Interview with Shuji Nakamura -- "The more I fall into the quagmire, the more ideas I get"

Interview with Shuji Nakamura

Apr 9, 2001

Shuji Nakamura
Professor Materials Department University of California Santa Barbara

Mr. Shuji Nakamura is an inventor of blue LED. He entered Nichia after obtaining a master's degree from University of Tokushima in 1979. He undertook the manufacturing of chemical semiconductors GaP and GaAa at Nichia and was sent to University of Florida in the U.S. as researcher. After returning to Japan in 1989, he started the development of a thin film made of the GaN material by using MOCVD devices, and succeeded in the creation of a GaN film in 1990. This development became the base of the release of the blue LED product that surprised the world in November 1993. Until he left Nichia in December 27, 1999, he developed blue, purple laser by using GaN semiconductors. By early 1999, he succeeded in the sample shipping of the blue LED product for the first time in history. Mr. Nakamura joined University of California Santa Barbara as professor in February 2000.

Q: It has been one year since you moved to University of California Santa Barbara as professor after leaving Nichia Corp. where you worked for twenty years. What is the most notable change during the past year?

A:Compared to the time I was at Nichia, I am now three times busier. Right before quitting my previous job, I had nothing to do in front of my desk, unable to directly involve myself in researches because all instructions were given from my boss to my subordinates, passing straight through me. Since moving to the university, I have been coming to the office as early as six in the morning and working until ten in the evening. I work even on holidays and I have no time to relax.

Q: You have decided to move to the U.S. because you saw that there were limits to the Japanese system that did not fairly assess the achievements of individual engineers. Have you changed your views on the Japanese system since then?

A:I feel stronger than ever that Japan lacks freedom. Here in the U.S., there are no rank relationships when doing researches. This country truly operates on the merit system and liberalism. Students and professors work on researches on even terms as researchers. Unlike in the U.S., seniority exerts great influence in Japan and rank relationships are formed based on titles. The fact that rank-and-file employees can rarely have the opportunity to directly talk with the company president well represents Japan's lingering outdated system.

Q: Do you think that the ways you do researches as professor of the university have changed dramatically compared to the time you worked as researcher of Nichia?

A:Now, I must study more the logics of context behind a certain phenomenon. When I was working at Nichia, I had to place priority on creating new products rather than investigating logics. Working in a university is different because I cannot teach my students unless I completely understand the logics. From this year, I have been giving 90 minutes lectures to seven to eight students in doctoral programs twice a week. Preparations for the lectures require an incredible amount of time and effort. Every time before the class begins, I have anxiety over whether I am really capable of teaching them. I had never had the experience of giving lectures and had never been fond of teaching people in a formal way. But once started teaching at the university, I began to realize that I could learn a lot by teaching others.

Q: Which means that you can learn from interacting with students?

A:When I give assignments to students, they come back with answers that are so difficult that I have hard time comprehending them. Depending on the area of subject, there are times in which students know more than I do. When I recall the time I was a student, I cannot help but stagger. So, I, as professor, must always study as hard as my students. In an attempt to outpace my students, I naturally make my utmost effort, which helps me make further advancements. I figure that the reason why the students have such a high motivation is that they know exactly what they want to do after their graduation. I hired five students to be my research assistants. Most of them said to me with confidence in the first meeting that they would wnat to start up a venture business after developing a technology to create a GaN bulk board. In the U.S., I think that the more scholastic ability the student has, the more he or she desires to be independent. Most of the students, who said before their enrollment in a doctoral program that they wanted to remain in the university to become a professor, changed their mind to become more independent by the time of their graduation. Giving this fact, universities often evaluate students for admission based on their intention to start up a business in the future. Students who say, "I want to work at a large company," are often not perceived well.

Q:When the laboratory currently under construction is completed, you will start in earnest a life centered on researches. Are you now preparing yourself for the new start?

A:Yes. In order for the laboratory to come on-stream, I will need to do fundraising, while still giving lectures at the university. My research expenditure has already reached bottom. When I officially became a professor, I spent all my reserve fund that was provided by the university for the construction of the laboratory. Right now, I am tied up to fundraising and lectures. Honestly, I cannot image how busy I will be once the laboratory is completed.

Q: What you really want to do is researches. In order to do researches, fund-raising and giving lectures are necessary steps?

A:This university is very severe. It only gave me a nine-month worth salary, and I am responsible for all the other necessary expenditures. I have already used all my reserve money, and I must now make my money on my own for all my researches. The employment cost for the five students and assistants who I hired is about 200,000 dollars per year. When adding facilities and maintenance expenditures, the amount I need per year exceeds 100 million yen, which I am completely responsible for. I must make this amount of money on my own, or I will go bankruptcy.

Q: If Transmeta didn't allow you to work on Linux while working here, would you have joined them?

A:That was one of my requirements, that I'd get to continue doing Linux. I could have done it on my own time. It just helps a lot, if the company allows me to do it at work time and I don't have to worry about having to use a different Internet account for my Linux work and my Work work because it becomes fairly nasty.

Q: It sounds like doing researches as professor is the same as running a business of your own.

A:You are right. A university professor is like a company president. The top priority is always fundraising to continue researches.

Q:Compared to the time you spent most of your time in researches at Nichia, the time you can spend on researches now is inevitably much less.

A:Of course, I have little time for my researches.

Q:So, why then do you still want to stick to the university? We heard that you had been offered 500 million yen by a company as an outfit allowance before leaving Nichia.

