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This Japanese Startup Is Innovating with Crab Shells

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A potentially valuable resource from the Sea of Japan has been ending up on the trash heap: crab shells. Now, researchers at a university in coastal Tottori Prefecture are taking the shells off of the trash heap and putting them to high-tech use.

Tottori is Japan’s crabbing capital. According to the Fisheries Agency, local fishermen brought in around 9,700 tons of the crustaceans in 2014 — nearly half of the country’s total catch.

And now researchers at Tottori University have figured out how to turn the shells into nanofibers. The plan is to establish a startup, possibly by this spring, that will seek to commercialize the technology for use in beauty and food products. If the university pulls it off, it could be the start of a whole new regional industry.

Tourists visiting Tottori set their sights on snow crabs, a delicacy, as well as the area’s famous sand dunes, shrines, hot springs and fruit. The species used for canning and in processed foods is red snow crab. In fact, more than 90% of the crabs caught in Tottori are red snow crabs. After the crabs are processed by the local fishing industry, the shells are discarded as trash.

Tottori University Associate Professor Shinsuke Ifuku was looking for ways to effectively utilize crab shells to make use of the region’s bounty, and he hit upon the concept of developing a new material in Tottori.

Ifuku studied under Professor Hiroyuki Yano of Kyoto University, one of the leaders in plant-derived cellulose nanofibers (CNF). This background led him to conceive of creating a nano-material by unraveling chitin, a substance that makes up 20-30% of crab shells. He calls the result “marine nanofibers.”

Chitin is a natural material that is used as an additive in diet foods, among other applications. The key feature of marine nanofiber is that the chitin is made into a nano-material. Water is added to chitin from the crab shells, along with an acid to make it easier to unravel the chitin, and is made finer using equipment that works like a mortar and pestle. This process is repeated until it produces a dispersion liquid of fine fibers an average of 6nm in width.

There is also a method of creating fibers by slamming the dispersion liquid containing chitin onto a substrate at high speed, but this is expensive in terms of energy and labor, costing around 20,000 yen ($170) per kilogram of dispersion liquid with a 2% concentration. Using the mortar and pestle process, Ifuku anticipates that “if economies of scale are achieved, a sales cost of just 3,000 to 4,000 yen per kilogram can be realized with a dispersion liquid having a concentration of 1-2%.”

With the objective of low-cost production in sight, Ifuku will launch a university-backed venture as early as March. The startup will procure chitin produced locally from crab shells, using equipment at the university to process it into nanofibers “having a high potential as cutting-edge materials,” and sell it.

Chitin, from which the nanofibers are made, does not mix with water in powdered form, but processed with the acid, the nanofibers repel each other, become long and thin, and then mix with water, achieving a gel-like state. It then has the same properties as CNF, for example increasing strength when included in film. However, “as we considered this deeply, we sensed that we would be unable to cultivate demand if we pitched it as the same as CNF,” Ifuku explained.

CNF is material made from wood and has five times the strength of steel while weighing just one-fifth as much. Nippon Paper Industries can turn out 30 tons of CNF a year and will raise that more than 10-fold in fiscal 2016. Chuetsu Pulp & Paper will also begin mass production in fiscal 2017. The material is priced at 5,000 to 10,000 yen per kilogram, but in terms of aspects such as stable supply, marine nanofibers, while just at the research stage, will only be playing second fiddle to CNF, which is already at the mass production stage.

One idea is products for application in the healthcare field. Although the mechanism is not well understood, it is known that chitin is effective in treating skin irritation, as well as cuts and burns.

Ifuku confirmed the effect by applying a dispersion liquid of marine nanofibers to mice with cuts in their skin. Eight days later, the cuts on untreated mice had not healed, but in the mice that had been treated with the liquid, the cuts had healed, the scabs had already fallen off and the collagen component of the skin had increased.

When compared to powdered chitin, the nanofibers have greater surface area and adhere more readily to the skin. The ability of the dispersion liquid to spread the nanofibers uniformly over the skin could be one reason for the result. When the material is applied to human skin, a film forms, producing a moisture-retaining effect.

