In June 2016 we had the opportunity to meet Dr. Yamazaki, probably the most prolific inventor ever. This is what we talked about during a long chat.
This is the story of a researcher who saw the dawn of the semiconductor era. In 1967 Dr. Yamazaki completed the Master’s Degree Program at Doshisha University Graduate School of Engineering. In 1970, while being a Ph.D. student at Doshisha University, he invented a non-volatile memory element using a Si floating gate with a control gate known as “flash memory”. Since then, he has devoted himself to the R&D of silicon-related technologies. As far as his background is concerned, Dr. Yamazaki vividly recalls the importance, as a student, of his mentors, who inspired him on the path to follow regarding his career as an inventor and entrepreneur. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that most of his inventions are mostly in semiconductor technology and that one of his mentors, Dr. Kato, was a leader in the development of Japan’s booming electrochemical and semiconductor industry.
But Dr. Yamazaki also owes to Dr. Yogoro Kato the philosophy of “Creation, Science, and Education”, which postulates the importance of facing problems with a pure heart and a clear conscience when creating technologies that are beneficial to society, and ever since, Dr. Yamazaki adopted this philosophy to conceive inventions serving humanity rather than just making profits.
In 1971 he received his Ph.D. in Engineering, and already carrying 34 patents to his name (amongst which the memory), he joined TDK Corporation (formerly known as Tokyo Denki Kagaku Kogyo K.K) in the semiconductor subsidiary, the same company which in 1980 invested in Dr. Yamazaki by establishing the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory Co., Ltd. (“SEL”) for which he serves as President.
SEL has an R&D department, and an IP Center, managing thousands of patents, and, given this large number, we asked what is the process to recognize which technologies are patent worthy and which are not and how to build such a large portfolio.
Dr. Yamazaki believes that one of the most important skills is to understand early on if a technology is worth patenting or not but he also observes that this is a skill he only acquired through experience and past failures.
For example, he recalls the bad timing of the memory patent; a technology nowadays present in all of our electronic devices, and invented when he was a 28-years-old Ph.D. student at Doshisha University. Of course, now the memory has a huge market, but at the time it was invented production costs were too high for mass production. It was Toshiba’s invention of NAND flash memory in 1991 that was obtained by configuring an analog circuit with the memory element. With expiration of his previous patents, the flash memory was able to generate profits, and be mass produced.
As a result, Dr. Yamazaki’s invention didn’t receive any awards or prizes; there was however an upside to the story, as he still managed to receive some royalties for it by Intel, also contributing to the foundation of SEL.
SEL’s method behind the management of patents follows a paradigm that Dr. Yamazaki calls “the agricultural model”. Indeed, Dr. Yamazaki claims that there are mainly two business models for managing patents and R&D: one is the “hunting model” and the other is the agricultural one.
The first is a business model based on exploiting an invention in fields occupied by others, patenting it and reaping the royalties from that invention. The problem behind this is that these “hunters” are not really the ones contributing to society through the technology and furthermore they usually just make profits and never reinvest their gains for furthering R&D, basically making pure profit the only goal; these are what Dr. Yamazaki defines as patent trolls, a model which today he claims is having a very bad reputation.
On the other side you have the agricultural model, first taught by Dr. Kato, which follows the cycle of growing a technology like you nurture a plant.
At first you have to obtain the seeds, afterwards you grow the plant, and upon maturity instead of simply selling the fruit of your work you foster the seeds that will be the basis for the next generation of plants; and so it goes also for inventions and R&D: each invention constitutes the seed for the next one, a cycle which brings continuous innovation and contribution to society.
This model, contrarily to the hunting model, does not generate mere profits and fast gains, but requires the company to reinvest in the next cycle of R&D with the goal of creating a real industry.
This model takes a lot of time to be implemented, engineers and ultimately good people; it’s very tough to succeed in this model as there are few chances of success, but, Dr. Yamazaki claims, when he thinks about his life theme of contributing to society, this is the business model he has sought during his entire life.
Following the agricultural model, and after introducing the open innovation business paradigm, we asked Dr. Yamazaki to possibly provide advice to universities and individual inventors on how and when to get in touch with companies regarding their inventions.
In this regard, Dr. Yamazaki believes that even though someone obtains the seed, before contacting a company, that seed must be improved, which is the hardest part of the agricultural model. Just having a promising seed is not enough for mass production. In fact, it must be improved and nurtured before companies might be seriously interested, and he believes this is something that university professors and individuals sometimes do not fully understand.
