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"From catching fisheries to raising fisheries". What is the world that UMITRON is aiming for through the insight and technology gained from visiting aquaculture sites?


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“From catching fisheries to raising fisheries”

Mr. Ken Fujiwara, who is working to solve the problems in the aquaculture industry within the fisheries industry, explains.

According to the FY2021 Fisheries White Paper White Paper published by the Fisheries Agency, global fisheries and aquaculture production is growing rapidly. The aquaculture industry is expected to account for about half of the total production in FY2020. We interviewed Mr. Ken Fujiwara, Co-founder/CEO of UMITRON PTE LTD., which uses remote sensing technology to solve problems in the aquaculture industry, a hot topic in this industry.

Focusing on solving problems in aquaculture, one of the growing industries

Could you give us an overview of UMITRON's business?

We develop products that specialize in solving problems in the aquaculture industry.  By introducing technologies such as AI and satellite data to the aquaculture industry that raises fish in the sea, we are working to improve production efficiency and reduce environmental impact. In addition to products dedicated to solving problems in the aquaculture industry, we have also launched Umi to Sachi, a seafood brand, using UMITRON's technology. We also sell sustainable seafood to general consumers through mass retailers and restaurants.

What made you focus on aquaculture in the fisheries industry?

In the fisheries industry, the global catch of natural resources is said to have reached its limit in the number of marine resources, as output has been flat for a long time on a global scale. We see this as an area where catch management and regulations will become more stringent in the future. On the other hand, aquaculture is one of the growing industries meeting the world's expanding supply of the world's demand for marine products. The shift from acquiring fisheries to raising fisheries is a global trend, so we are focusing on the aquaculture industry because of the potential impact we can support through technology.

Smart fish measurement system "UMITRON LENS": Illustration of analysis image

What are the joys of competing as a startup in the primary industry field?

I find it interesting to be a part of nurturing living things. I have a background in aerospace engineering and space development, fields utilizing academic knowledge such as thermodynamics and material mechanics to develop rockets, satellites, and ground antennas. I believe that the field of space development having contact with living organisms will not start unless aliens are found. I also like living things, and when discussing technology and living things, I also like living organisms. In the discussion of technology and living organisms, I am very interested in what influences the growth of living organisms and how technology can solve these factors. One of the joys of competing as a startup in the primary industry is always having the perspective of the fusion of technology and living organisms.

Could you tell us some challenges you have faced since the company's founding?

It's always a difficult time, but I remember it well around 2016, right after the company was founded. I had no contact with the aquaculture industry before, so my university professor introduced me to Ehime Production Laboratory and producers. Since then, I've had a strong desire to develop products from a problem-oriented point of view by going to the site and not just developing products out of the box, so I immersed myself in aquaculture sites.

There was a lodging facility for researchers in the university's research facility, where I stayed for about three months, working on the prototype development while interviewing people who were engaged in aquaculture businesses in the town. At the time, there were only three founding members; I was the only one on the site, with Mr. Yamada working on business development, while Mr. Okamoto was working on software development from his home in Tokyo. That period was the most difficult, and I still remember it.

UMITRON announced Umi to Sachi in 2021, and the news of offering AI Sakuradai and AI Hamachi at Kurazushi also made headlines. What inspired you to start selling marine products that reach consumers?

The trigger was the impact of the new coronavirus infection, which in 2020 led to the suspension of business at many restaurants as restrictions on activities began to take effect. As a result, this led to a large stockpile of inventory in the aquaculture business wholesale to these restaurants. In our efforts to solve the problems of the aquaculture industry, it became apparent that a significant issue was the need to establish a solid commercial distribution system. If the commercial distribution infrastructure is one of the issues faced by producers at aquaculture sites, the sustainable seafood brand Umi to Sachi was started with the idea that, as UMITRON, we should not only provide products for aquaculture farmers but also have access the retail industry.

