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Interview with Mitsubishi Chemical Group’s CTO: Pursuit of Innovation for “Forging the future”

Interview with Mitsubishi Chemical Group’s CTO:
Pursuit of Innovation for “Forging the future”

March 22, 2023
 / Article on Business Insider Japan
*This English text is a translation of a document originally prepared in Japanese.
*The information, positions and affiliations mentioned in this interview reflect the status at the time of the interview.

The Mitsubishi Chemical Group operates a wide range of businesses in four main sectors: performance products, chemicals, industrial gases, and health care. In 2021, Jean-Marc Gilson, a native of Belgium, became president of Mitsubishi Chemical Group Corporation with the task of leading the company through a series of significant reforms.

In January 2023, the Mitsubishi Chemical Group announced its new Group Concept to show its strong commitment to creating value “through better Science (as a source of innovation).” We interviewed Larry Meixner, who leads the Group’s overall innovation efforts as Chief Technology Officer (CTO), about the Group’s vision for the future and the innovation that must be nurtured to achieve that vision.

The new Group Concept clearly defines our identity as a company

Larry Meixner
Larry Meixner, CTO of Mitsubishi Chemical Group Corporation. Obtained Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at Stanford University in 1992. Joined Exxon (presently ExxonMobil) in the U.S. in 1984. From 2011 to 2017, served as President and CEO of Sharp Laboratories of America, the U.S R&D base for Sharp Corporation. In 2017, became managing Corporate Executive Officer, Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation (presently Mitsubishi Chemical Group Corporation). Has served in his current position since April 2022.

“I had been participating in discussions on the new Group Concept as a member of the management team, but I was very surprised to read the finalized Purpose and Slogan. I thought, ‘These statements express exactly what I wanted to say!’ Although I did not choose the words myself, the Purpose and Slogan reflect my ideas and those of the management team extremely well,” says Larry Meixner, Corporate Executive Officer, Senior Vice President, and CTO of Mitsubishi Chemical Group Corporation.

This American executive joined the Mitsubishi Chemical Group in 2017 and has since been leading the departments focused on innovation. He has a background in R&D roles at several companies, including Exxon, a leading company in the oil industry. He has also led global research and development at Sharp Corporation.

The new Corporate Purpose was established by the Mitsubishi Chemical Group in January 2023.

We lead with innovative solutions to achieve KAITEKI, the well-being of people and the planet. This is our Purpose. In fact, it represents what the Mitsubishi Chemical Group has been doing for a long time. However, by using the term “innovative solutions,” we emphasize that we will achieve our goal of KAITEKI through innovation.” (Dr. Meixner)

The CTO thought that his exact thoughts were written not only in the Purpose but also in the Slogan, which follows the Purpose in the Group Concept.

Science. Value. Life. The Slogan starts with the word ‘Science.’ We are dedicated to leading the realization of KAITEKI by delivering Value to all stakeholders and contributing to healthy living and the sustainable Life of people and the planet. The slogan clearly refers to ‘Science’ as the source of innovation and a driving force for KAITEKI. I was pleased by this statement.” (Dr. Meixner)

The Mitsubishi Chemical Group is engaged in a range of businesses in the following four sectors: performance products, chemicals, industrial gases and health care. The Group conducts business in core markets such as EV/mobility, digital, food, and medical.

“The Group has been fostering technological innovation across the board. Personally, I have spent many years dedicated to accelerating innovation both in Japan and the U.S., and I have worked at various companies. Based on this experience, I can say that the Mitsubishi Chemical Group has talented people who have world-class capability.” (Dr. Meixner)

In his capacity as Group CTO, however, he also pointed out the following issue:

“The Group has a wide business scope and market, which requires us to conduct a very broad range of R&D activities. This has sometimes made it challenging for the Group to focus on specific themes. Currently, we are working to identify strategic targets to be pursued in each of our key market segments. And across all Mitsubishi Chemical Group companies, we are establishing a collaborative framework, embodied in ‘One Company, One Team,’ to drive innovation.” (Dr. Meixner)

Each Group company used to pursue innovation individually. Going forward, however, the Group will set the direction of innovation that all Group companies should head toward, and we will focus strongly on specific themes to accelerate innovation. The CTO regards it as his mission to lead this transformation, so he felt satisfied that the new Group Concept clearly states that the Group will create value through better science, as a primary source of innovation.”

Individuals will propose ideas and teams will implement them

As mentioned by the CTO in this interview, the Mitsubishi Chemical Group has been focusing on future-oriented reforms. The Group’s strong commitment to these reforms is demonstrated in the new management policy formulated in 2021 titled Forging the future. The verb “forge” refers to the creation of a strong metal object by heating and hammering. Thus, “Forging the future” feels like a more inspiring and meaningful expression than “Making the Future” or “Forming the Future.”