Dr. Yamazaki, in his entire working life, obtained an average of 2,000 patents for every 10 years of activity (for a total of more than 11000 patents overall), a mind-blowing number. We then asked him the “secret” to have so many ideas and be able to successfully translate them into usable technologies. Dr. Yamazaki recalls he read a lot about Thomas Edison’s life, and how he was told that a business based on inventions would never succeed or that it will be very difficult. Nonetheless, Edison managed to become one of history’s greatest and most prolific inventors, but Dr. Yamazaki adds Edison was somewhat lucky as he lived through one of history’s most booming moments, technologically speaking: the birth of electronics.
Dr. Yamazaki claims that he himself, like Edison, was also lucky as far as timing was concerned as he started his activity in the period subsequent WW2 when Japan’s industry was growing very fast and semiconductor technologies witnessed an incredible growth; a typical case of being in the right place at the right time, like Edison.
We also asked Dr. Yamazaki to advice young inventors that wish to pursue a career like his, and his response was pretty adamant: be ready and prepared when the time comes. Like athletes start from very young age by choosing their career by choosing a sport, inventors must make this kind of choice early on and realize what kind of possibilities the future might hold for them.
They also need to have a stage on which to perform, for example, athletes now will have the Olympic Games in Japan, Tokyo2020, for which they need to work starting 4 years before, and in the same way inventors need a stage on which they could showcase their technologies, and be ready for when the opportunity arises. It is also important to find the right support, and Dr. Yamazaki recalls he had his three mentors in his youth and afterwards, during his career, he hired people who could support him by offering complementary skills; thus, finding the right team is crucial, like Edison though about his lab.
On the other hand, Dr. Yamazaki, adds that finding this kind of support sometimes happens by chance, it is about meeting many people and at the end finding the one with whom you develop a relationship and share similar thoughts. Dr. Kato, for example, used to have around 50 people in his research center, but at the end only two or three ended up really working with him afterwards, as many other were either not interested or did not have the skills required by Dr. Kato.
To conclude, our interview, we finally asked Dr. Yamazaki which invention he recalls as the most significant for the social impact it had, and which has been the most profitable.
In terms of profitability, mentions refer to an invention about the silicon contact structure for which a patent has been filed just 13 days before Intel did, an invention that was used for E/D MOSFET as a silicon gate/lead device (where the gate and the lead for source/drain are formed at the same time) of a fundamental LSI of Intel in their manufacturing process and ended up being the most profitable for his company.
In terms of social impact and needs, Dr. Yamazaki believes that IGZO, a recent technology utilized in displays, is the probably one that will contribute the most to humanity in the next 5 years, as he believes this is the display technology that ultimately meets the requirements of the market and it is the easiest to mass manufacture, effectively replacing current technologies in the market.
The interview was then concluded, the tea fully sipped, and we were finally ready to take a look at SEL’s internal showcase of latest technologies. A real paradise for tech geeks. Thank you Dr. Yamazaki for the wonderful opportunity you gave to the EU-Japan Technology Transfer Helpdesk and to our readers to share some bits of your outstanding achievements.
President Yamazaki completed the Master’s Degree Program at Doshisha University Graduate School of Engineering in 1967. In 1970, while being a Ph.D. student at Doshisha University, he invented a non-volatile memory element using a Si floating gate with a control gate known as “flash memory”. Since then, he has devoted himself to R&D of silicon-related technology. In 1971, he received his Ph.D. in Engineering and joined the TDK Corporation (formerly known as Tokyo Denki Kagaku Kogyo K.K). In 1980, he established the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory Co., Ltd. (SEL) and assumed the position of President. In March 2011, he renewed his own Guinness world record from 2004 with a new world record of 6,314 patents. He is a Life Fellow of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA), and he received an Honorary Doctor Degree of Culture from Doshisha University. He is also a member of Doshisha Shayu, the distinguished contributors to the Doshisha. He is the inventor or co-inventor of over 10,000 patents as of the end of March 2016 (researched by SEL). Dr. Yamazaki is the President of SEL. The history of the company begins in 1980 with the R&D of solar batteries. Since then, they have expanded their R&D fields to liquid crystal displays, organic EL displays and thin film integrated circuits. In recent years, they also pioneered a new field of research on electronics involving oxide semiconductors.