  • Delicious
  • Reliable
  • Sustainable

We provide consumers with farmed fish that combine these three points.

My view, as well as UMITRON's, is that technology and services ultimately lead to consumers. I have long thought that I want to work with the end user for technology to ultimately provide significant value to the world. As of 2020, that part has emerged as a significant challenge in the field, so we started our retail business.

Sustainable Seafood Brand “Umi to Sachi”
Credit: Credit: UMITRON PTE LTD.

As a student, I wondered how artificial satellites could contribute to end-users.

How do you spend your weekends refreshing yourself?

I spend weekends with my children. I have two sons, a 4th grader and a 2nd grader, and they are both into baseball right now. On weekends, I take my kids to their baseball practice and join the team to coach them. Playing baseball all day long is tiring, but it is also refreshing.

You coach as well! Do you have experience coaching baseball in the past?

I don't do advanced coaching. It's a team of elementary school 4th graders and younger, so I go in and play catch with them, correct them on how to throw, and give them advice on defense.

What kind of things did you think about when you were a student?

As an undergraduate student, I was immersed in small satellite development. From the time I participated in the CanSat project in my third year of undergraduate school until I graduated from graduate school, I had been thinking about developing small satellites. A point that made me think a lot during that development experience was that without a mission (*), a small satellite is just a box to be launched. A satellite consists of a bus section and a mission section, and the mission section is the part that achieves the purpose of the satellite. Ultimately, it is the thought of how the technology will ultimately be useful and whether there are people who will benefit from the satellite's technology as a ripple effect. Realizing the importance of creating a mission was a great source of inspiration for me and I spent most of my time on this aspect of satellite development. From this experience, my mission is to provide some value to end consumers and end-users without experience with technology when a new technology is introduced.

# Mission

A satellite consists of a bus section and a mission section. The development of the mission part is often carried out by working backward from the perspective of what to monitor using the satellite and what issues it will ultimately help solve.

How did your experience as a control system R&D engineer at JAXA and new business development at Mitsui & Co., Ltd. lead to where you are today?

I changed my career from being an engineer, completed an MBA, and gained business experience at a major trading company. Regarding the framework for thinking about business models and how to apply that technology in certain areas, I think I have a better perspective now than when I was an engineer.

When you were engaged in new business development for satellites at MITSUI & CO., LTD., did you envision starting a company using satellite data?

I have always wanted to work on satellite data utilization. When I was working on a new business at MITSUI & CO., LTD., I was solving problems in the agricultural field. Through that experience, I felt the combination of primary industry and satellite data had great potential. However, I focused on marine services since services combining agriculture and satellite data were already starting.

Sea surface temperature distribution map visualized by "UMITRON PULSE"

A culture that values on-site visits and problem-oriented issues

How do you acquire CXO and executive talent?

As a research and development startup, I think it is an important theme how long we can maintain a flat organization. UMITRON's strength is to promote innovative product development based on a company-wide understanding of issues occurring at production sites. When continuing with that stance, if the organization has a strong hierarchical structure, it may be difficult to see the opinions of the field, and the distance between the field team and the development team may increase.

We need to have a flat organization because we want to continue to value a thorough hands-on approach as a core competence of the company. Currently, there are no CXOs other than the founding members. If we can find a CXO who can maintain a flat organization while taking responsibility for their role, we would love to work together to create the company's future.

Mr. Fujiwara visiting the actual aquaculture site

Could you tell us your thoughts on the UMITRON Values announced in June 2022?

My thoughts on Values are that a startup is an organization responsible for creating a new value system. The starting point for changing the world's values is always a significant technological development. Our desire as a team is to create a corporate culture and code of conduct that allows us to continuously take action on both fronts: the development of technology and its spread throughout the world.

