave them to anyone back then," he adds with a chuckle.
Still, those cards meant something to Takayama. His father was a gifted craftsman but had little skill in sales pitching. Instead of intending those cards to be used for sales interactions, Takayama Sr. may well have given them as an embodiment of his thanks and his hopes. In the not-so-distant future, Takayama Sr. could imagine his young son becoming the backbone of the family business.
By that time, the Mini 4WD toy car boom had completely ended, and KOTOBUKI Giken's sales decreased to a tenth of what they had been. Due to the incredible revenue the company had acquired during the boom, its performance didn't immediately sink. Still, Takayama knew something had to change. Desperately, he searched for the next big project his newly-inherited company could take on.
It was thanks to this situation that Takayama had the unforgettable experience of fund-raising. Barely half a year into his new position, he was ordered by his father to go take a loan from the bank.
"At the time, I thought my father was crazy," Takayama admits. "Who on earth would expect an inexperienced 20-year-old to take out and fulfill such a large loan? But the sense of responsibility that the loan gave me was what made me a better manager. I knew I had to use that loan wisely. I knew I had to pay it back, no matter what."
Despite his youth and lack of experience, Takayama was successful in attaining the loan. He also managed to raise the funds necessary to stabilize KOTOBUKI Giken.
Forced to Start From Scratch
In March of 1993, the Mini 4WD toy car boom resurged and ebbed once again. KOTOBUKI Giken was renovating in preparation for more business when disaster struck. Sparks from the renovation welding flew up into the attic, and fire quickly followed. On-site attempts to keep the flames in check failed, and the fire department was called.
Help arrived too late. The then 31-year-old Takayama could only stand outside and watch helplessly as his factory burned to the ground. His father stood next to him, stunned and silent. For some reason, Takayama himself could only think about how he would be able to outsource next week's workload.
"I think that was just my way to escape reality," Takayama laughs. "In my mind, I determined that the building may burn down, but the company won't fail. I refused to let it fail. Actually, I won't forget how determined I felt at that moment as I stared at the wreckage of my factory. I thought, 'Okay! Let's do this.'"
Over the next few months, Takayama was able to rebuild the factory with the help of local friends. KOTOBUKI Giken acquired new clients and became known for dutifully and promptly filling out any orders that came in. Then, in 2005, Takayama officially became president of the company.
Nine years passed without much trouble. But in 2008, the Great Recession hit Japan in force. KOTOBUKI Giken's sales plummeted. Not to be daunted, Takayama himself went to each of his clients in turn.
"Would it be possible for you to order from us?" he asked. But hard times were being felt all around. Each time, the request was met with staunch refusal. Only then did Takayama begin to feel overwhelmed.
"Despite everything I had overcome so far, I felt my gained experiences were utterly useless," he admits. "So, I decided to hit the reset button. I wanted to bet everything on products made in my own company, by my own power. If my hard work up until this point wasn't enough...well, I just had to work even harder. It was time for yet another new start."
Three years passed without much success, as Takayama explored the industries of leisure, biotechnology, and architecture.
Entering the Med Tech Industry
At that point, Takayama was approached by a friend in the medical field who believed KOTOBUKI Giken could fulfill a specific need in the industry. Laparascopic surgery needed more technique-specific training devices, the friend said. He believed KOTOBUKI Giken had the materials and expertise needed to create those training tools.
Takayama leaped into action, listening carefully to medical professionals and devising a device suitable to their needs. To ensure he understood every possible angle of what surgeons were looking for, he often approached them directly with product schematics. The result was a perfect fit: Takayama designed KOTOBUKI Giken's first laparoscopic training boxes.
The Birth of VTT Technology
Production of laparoscopic training boxes kicked off a boost in KOTOBUKI Giken's sales. As a result, the company began accumulating a track record of appearances at medical exhibitions and conferences. But Takayama wasn't finished yet. He wanted to keep creating new things.
"At the time, I was brainstorming for the next big product," he recalls. "By chance, I saw on the news that the traditional Japanese dish, raw liver, had been banned due to repeated outbreaks of food poisoning. To appease customer needs, restaurants were using konjac as a substitute for the coveted dish."
Konjac is a food created from an East Asian tuber plant. The konjac potato is used in China, Japan, and other East Asian countries as a fiber-packed ingredient in various dishes. Japan especially has a long history with konjac; vegetarian Buddhist monks used to grind the tuber up and turned it into a gelatinous meat substitute. Konjac is still a staple in traditional Japanese food to this day.
Noting how chefs had substituted raw liver with konjac, Takayama was suddenly struck with an idea. "I wondered if konjac could be used to synthesize human organs," he said.
Takayama received help from Professor Kawahira at the Jichi Medical University's Simulation Center and Professor Nakamura at Tokyo University's Institute of Biomaterials and Bioengineering. In 2017, after four years and more than 1,000 prototypes, the first synthetic konjac organ was developed.
The synthesized tissue mimicked human tissue closely due to its elasticity, softness, and how it naturally tore under a certain amount of pressure. Better yet, Takayama was confident that he could use the moldable konjac ingredients to recreate any part of the human body. For that reason, he decided to call the new product "VTT" or "Versatile Training Tissue."
"Up until that point, I thought success simply lay in filling out a client's requests," Takayama muses. "As long as I could stick to the technology and fill out the client's schematics, I was satisfied. But that very cycle limited the company's potential. I never considered we could make something so unique on our own."
He adds, "Still, there are a lot of perks in sticking to management plans. I managed to keep my eyes on the prize by sticking to the plans I'd written down for my company. I think having specific long-term goals is one of the most important things a company can do. After a year, I was able to look back and consider what went well and what didn't, what we achieved and what we couldn't."
The realization was important, Takayama says, even if he made it only by the age of 40. "Creating your product or brand isn't just about making something new," he explains. "We also have to create and live up to our goals."
KOTOBUKI Medical's Foundation and Establishment
The world is rife with business owners who want to break away from subcontracting and rely on their own products. The path to achieving this dream, however, is a tough one.
Reflecting on his launch of the medical training project, Takayama says, "Honestly, I think the factors that largely helped me along the way were luck and the connections I had with the right people."
One of those first major connections was Hajime Sugiura, a business advisor who had successfully helped many start-up companies during his accomplished career. Sugiura joined the management team first, followed closely by Hirotoshi Umemoto, who had been an active and accomplished salesman for major medical manufacturing companies up until that point.
Equipped with such talent and expertise, Takayama was able to fully establish a new medical training division in his company. In 2018, the division was incorporated officially. Sadly, Takayama Sr. passed away right before KOTOBUKI Medical was officially established. Although he never had the chance to say so, people who knew Takayama Sr. said that he was very proud of the new company his son had created.
In June of 2019, KOTOBUKI Medical officially embarked on a crowdfunding challenge. The company presented its business on the crowdfunding platform FUNDINNO. The minimum funding milestone of 25 million yen (around $186,000) was achieved within just a few minutes of the project going live. Within 26 hours, KOTOBUKI Medical had received 90 million yen, or $671,000. This was the highest crowd-funding amount ever achieved in Japanese history.
By 2020, word of the innovative VTT technology began to spread into the international med-tech industry. KOTOBUKI Medical secured contracts with some of the world's largest medical device manufacturers. With a laparoscopic training device and a unique synthetic tissue derived from konjac, Takayama is on the path to achieving his dream: having the world recognize the name "KOTOBUKI" as a leader in the medical training field.