In the foodstuffs field, the new material is being considered as a possible additive in bread. The reason bread rises is that the gluten in flour acts as a wall, allowing air to build up inside. Adding marine nanofibers reinforces the gluten walls, making it possible to reduce the amount of flour by 20%. The result is low-calorie bread, commercialization of which is being hastened.

In September 2015, Asahi Food & Healthcare commercialized a moisturizing lotion containing marine nanofibers. Following this first step, Ifuku is accelerating commercialization efforts by launching the startup. In addition, he said, joint research aimed at commercialization is being conducted with around 10 chemical and food producers.

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Callum Connects

Mikyung Kim, TV Commercial Producer

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Mikyung Kim is a savvy producer who runs her own TV and print production business, based in Hong Kong.

What’s your story?
I am a TV commercial and print producer working with advertising agencies and brands to bring their communication needs to the screen. My background is in film production and I started my career in Hollywood working with Oscar winning directors Michel Gondry and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Before starting my own company last year to produce content directly with agencies and brands, I was with Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong for nearly five years as the Senior Producer and Head of TV running the film production department.

What excites you most about your industry?
How it’s constantly evolving! Every day is different and it’s certainly never boring. I love that it’s a creative industry and that my job involves talking to people with creative minds on how we can bring a story on paper to life. It’s exciting that the advertising industry places high value on the creativity and effectiveness of content. I’ve produced a few commercials that creatively push the envelope with fun and sometimes wild ideas that have converted into positive brand awareness. Ever heard of KFC Finger Lickin’ Good…Nail Polish that yes, tastes like chicken? https://www.adweek.com/creativity/kfc-just-made-edible-finger-lickin-good-nail-polish-yeah-tastes-chicken-171245/

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Seoul and raised in Hong Kong until graduating from high school at HKIS. I spent my university years in Boston at Emerson College and worked in Los Angeles at Anonymous Content and Partizan Entertainment. But on a brief visit back to Hong Kong in 2010, I decided to move back and continue my career here, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is my home so it will always be my favourite city for business and for me personally. What I love about Hong Kong is that while I am based here, I can actually work with agencies and brands from anywhere in APAC. If I need to attend an important meeting, I can just hop on a quick flight easily. I spent most of 2017 working in Seoul with Korean agency Cheil and Samsung, and currently I am working with Japanese agency ADK and Toyota based in Singapore.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Fake it until you become it,” from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Worth a watch. This helped me early in my career when I felt like I was under qualified for the job I was in. I learned to fake my confidence and fake a powerful body language until I truly felt that confidence became something real. It was nerve wracking at first but it worked and now I don’t have to fake it.

Who inspires you?
My friends. Noelle who worked part time jobs while being a full time student to pay her own tuition while we were in college together. Osti who is a lawyer focused on supporting developing nations and a board member of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Vanessa who runs a real estate company, co-owns the gym Crossfit Asphodel, started a health foods business called Quo and NGO The Keep Moving Project to promote wellness in our community. Cathy who will be the first Asian woman to direct a big budget superhero film starring Margot Robbie with Warner Bros and DC. And too many more to name!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
5.2 million plastic bottles are thrown away in Hong Kong every day. Plastic pollution is a major issue for the environment and we as responsible citizens can do our small part by reducing our consumption of unnecessary plastic. I do mine by having a water filter at home and carrying my own reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I love the brand Hydroflask because the stainless steel material keeps water hot or cold for hours, so I don’t feel tempted to buy a cold water at 7-11 on those hot, humid days we have here.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
About five years ago I purchased my very first stock and put one month’s salary into it, which at the time was a lot of money for me. Knowing how that stock has performed now, I would have put all my savings into it.

How do you unwind?
Exercise is essential in my daily life to help clear my head and de-stress. My go to is a workout at Crossfit Asphodel, running outdoors, yoga and hiking. But a glass of red wine and live music at Soiree in Soho on Sunday night works pretty well too!

