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04/24/2020

Living and learning in the Reiwa Era

‘Unicorn’ president believes passion, obsession drive innovation

Preferred Networks Inc. President and CEO Toru Nishikawa (right) and University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Ikuo Takeuchi discuss what kind of workers are likely to succeed in information technology.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s MITOU Program, known in English as the Exploratory IT Human Resources Project, has produced a unique talent pool for the past 20 years or so since its launch. It is administered by the ministry’s Information-technology Promotion Agency, Japan.

This article is the second installment in a two-part series (the first was published on April 16) in which Toru Nishikawa, the president and CEO of Preferred Networks Inc. (PFN) and University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Ikuo Takeuchi discuss topics including the future of education in Japan.

Nishikawa qualified for the MITOU Program in fiscal 2005 and later co-founded PFN. Takeuchi has been involved in the program since its inception.

Fascinated by programming

Takeuchi: What kind of boy were you when you were young?

Nishikawa: I became interested in PCs around the fourth grade. My father had an introductory book on (the programming language) BASIC. I picked it up and I was immediately hooked. My parents wouldn’t buy me a PC, so I would play around with source code on a piece of paper.

After I got my own PC, I spent days programming. Then, I gradually became curious about the more fundamental aspects of computing, not just programming — like how computers work in the first place? From there, my interest grew in the direction of networks and hardware. I didn’t think twice about joining the Hiraki lab (professor Kei Hiraki’s lab at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Information Science and Technology).

Takeuchi: It’s an interesting lab. I hear the professor still visits your company.

Nishikawa: Yes, he does. Actually, he works for us full time.

Takeuchi: So, you asked him to join PFN?

Nishikawa: No, he first told me he wanted to talk about something and visited our office. Until then, he had advised us on analogue aspects, like the handling of processor boards and high frequencies and things like that.

One day, he told us he wanted to develop a supercomputer with PFN. He now gives lectures to our members once a month or so.

Takeuchi: Am I correct in remembering that you met (PFN co-founder and Vice President Daisuke) Okanohara in college?

Nishikawa: Correct. We were in the same class in the first year, and our relationship has continued to this day.

He said he wanted to run an application on a search engine he developed through the MITOU Program. While I helped him with that, we started discussing our dream of creating a sophisticated search engine and launching a business around it.

Takeuchi: So, that led you to establish (PFN predecessor) Preferred Infrastructure (PFI), right? I understand you launched the business when you were in graduate school. What were your career plans at the time?

Nishikawa: At the time, I was interested in IBM or Intel. While I was working part-time for a bio startup, this experience helped me realize it was possible to work with a small team that enabled me to do and approach things I wanted to in ways I liked. That’s why I decided to start a company, but I had little funding. Starting a company wouldn’t have been possible without MITOU’s support.

Support in early years

Takeuchi: So, the business took off smoothly?

Nishikawa: No, not at all. The founding members were all engineers. We had zero knowledge about making money, let alone how to establish a company.

That’s where MITOU’s support proved helpful. The program referred us to experts who could give us advice about things involved in starting a company, like legal, financial or intellectual property matters. An accounting firm that helped us back in those days is still doing some work for us.

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