Meet the CEO of Japan's hottest startups

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

For Mitsuru Izumo, founder and CEO of Euglena and Japan's start-up of the year, starting a business is like farming.

"You plant many, many seeds and by trial and error, you learn how to cultivate a business," Euglena chief executive officer Mitsuru Izumo told CNBC.

Founded in 2005, Euglena today is one of Japan's most talked about start-ups. The company's mission is to spread the health benefits of microalgae, which is full of vitamins, minerals such as calcium and iron, as well as amino acids.

Microalgae, a single-celled organism so small it can only be seen through a microscope, is grown in fresh water and photosynthesizes like plants. The nutrients are extracted, turned into powder form and added to foods or drinks – the company even sells a range of crunchy dog foods.

Not about money

Izumo's motivation for starting a business wasn't to make money. On the contrary, he wanted to help solve a social problem.

His original career plan was to work in international development and in 1998, during his first year in college at Tokyo University, he went on a trip to Bangladesh to study the reality of poverty in one of Asia's poorest countries.

What he saw changed his life. It wasn't famine or a lack of food, but chronic malnutrition that plagued the lives of the poor in the country.

"They ate a lot of rice but they weren't getting enough nutrients – and I promised myself that I would do something to help," Izumo said.

Back in Japan, he learned about the health benefits of microalgae and even changed majors to agriculture in his quest to develop a commercially viable form of the microorganism.

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Unable to secure enough funds to continue his research, he joined a bank after graduation.

Still, he couldn't quite give up on his dream and carried on his research, after his day job and on weekends. After a year, he quit the bank to dedicate his life to his mission.

"I lived off savings," he said.

The big break

By early 2006, he had gotten as far as developing a powder form of the microalgae that could be used in health supplements but still had no clients or supporters.

"I visited 500 companies but not one would buy my product," Izumo said.

At last, in May 2008 one of Japan's biggest conglomerates, Itochu, came on board and transformed Euglena's business.

Backed by a major corporation, sales started surging and all of sudden, Izumo had a new challenge: finding partners to expand production. Today, companies such as Hitachi, carmaker Isuzu and All Nippon Airways are investors and research partners.

By 2012, Euglena was ready for more funding and went public in a 10 billion yen ($81 million) IPO.

Glory in the challenge

From those humble beginnings, the company's sales have been growing by over 30 percent every year and its market capitalization has multiplied more than ten times, to 152 billion yen.

The business has become so successful that Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe picked Euglena as his very first "outstanding" start-up business award winner in January this year.

Izumo, now 34, isn't letting any of it get to his head, and remains faithful to his initial inspiration.

"Entrepreneurship is about contributing to society – and challenging yourself to reach your goals," he said.

His next challenge? To develop a microalgae biofuel for airplanes in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games.