“I still remember how we decided on the management policy at the meeting. It is not easy to create a future. From among about 20 candidates, we selected the word ‘forge,’ aiming to encourage Group members to choose a difficult path and embrace challenges. In order to foster reforms, we need to take on the challenge of doing what we have never done.” (Dr. Meixner)

Dr. Meixner also regards it as his mission to provide individuals and organizations in the Group with environments where they can embrace more challenges for innovation.

Larry Meixner

“We have great talent within the Group, and we are working to build a system that enables individual employees to utilize their abilities to the fullest. Generally speaking, employees of Japanese companies are sometimes reluctant to propose their ideas, even excellent ones, due to a fear of failure. You've likely experienced situations in meetings where you ask participants to share their ideas, but none of them will look you in the eye. This often happens, doesn’t it?” (Dr. Meixner)

This kind of mindset could hinder the creation of innovation in Japan, but the CTO believes that it could also provide a strength unique to Japan.

“Although people are sometimes unwilling to propose their ideas as individuals, they work quite proactively once their team’s policy has been decided. Accordingly, if we can encourage individuals to put forth their ideas and assist their teams in implementing those ideas, this will in turn give the entire Group a great competitive advantage. We therefore aim to be One Company, One Team.” (Dr. Meixner)

Launch of Science & Innovation Center (SIC) to accelerate technology advances

Of course, it is not easy to build a new system to create innovative solutions. There are so many issues to be solved, including how to foster open innovation across the Group and with external parties; how to promote diversity, which provides a source of various ideas; and how to develop and employ talent. Furthermore, all these issues are closely interrelated.

“The Mitsubishi Chemical Group has tended to be inward-looking, which is typical of large corporate groups. I have therefore tried to bring inspiration to the Group from the outside, and this is one of my important roles. Specifically, I led the launch of an in-house organization to conduct corporate venture activities, through which the Group will make investments in promising external technologies and companies. This organization is intended to inspire the Group toward innovation.” (Dr. Meixner)

The CTO continues:

“HR-related issues, such as employing, developing and evaluating personnel and promoting diversity, might not seem to be the CTO’s responsibility. However, these are all important issues for the acceleration of innovation. At our Science & Innovation Center (SIC), I seldom see foreign nationals except for myself (laughs). We also must enhance our system to reward employees who propose outstandingly innovative ideas and those who are embracing challenges without fear of failure. There are so many things to do.” (Dr. Meixner)

SIC is the largest R&D center among the Mitsubishi Chemical Group’s R&D bases. It is in Aoba-ku, Yokohama City. The new research building, in which the Group has invested more than 20 billion yen, opened in September 2022. This is where Dr. Meixner was interviewed for this article.

This “IRODORI” lounge for employees is the CTO’s favorite place at SIC.

“The new research building may not immediately bring about a dramatic change, but by visiting here, anyone can easily see that the Mitsubishi Chemical Group is transforming into a new group. This R&D center, which provides an R&D environment equivalent to overseas advanced facilities, will greatly help the Group foster collaboration with external partners and employ the best talent.” (Dr. Meixner)

It is also impressive to note that Dr. Meixner speaks fluent Japanese, although he is modest about his mastery of the language. According to the CTO himself, when he joined the Mitsubishi Chemical Group, he had no self-confidence in his Japanese language ability. However, since joining the Group, he has been giving speeches in Japanese at important events, and even spoke Japanese exclusively during this interview for the article.

“I have been encouraging others to embrace challenges, so I need to do it myself as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if you fail. In fact, failure helps foster innovation. I hope that I can be a good role model by speaking poor Japanese (laughs).” (Dr. Meixner)

Dr. Meixner joined the Mitsubishi Chemical Group six years ago, which makes his term of service relatively long among non-Japanese managers working for leading Japanese companies. He explains the reason for this as follows:

Larry Meixner

“I had already been attracted by the KAITEKI concept before joining the Group and was even more attracted after becoming a part of it. It is great that the Group has long been dedicated to enhancing the well-being of people and the planet through the concerted efforts of everyone in the organization. Additionally, it is inspiring to see the Group fostering innovation for the achievement of KAITEKI. The Group is, therefore, embracing an ongoing challenge, and I am committed to passing down the KAITEKI concept to the next generation. I have been working towards this goal for years.” (Dr. Meixner)

“We lead with innovative solutions to achieve KAITEKI, the well-being of people and the planet.” How will Dr. Meixner lead the Mitsubishi Chemical Group to the substantial fulfillment of this Purpose? It will attract much attention from businesspersons seeking to drive reforms and foster innovation.

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