The Courage Not to Fear Failure Leads to a Successful Innovation (Part II)

[The Power to Create the Future Vol. 6] A Kyoto Prize 2017 laureate, Dr. Takashi Mimura, the inventor of HEMT

Niche Radio Telescope Market Helps Commercialize HEMTs

(Continued from Part I)
The announcement of the invention of HEMT in November 1979 received substantial media coverage throughout the world, bringing sudden fame to Dr. Mimura. However, there was much difficulty in subsequent attempts to commercialize HEMTs; markets that needed them were not easy to find.

"Since it was extremely costly to produce HEMTs with a special system of MBE, there was a view in the company that such an expensive device would never be a good business. Even so, we persistently continued to search for a chance, believing that HEMTs would successfully be commercialized if we could highlight the unique characteristics of very stable operation and the ability to receive ultra-weak signals. At one time, we thought that there might be demand in the satellite communications sector. We immediately made an experimental amplifier and presented the data observed with it at an academic meeting in the U.S. and then received a request to create a radio telescope amplifier from the Nobeyama Radio Observatory in Nagano Prefecture. This was the memorable, first commercial application of HEMT."

Dr. Mimura and Dr. Hiyamizu measuring the communication speed of an IC chip with integrated HEMTs.

This radio telescope was installed in 1985 and helped achieve the feat of discovering an unknown interstellar medium the following year, causing an influx of orders from radio observatories around the world. HEMTs were thus headed for mass-production.

"Even though the radio telescope market was very niche, I thought it was significant to bring HEMTs to market and have them used in any way. Receiving user feedback and making continual improvements leads to lower production costs, better usability and marketability. Repeating this cycle is key."

HEMT Becomes Influential Enough to be Recognized as the Device that "Toppled the Berlin Wall"

This is a HEMT prediction diagram that Dr. Mimura presented to the company president. "Despite the bold prediction, I was never sure about it."

In addition to radio telescopes, HEMTs were subsequently adapted to satellite dishes to reduce the size. This contributed to popularizing satellite broadcasting around the world.

"As satellite broadcasting provided various kinds of information and helped promote freedom in Eastern Europe, HEMTs were sometimes recognized as "having toppled the Berlin Wall." I was surprised since I had never imagined during my research that HEMTs would become this popular. I continued my research because it was fun and honestly speaking I was not sure and could not predict whether it would be successful as a business or whether it would sell well. *laugh* Still, I think it is essential that developers genuinely become interested and excited for successful innovation."

A satellite dish for home use. A HEMT IC chip is embedded in the receiver below the dish.

Dr. Mimura Hopes His Winning the Kyoto Prize Encourages Younger Researchers

Dr. Mimura chatting with other researchers from Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. He is "a legend to younger researchers."

As the inventor of an innovative device that changed the world, Dr. Mimura has won numerous awards. He received the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 1998 and this year, was selected as a laureate of the Kyoto Prize, an international prize established by the Inamori Foundation in Japan.

"I feel greatly honored to receive the prize, although I still cannot realize the magnitude of my achievement. I hope my winning this prize gives encouragement to a number of researchers working at the front line of research and development."

HEMTs Grow Further-- Dr. Mimura Wants to Push the Limits of High-Speed Communication

Dr. Mimura is currently working on a joint research on new high-speed devices as an executive visiting researcher at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). He is in pursuit of creating even faster HEMTs by using a new material known as indium-phosphide (InP) to "push the limits of high-speed communication."

"HEMTs are now in a very interesting period. They are faster and much more marketable than ever. New applications that use HEMTs will be launched one after another. I also pay attention to younger researchers' research and development projects including the one for the smallest, most efficient AC adapter that involves the Gallium-Nitride High-Electron-Mobility Transistor (GaN-HEMT). What makes semiconductors fun is that you can control electrons at will and draw useful functions by implementing creative twists. They will always fascinate me."

An IC chip with integrated HEMTs (exhibit). HEMTs have been applied to a wide variety of products.

The Keys to Successful Teamwork are Clear Objectives and Flexibility

Passed down to the next generation for further research and development, HEMTs still continue to evolve. What were the factors that allowed Dr. Mimura to achieve this innovation? Two keywords can be found by recollecting this course of development. The first one is flexibility.

"I think a small team consisting of veteran researchers and young engineers can advance research more freely and is suitable for innovation because such a team is not likely to adhere to impossible ideas, but rather able to change their mind quickly and try other ideas.
In addition, any project should have a clear objective. As long as the goal is in sight, the approach to it can be adjusted from one situation to another. Without that much flexibility, you will let other rivals around the world proceed before you. I think that our success was a result of setting the clear objectives of 'creating the first HEMT' and 'launching it onto the market, whether the market is a niche market or not.'"

Failure Generates "Positive Assets," Not "Negative Assets"

The second keyword is "the courage not to fear failure." The development of HEMT started with the failure of the MOSFET research.

"What I want to emphasize is that experiences with failure are not negative assets but positive assets. There is this 'receptivity' that can be honed only through experiencing failure, which helps collect different hints that might otherwise be missed. Accumulating those hints in your mind may lead to creative ideas in the future. This way of thinking will help you regard failure as positive.
When I talked about this with a British acquaintance, they told me this saying: 'the courage not to fear failure leads to glory.' I want to offer this word of encouragement to those who want to achieve innovation:
'the courage not to fear failure leads to a successful innovation.'
I hope you consider failed attempts to be positive experiences unique to yourself and venture into unknown territory."

Takashi Mimura,
Honorable Fellow
at Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd.
1944 Born in Osaka Prefecture.
1970 Joins Fujitsu Limited. Comes in contact with transistors for the first time.
1975 Transfers to Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. Invents HEMT and conducts research and development on its mass production.

"It seems that my entire research career is a series of twists and turns dominated by randomness. I believe that randomness created surprises and excitement, which motivated me, a humble engineer, to successfully create what had not existed until then."
Dr. Mimura is now engaged in a joint research project with National Institute of Information and Communications Technology to obtain the best performance out of HEMTs.