Softpren Industry: Direct dealings with Japan’s biggest companies in industry-academia-government collaboration (1/2)

Combating the hollowing out of Japan’s industries, using “medical care and welfare” as a foothold
Looking to “matching” to make up for “insufficiencies”

For an SME with just 80 employees, engaging in direct dealings with a major Japanese hospital and nursing care bed company that does 70 billion yen in business annually presents a difficult challenge.

A major factor that helped make such direct dealings possible was success in developing a product needed by the major company through a partnership between the SME and local universities and skillful utilization of national assistance.

Softpren Industry Corporation

Fumiaki Maejima

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Softpren Industry Corporation President Fumiaki Maejima

Applying shoe insoles to hospital beds

“In the beginning, a purchaser from Paramount Bed told us that ‘direct dealings will be difficult.’ However, we worked with designers from Paramount Bed to develop a product that cannot be purchased from other companies, and this led to our setting up a trading account with them. We were, of course, quite happy.”

President Fumiaki Maejima of Softpren Industry (Hamamatsu City) reflects on the successful development of “Water Mat ” through industry-academia-government collaboration.

What originally sparked development of this product was a “pressure dispersion effect theory” originated by Professor Emeritus Nobuyoshi Morita of Shizuoka University’s Faculty of Engineering. This theory certified the engineering validity of a “water insole” using the properties of water that was developed by Walking Day Co., Ltd., of Yokohama in 2005 and its effects on the body.

From this, it was wondered if there was some way of applying the “pressure dispersion effect” seen in shoes designed for health and nursing care to beds for the elderly, particularly those who suffer from bedsores. A search of effective uses of patents held by Shizuoka University’s technology licensing organization (TLO) brought Softpren Industry to light. Softpren Industry was a local company with a superior track record in the molding and processing of foamed plastics.

“The proposal came to us through our bank. We were asked if it would be possible to apply a technology that was successfully used in shoe insoles to bed mattresses. At this time, we learned that Paramount Bed, a top manufacturer of hospital beds, was interested in this technology, so I said, ‘Yes, if Paramount Bed is interested, I would very much like to give it a try.’” (President Maejima)

  • President Maejima says

    President Maejima says "we opened our trading account at the end of a year after the project’s launch."

Pulling together strengths to develop a new field under the “New Partnership Support Program”

President Maejima immediately decided to move forward for two reasons. First, he was convinced that the proposal fit with his company’s medium-to-long-term strategy. Until then, the main users of Softpren’s molded products were industries affiliated with such products as consumer electronics, musical instruments, and transport equipment.

However, the production functions of many of those industries were being moved overseas, creating a “hollowed out” situation in Japan. Just when he was worrying about where to take his company in the future, the name of a top brand in hospital beds came into the picture. President Maejima says, “I was convinced that the medical care and welfare field was the future of our company.”

As a company that handles urethane foam, it goes without saying that Softpren’s hope was to link the proposal to future business in the mattress sector.

The second reason was the existence of a support scheme linking the skills of industry, academia, and government that could make up for Softpren’s deficiencies.

This scheme is called the “New Partnership Support Program.” Under it, the government approves projects seeking to develop new business fields by organically linking SMEs with SMEs in other fields, leading medium-size and large companies, and universities and research institutes and then bringing together the “strengths” of each. The government then provides a subsidy covering up to two-thirds of the total project cost. Through the program, SMEs can receive support and advice, with experts of SME Support, JAPAN providing liaison.

  • President Maejima says

    President Maejima says "I wanted to rather make a deal with industries which would not be hollowed out."

Using the subsidy to lease equipment together with clinical support from universities

Water Mat’s development was approved as a New Partnership Support Program project in February 2008. With the project approved, Softpren used the subsidy to procure through leasing equipment for trial production as well as bed-sized pressure measuring equipment and ultrasonic echo equipment to determine bedsores. It also had Takashi Mizushima, an associate professor at Hamamatsu University School of Medicine, make clinical measurements of bedsore prevention effects that were in addition to pressure measurements conducted by Shizuoka University.

The partnership then quickly accelerated through teamwork. Specifically, Softpren joined with Paramount Bed’s design team in striving to develop a “Water Mat made to never leak and shaped to have superior pressure dispersion effect.” At the same time, Shizuoka University and Hamamatsu University School of Medicine supported efforts to improve the functions of the new product by measuring pressure dispersion effect and blood flow with obtained testing equipment and then feeding back data to both companies. These activities demonstrate the kind of teamwork that was achieved.

“I think we opened our trading account (with Paramount Bed) at the end of the first year following the project’s launch, and our trade grew steadily from the second year,” says a satisfied President Maejima.

“Because we worked together with designers from the very beginning of the new development process, we were able to do business at a price that reflected cost. This wouldn’t have happened if we’d simply approached the purchaser.”

Today Softpren’s Water Mat business exceeds 100 million yen annually.

  • Softpren Industry enlarged a size of “shoes water insole” cell to that of  lower back.

    Softpren Industry enlarged a size of “shoes water insole” cell to that of lower back.

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