Bloomberg View: To Get Good Ideas, Pay for Them, by William Pesek
This post originally appeared in Bloomberg View on October 10, 2014.
Earlier this week, Japan’s media were exultant over a Nobel Prize in Physics award to three native sons. So it came as a shock when, rather than pop another champagne cork, co-honoree Shuji Nakamura poured cold water on the fete.
From his perch at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the 60-year-old scientist unloaded to a pack of giddy Japanese reporters about how Japan stymies the kind of innovation for which he was honored by the Nobel committee. In Silicon Valley, where he moved in 1999, “everyone has a chance to dream the American dream,” he said. “Everyone has the chance if you work very hard.”
This month, as the current Diet session gets underway in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces an ideal opportunity to catalyze the kind of changes Nakamura is advocating. Abe has pledged to lay out the specifics of his structural reform drive, which relies heavily on corporate tax cuts and reducing red tape. But he’s been quiet on one reform that truly would encourage the risk-taking culture Japan needs so badly: making sure employees get paid for their inventions.
Nakamura’s experience tells the story. Before heading to the U.S., where he’s now a citizen, Nakamura spent 20 years at Nichia Corp., a small lighting-product company on the southern island of Shikoku. It was there that he made a major breakthrough in blue-LED technology, for which he shared the Nobel. In 1990, Nichia patented Nakamura’s advances, and the profits rolled in.