Shuji Nakamura loves ideas.
One idea he followed – the invention of blue, green and white light-emitting diodes, or LEDs – is revolutionizing lighting and electronic displays. Today’s standard lights use about 20 percent of the world’s energy, but convert as little as 5 percent of the energy they consume into light.
Already Nakamura, who came from Japan to join the University of California, Santa Barbara, faculty in 2000, and other researchers have created white LEDs 15 times more efficient than tungsten bulbs and twice as efficient as compact fluorescent bulbs.
Late last year, Nakamura led a UCSB team that announced a more efficient, longer-lasting blue-violet laser diode that aims to replace the one in current Blu-ray DVD players. Blu-ray DVD itself became possible because of Nakamura’s earlier inventions.
Apple’s popular iPhone and some flat-screen televisions use white LEDs to illuminate their liquid crystal displays. Today, Nakamura is working toward yellow LEDs and a major remodel of red LED technology, invented in the early 1960s.
For his breakthroughs, Nakamura won the $1 million Millennium Technology Prize in 2006, a biennial honor considered the Nobel Prize for inventors. In June, word came that Nakamura won another honor: the Prince of Asturias award, which he will claim in October in Oviedo, Spain, from Crown Prince Felipe.
Nakamura has also followed ideas that lie outside the realm of lighting and lasers.
In a multi-year court battle with Nichia, the Japanese company at which he invented the blue LED, Nakamura pursued the idea that Japanese inventors should receive a cut of the enormous profits their creations reap. He won a landmark legal victory, changing the way Japan treats intellectual property and bringing down some of the barriers between Japanese universities and industries.
But all of this – the LEDs, the prizes, the precedent-setting legal battle – might not have happened if it weren’t for the snobbishness of a handful of graduate students at the University of Florida.
“Before starting my blue LED research, I went to the University of Florida for one year as a visiting researcher. It was my first trip to a foreign country,” said Nakamura, who grew up in rural area in Japan and attended a small, mid-ranked university there.
“Initially, [the graduate students] were very friendly,” Nakamura said. But then they asked him about his credentials. Did he have a doctoral degree? No, just a master’s. Had he published any scientific papers? No. “And then they treated me as a technician,” Nakamura said.
“Over [in Japan], I had worked with semiconductor technology for almost 10 years,” Nakamura said. “I knew how to make crystals, how to make LEDs – everything, without any degrees. For me, those graduate students were like kids. But they treated me like a technician. I became so upset, frustrated and mad.”
When he returned home, Nakamura vowed to earn a doctorate so he could go back to America and be respected. But the Japanese academic and corporate worlds were, and still are, very different from the United States.
Huge barriers stood between schools and industry, which were at times at odds. Companies wanted students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, not doctorates.
“A Ph.D. is focused on very narrow things,” Nakamura said. “Japanese companies want to educate the student at the company. They don’t expect anything out of education.”
So Nakamura took advantage of a system that allowed him to earn a doctorate by researching and writing papers at Nichia, his mid-sized employer.
In that push in the early 1990s, Nakamura invented the blue LED, which led to other colors and fueled the beginnings of a new era in the $15 billion lighting industry. Nichia paid Nakamura a $180 bonus for his work.
The paltry sum infuriated Nakamura but was normal in Japan, where inventors were expected to work for the good of their companies and nation instead of their own gain. In 2000, Nakamura sued over the meager bonus, alleging that Nichia didn’t give him his fair share of the profits of his inventions – profits that a Tokyo court estimated will reach $1.1 billion by 2010.
After four years in litigation, a court awarded Nakamura $184 million. In 2005, that sum was reduced to about $7 million, but Japanese companies took notice and started paying their inventors bigger bonuses. And about two years ago, the Japanese government began dismantling the walls around universities that kept faculty from participating in business ventures.
“University professors had no interest in [intellectual property] at all,” Nakamura said of the old system in Japan. “Their only interest was in writing papers. They just didn’t think about business at the university. A professor’s duty was writing papers, not patents.”
Nakamura added: “The American system is much, much better. In the United States, there are no barriers between industry and the universities. Professors go into industry, and from industry some people come to the university.”
In the years since Nakamura left Japan, other researchers have voiced a view of him as inimical to the national ideal, as perhaps more American in temperament than Japanese. Those sentiments don’t bother Nakamura. He’s happy to forge ahead with his work at UCSB, helping his students break new ground and write patents.
“I love research,” Nakamura said. “It’s just ideas. Ideas are very important.”