A:What I really wanted to get was freedom. It is normal for professors in the U.S. to serve a couple of companies as consultant. What is more, they can start up a business at anytime when they achieve a good research result. In fact, about half the professors in the U.S. run their own company. As long as they have a talent, they are free to do anything. The more effort they make, the more they can make money. The money they receive from their university is like their pocket money. On the other hand, companies, especially Japanese companies, impose too many restrictions on employees wanting to do researches and businesses in their own unique ways. The employees are not allowed to ignore the orders of their company president. Maybe they can ignore them to a certain extent, but there are limits to such an attempt. This inclination gets stronger as the company becomes larger.

Engaging in competition by starting from scratch

Q: What is your current objective in your life?

A:For the time being, I want to be able to do my work on the same level as other professors around me. It will probably take me five years. Meanwhile, I am planning to invent the next type of a devise by using GaN that I have researched up to date so that I can give myself sometime to adjust to the new environment. In this way, it would be easier for me to raise funds from companies. For example, I could develop white LED for lightning. But I would eventually want to develop a new device from a totally new material, not from GaN. That would be the real start of my research.

Q:Don't you have any desire to stick to GaN that you invented?

A:I don't think I want to do anything any further with GaN personally. As with the time when I developed GaAs (gallium arsenide), many researchers began to choose GaN as their research theme. Once other researchers started entering into the same field, they would have to engage in fierce competition to show their research achievement. It will be even harder for me to engage in such competition, as it will take one year for the completion of my laboratory. What is more about GaN is that it has already passed the stage of its basic researches. GaN will be developed further mostly with the current technology available. That is why I feel that I want to move onto something totally new with a totally new material just like when I started my research on GaN, which no one else at that time paid attention to. But at this moment, I have no idea about what to develop and what material to use for my next new research.

Q: So, despite the remarkable accomplishment you made with GaN, do you still want to cast it away and engaged in a new race from scratch?

A:Even when I look over my past, the cycle of my research has been three to four years. It is my nature to feel that I am behind when I don't start doing something new.

Q:Mr. Linus Torvalds felt that he wanted to do something new when his invention "Linux" was gradually being commercialized in the market, and he decided to work at Transmeta Corp. of the U.S. You are similar to him in that way?

A:I agree.

Q: Aren't you interested in whether your research accomplishment will successfully be commercialized in the market?

A:Of course, I am interested in that. But I feel that if I remain at the level of commercialization, I will become "dumb."

Q: Do you have confidence in developing something remarkable like your last invention of blue LED?

A:I don't have strong confidence, but when I put myself in a predicament, I usually get power from the bottom of myself to climb up. All four or five research accomplishments I made were the products of my ideas that came into my mind during my quandary period. I believe that when I put myself in the same sort of environment, I will be able to exert my real power again. That is probably the main reason why I came to the U.S. I cannot converse well in English and I have to take time ten times as much to read literary documents compared to native English speakers around me. In my case, I cannot do anything new when I am totally happy, but only fail. For example, when I finally led my invention to commercialization, I suddenly felt relieved and ended up producing piles of defective products.

"I would want to use a new material, if I were to start up a new business."

Q: Do you have a desire to start up a business?

A: When I first arrived here, I received a number of phone calls from investors for a couple of months. They said they would give me a couple or several hundred millions so that I should start up a business. But I rejected all the offers. Whether I will be able to start up a new business depends on the result of my researches. If I produce good results, I will have a good chance of launching a business.

Q:Depending on the results of your continuous research on GaN, do you think that you may start a business before beginning your development of a new material?

A:There will absolutely be no chance that I will do that. It is possible that my pupils will start a business by using GaN, but I don't have any intention of doing it myself. If I were to start a business, it would be by using a new material that I invent.

Q: Is there a possibility that you will work for a large company if you get a good offer?

A:Absolutely not. Nothing good comes of working at a large company. I felt it strongly after coming to the U.S. The more I get to know about the U.S., the more I realize that there is no appeal to large companies. There is no difference in the amount of money you get between working at large companies and venture businesses. But with venture companies, you have brighter perspectives due to stock options. Even if your venture business goes bankruptcy, you can still start up another new business because investors provide the funds. In contrast, large companies offer little possibility for your shares to soar, even if they have the stock option system. That is why almost all talented people prefer venture businesses.

Let's quit your company

Q:So, what do you think engineers working at Japanese companies should do?

A:I think that Japanese engineers should quit their company with a positive prospect. Their compensations are bad because they all work until their retirement age. If they change their jobs more often, companies will start making an effort to keep their talented employees. It is the same as declarations by baseball free agents. Outstanding engineers should all go to the U.S. so that Japan will make a national strategy to do something about it.

Q: Do you think that companies can change, if individual engineers make an effort to change themselves?

A:I myself was a very loyal employee right before I quitted Nichia. Japanese people in general give faith to their supervisors. It is probably that their faithfulness is written in their genes and they have not been able to erase them. This gene is still alive at the company level. It is no easy matter to destroy it. But each engineer must take an action otherwise nothing will change forever.

Q:Do you have an intention to start up a business with the aim of changing the old Japanese corporate culture?

A:Even if I took an action to start up a company, the Japanese system at large would not change. I think that I will probably go back to Japan once I can no longer do any good job. After all, I am Japanese. But I have never thought about my retirement yet.

Interviewed by Naoki Asami, Editor-in-Chief of Nikkei Electronics