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
One of the best trips I ever took was to the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Two girl friends and I did a 3 day 2 night hiking and camping trip to summit the Mount Rinjani Volcano. It was physically challenging but mentally relaxing. There was no cellphone reception, no distractions, we had the company of nature and nights with skies full of shooting stars. It was pretty magical. We then went to the Gili Islands for a few days of scuba diving, yoga and sitting on the beach doing nothing but sipping on coconuts. That was pretty relaxing too.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois P. Frankel and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Essential reads for every working woman and/or man who wants to know how to support the working women in their life.

Shameless plug for your business:
I am a TV commercial and print producer that can plug into an existing advertising agency or brand team to produce their communication needs. Many advertising agencies these days are scaling down so they have creative directors and account services but may not have an in-house producer, so I can fill that gap by becoming a part of the existing agency team. For brands that want to produce content directly without involving an agency, I can also bridge the gap by bringing my production knowledge in-house and working as part of the marketing/brand team and liaising with the other departments in the company such as product team and ecomm.

How can people connect with you?
They can email me at [email protected]
or visit my website at mkimproducer.com

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Renne Ballard, Owner of Renée Ballard Communications

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Renne Ballard runs a social media agency working with business women, helping them find their business’s voice.

What’s your story?
I began my career in PR/communications ten years ago in Australia, after arriving home from two years in Dubai. In Dubai I was working for Emirates Airlines as a flight attendant and flying around the world non-stop for two years. This really sparked my interest for how people communicate. I started out as a community manager for an online advertising company, then moved into the corporate world of outdoor advertising, managing internal and external PR and communications. After having a baby four years ago, I decided to leave the safety net of corporate, and stride out on my own. I now run a social media agency and I specialise in working with business women, helping to find their business’ voice so they can use social media to achieve their business goals.

What excites you most about your industry?
I love the open accessibility online provides. It’s free for businesses to get online and connect with their target audience. Twenty years ago, advertising and PR was insanely expensive and quite elitist, but through incredible platforms like Facebook or Twitter, any business can connect with who is looking for their product/solution. Social media is particularly effective for small businesses because they have the edge when it comes to authenticity and a clear voice.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m in Hong Kong because I’m a trailing spouse. I know it’s such a daggy term, but I love it, it makes me sound so dedicated to my husband! Alas, we came to Hong Kong for my husband’s work. He’s the Design Director of Asia for an international retail design agency. We’ve been here for almost two years and it’s been a huge learning curve in terms of business and culture. We love the fast-paced nature of Hong Kong and the fact that everything is open late – it suits me perfectly because I’m nocturnal.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
That’s easy, Hong Kong. It’s the perfect blend of start-ups and mothership-sized institutions. I love the small business side, watching the collaborations between workshare spaces with galleries, networking groups and foodies; it’s a hothouse of creative partnerships here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
When you’re are feeling scared about your next step, lean in and feel the difference. Is it fear mixed with excitement? Or fear mixed with dread? Always go with the former and cut loose the latter.

Who inspires you?
I love Tamara Mellon (Jimmy Choo founder). She has created multiple empires and she never stops trying new business models and pushing her limits. It helps that I love shoes too.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I just turned 40 years old. At best, I’m probably halfway through my life. It makes me constantly question, “Am I where I want to be?”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have asked more questions to the people I looked up to, and listened less to the people telling me I won’t achieve my goals.

How do you unwind?
In this day and age, it’s scandalous to say, but I love sunbaking. At any chance, you’ll find me poolside, laying in the sun in a trance-like state.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Northern Danang in Vietnam. We were there at Christmas, at the foot of the mountains and it was beautiful. Heaps of wildlife and jungles and enough five star resorts that I was never parched once.

Everyone in business should read this book:
‘The E Myth’ by Michael Gerber. It’s an oldie but a goodie because it succinctly outlines how to transition from a one person operation to a global business like McDonalds. Once you see how important systems and processes are, you can recognise shambolic companies a mile off.

Shameless plug for your business:
Renée Ballard Communications is a social media agency that works with business women who are ready to make social media work for them. We create effective, powerful social media strategies that are tailored to the people who will be breathing life into them. We hand on heart promise to never use annoying, marketing buzzwords and that we value laughter above everything else.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected] or www.reneeballard.com or +85296670115

Twitter handle?
@ballard_comms

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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