In academia, engineer still pushing edge in memory technologies
BY TOSHIHIKO OGATA CORRESPONDENT
Ken Takeuchi, associate professor of semiconductor technology at the University of Tokyo's graduate school (Yuta Takahashi)
Editor's note: This is part of a series on Japanese people oriented toward the world.
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Although he spent years figuring out how to let us save pieces of our past, Ken Takeuchi has remained focused on the future.
Takeuchi, now an associate professor of semiconductor technology at the University of Tokyo's graduate school, was instrumental as an engineer for Toshiba Corp. in bringing NAND-type flash memory technology to the commercial market.
Take away NAND, and you basically take away all flash memory from most digital cameras, mobile phones and music players.
Takeuchi joined Toshiba in 1993 after meeting with a frontier researcher "by chance."
After receiving a master's degree in applied physics at the University of Tokyo, he planned to go on to a Ph.D. program.
But a meeting with Fujio Masuoka, the Toshiba engineer who led the team that developed flash memory in the early 1980s, changed his course. The two met when Takeuchi tagged along with an older colleague looking for a job at Toshiba.
In 1993, flash memory had not found any commercial use and the company saw no prospects in the technology.
"I had never even heard of flash memory at that time," Takeuchi recalled. "But Masuoka declared that his team would create a new wave of technology in the field of semiconductors. And my instinct told me that this is the guy I should work with."
Takeuchi came on board and took on the challenge of vastly expanding the amount of data that could be stored, erased and rewritten on a chip.
He and his colleagues devised a method of doubling and tripling the capacity by way of an analog storage process, but they ran into a serious problem.
"The data was liable to being damaged," Takeuchi said. "Our approach didn't win support within the company initially."
He kept at it and was encouraged when the CEO of SanDisk Corp., a rival U.S. semiconductor maker that later became a Toshiba business partner, told him that he was interested in the technology Takeuchi was developing.
Due in part to that endorsement, Toshiba would finally find a commercial use for flash memory in a joint project with SanDisk.
The NAND-type flash memory business has grown into a major revenue earner for Toshiba.
Although the market didn't even exist when Takeuchi joined the company, global trade in flash memory is estimated to be worth around 2 trillion yen ($24.69 billion) today.
Toshiba and Samsung Electronics Co. each control about 40 percent of the market. It's a cutthroat race, Takeuchi said, but that's normal in the development of advanced technology.
This aspect hasn't changed a bit since Takeuchi moved on to academia in 2007.
"I live in a world where competing with researchers and businesses around the world is the name of the game," Takeuchi said. "It seems to me that pursuing a career in science and technology requires a determination to become No. 1 in the world."
Armed with an MBA, Takeuchi is a bit of an anomaly among engineers.
Toshiba sent him to Stanford University's business school. And after returning to Japan in 2003, he focused on marketing to determine what kinds of technology would be in demand in the future.
His responsibility grew, and he came to oversee the entire aspect of Toshiba's flash memory operation from planning and development to the establishment of a new plant.
The experience gave him a new perspective on his career.
"My desire to make all the decisions has become increasingly stronger," he said. "But even if I were lucky enough to eventually be promoted to that job, it would take more than 10 years in Japan's seniority-based corporate structure."
Takeuchi's new position at the university allows him to do what he wants to do most: pushing research and development on his own initiative and teaching the technology management skills he learned at Stanford and Toshiba.
All in all, things are turning out as Takeuchi envisaged.
Two years ago, Takeuchi developed technology to cut power consumption in flash memory devices to one-third of the levels at that time.
"I have received inquiries from senior executives at Samsung and Intel Corp.," he said. "I am developing a next-generation memory technology that will be completely different from the one available now."