The motivation for the design is likened to the Age of Discovery. The adventurers took to the sea, and the Age of Discovery began because of the development of nautical technology. As a result, the Ptolemaic theory, the prevailing value system until now, was overturned, and new values spread worldwide. As a startup company, we at UMITRON want to update the world's values by developing new technology, just like in the Age of Discovery. Adventurers are born because of technology, and the world's norm changes because of adventurers. We have incorporated these thoughts into our design and phrasing.

Illustrations depicting UMITRON's Values

What viewpoint and skills would you like to hire in the future?

We want to hire people with substantial expertise willing to absorb and apply new knowledge to new fields through trial and error. As stated in UMITRON's Values, "Don't forget ship upgrades!" means to upgrade your knowledge and experience. Try rather than not try. Learn and improve even if you fail. This is one of the important ways of working that UMITRON values, and we would like to hire people who share our values and embody them together. I would be happy if you could refer to other Values as well.

Please tell us some of your plans to create a strong startup organization.

We actively try to create opportunities for on-site visits so that as many members as possible have the opportunity to interact directly with the site and customers. Obtaining preliminary information can discover potential issues that can lead to changes in the aquaculture industry. Instead of hearing from other members through word of mouth, we directly feel the sense of customers' issues, leading to new development of new services. We want to create such an organization.

Challenging the global agenda

UMITRON is headquartered in Singapore. Could you tell us about your plans for global expansion?

In Japan, an increasing number of people say they are turning away from fish, but the food crisis and the theme of a stable supply of marine products is a global agenda. Looking at the world, in countries with remarkable economic growth, the consumption of marine products is increasing due to rising incomes. In developed countries such as Europe and the United States, marine products are beginning to attract attention in the context of health consciousness. As a startup, we want to make a meaningful contribution to solving such a global agenda, which is the motivation behind our aim to expand our business globally.

On the one hand, the primary industry has a relatively large local practice. Just because we have developed a single solution, it is not so easy to expand it globally. Inevitably, it will be necessary to integrate local operations and solutions in each region. I feel that this part is not a hurdle but rather a challenging and interesting muddle. I want to work on integrating technology development and local operations in regions where aquaculture is necessary.  That is our goal for future global expansion.

I believe that each region has different business customs. Are there any particular challenges in integrating such local operations and solutions?

In that respect, there is no difference between domestic and global business development.The most important part is to spend a lot of time in close contact with the producers on-site. We also value this approach in Japan, so whether we are in Southeast Asia, Europe or South America, UMITRON's core value is how much we can solve the problems of the end users, fish farmers. As the manager of a startup, it is important for me never to miss this value that we provide, even when considering global expansion.

Could you tell us what you think is necessary for satellite data utilization to advance in the future?

We need more companies in the position of service providers that turn satellite data into services for each industry. We are trying to solve problems in the aquaculture industry, but there are still many areas where satellite data can be used in other industries. If the number of companies creating services for specific industries increases in this way, I believe that satellite data technology will be democratized in the world.

At the exhibition hall of the Japan International Seafood Show held in August 2019

Could you tell us how you feel about the Japanese startup ecosystem?

Recently, I have noticed an increase in the number of people jumping into startups. We have had more opportunities to be approached by people from various fields when recruiting personnel. Increased mobility of human resources is an important indicator both for the industry to thrive and for the transformation of the industry. The Japanese startup ecosystem will become even more vibrant as more people with various strengths flow into the industry.

Could you tell us about the world you want to realize in 10 to 20 years through UMITRON's business?

I want to accelerate the shift from catching fish to raising fish. In addition, to create a future in which the aquaculture industry accounts for a large portion of the marine products supplied to the world and where UMITRON's technology will be utilized in the aquaculture industry in 10 to 20 years.

Thank you!

Editor's comments

This interview was an opportunity to feel Mr. Fujiwara's commitment to the site from start to finish.

The aquaculture industry is expected to drive the fishery industry in the future. UMITRON develops multiple solutions that reduce environmental impact while solving on-site issues. We look forward to the future when sustainable sashimi grown with Umitron's technology will be on the table worldwide.