Healthcare Innovation beyond the Earth

I wonder if it was my son who had first gotten me interested in space when he told me that his dream was to become a rocket designer. Our family visited Disneyland during our trip to the American West Coast, but it was the sight of Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center that left an indelible impression on my son.
Photo taken by the author at the California Science Center.

The rise of the space industry

The space industry was worth around 35 trillion Japanese yen in 2016 and is expected to grow to over 100 trillion yen by the 2040s. This industry will only become larger and more accessible with the entry of more private companies, as can be seen from the massive investment made by individuals such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in space businesses.

The launch of healthcare projects inspired by the space industry

The space industry tends to be associated with the "hard" technology required for space travel, but there is also a growing anticipation surrounding the "soft" aspect of experiential and hands-on services offered by space businesses, which can open up new possibilities particularly in the area of healthcare innovation.

One focus in the space×healthcare domain is to control the effects on the human body for those who travel to and from space on a regular basis. A wide range of issues needs to be addressed from a perspective very different from life on earth, including the muscle fatigue experienced in zero-gravity space, mental health issues, and making dining as comfortable as possible.

Another active area of focus is the R&D on how we can leverage the zero-gravity space and other planets that are very different from Earth. Endless possibilities abound once we take seriously the idea of harnessing environments and materials that cannot be found on Earth.

Tokyo's forward-looking initiatives

While the U.S. (and more recently, China) has been the breeding ground for many of today's space projects, Japan has also started to launch a variety of initiatives, including collaborations between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and companies based in Tokyo.

One example of this is JAXA's "THINK SPACE LIFE" platform (Japanese only), which aims to improve life both in space and on Earth through business collaboration by drawing on the lessons learned in space. Given that the know-how of astronauts for raising the quality of life in space can generate ideas for improving life on Earth, there is tremendous potential for a constructive synergy between the respective life sciences domains studying life in space and life on Earth. A familiar example in this regard is the "work-from-home fatigue" that has made headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe that individuals suffering from this can alleviate their mental fatigue by learning how to make the most of enclosed spaces where movement is limited from astronauts who are used to life in space.

In the area of drug discovery, JAXA and Space BD Inc. have been collaborating on an experimental project to produce high-quality protein crystals on the International Space Station module "Kibo." This project aims to expand our fundamental knowledge of science by elucidating the three-dimensional structure of proteins in greater detail through the growth of high-quality protein crystals that cannot be formed in environments on Earth. Moreover, the result of this experiment is expected to generate new analytical insights and designs that will be useful for applications in drug discovery. Given that this experiment has already allowed us to develop new drugs that can potentially combat cancer (Japanese only) and slow down the progression of muscular dystrophy (Japanese only), we should focus on the development and commercialization of new drugs that cannot be created through research on Earth.

The anticipation surrounding space-related businesses based in Tokyo

Space will inevitably become a part of our everyday life in 20 to 30 years' time. In an era where the universe will feel as close to us as other countries that we can easily travel to, the discovery of new substances in space may allow us to cure diseases that are currently impossible to treat. There will also be more opportunities for us to promote new forms of well-being, including healthcare innovations that have not been possible hitherto on Earth.

The friendly competition among ourselves in the past has created what we have today. Likewise, pushing new frontiers in space will be essential for us to improve the lives of our future generations. We have made great strides in finally making our depictions of space that have fascinated many of our children and inspired countless animated films a reality. I look forward to even more future initiatives that will be launched in Tokyo as we seek to become a global leader in space exploration.

Nishigami Shinji

Nishigami is a Partner at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting LLC, where he belongs to the Life Sciences and Healthcare Division. He joined the company after working for a private think tank, and he has been involved in projects in the areas of management reform, global organizational design, and overseas expansion support, primarily for manufacturers of pharmaceutical products and medical devices. More recently, he has supported many digital transformation projects, including digital strategy and organization building. His major publications include New Strategies for Financial Organizations (co-author).
Text: Nishigami Shinji, Composition: Matsuo Satoko, Translation: Vincent Gan