The seeds for Hirofumi Seo’s future medical technology startup were planted when he was only 14 years old, courtesy of a television show aired by Japanese national broadcaster NHK. That program, The Universe Within III: The Human Genome, aired in 1999 and featured 3D computer graphics to illustrate life at a cellular level.
“It wasn’t the typical drama or something purely for entertainment,” Seo says. “It was science.”
Around the same time, Seo was already active in his junior high school computer programming club, studying CGI. He particularly enjoyed generating his own graphics through C-language programming, without using any software. He remained involved in computer clubs up until graduating from high school. When it came time to choose a university major, Seo was torn over his two passions: making computer graphics and science.
“I wanted to make a bridge between the two, but I had to decide what field of science to study,” he says. “I landed on medicine – not to become a great doctor, but to study real medical applications.”
Seo entered the prestigious Tokyo University Faculty of Medicine and filled all of the open slots in his schedule with professional CGI software classes. Just before embarking on his studies, Seo had discovered a US-based company called Hybrid Medical Animation that was producing the kind of scientific animation that he dreamed of someday creating. Seo had found his calling – but he was then faced with the harsh reality that such companies were almost all located in North America.
First voyage abroad
For most Todai (the short way of saying Tokyo University) med students, year five means a hands on, three-month-long medical clerkship at the university hospital. A few opt to go overseas to Harvard or other top-tier international universities with established partner programs. Seo, however, had his heart set on Johns Hopkins and its century-old Department of Art as Applied to Medicine. There was just one problem – Hopkins had never accepted a short-term exchange student into that department before.
Seo got to work, filling out applications and translating all of his work – which amounted to more than 1GB – into English. After pleading his case to the department chairs at both Hopkins and Todai, he was given the go ahead. Not only was it a first for Hopkins, but it would become Seo’s first trip outside of Japan.
There he met two fellow exchange students, one from South Korea and one from Spain, who also ended up at Hopkins due to a lack of homegrown medical animation outlets in their own countries. Seo realized that, in order to fill that void, he’d have to start his own company back home.
Going beyond animation
After adding M.D. to the end of his name and spending two years gaining hands-on experience as a medical intern at the University of Tokyo Hopital, Seo exchanged scrubs and a lab coat for a dress shirt and slacks. He founded Sciement – a combination of science and entertainment – in May 2012. At its inception, the company was focused on creating easy-to-comprehend 3D animations. Seo explains his motivation:
I’m not the typical medical animator or illustrator, because most of them haven’t worked as medical doctors and interacted with patients. There are sick people, children who want to know about their disease, but can’t understand medical terminology. There’s no good content for them, and it may be a big challenge, but I want to solve these problems by using my unique experience as a doctor turned entrepreneur.
Now, Sciement also creates medical legal animations which can be used during criminal trials to visually explain trauma inflicted on a victim – i.e. the internal effects of being stabbed in the chest. Such visual aids can have a big impact on the prosecution, often more than verbal testimony by a medical examiner and crime scene photos.
Seo’s main role is acting as an “architect” that connects clients with designers and programmers.
“Many content creators don’t understand science or don’t want to study the science behind a project. I act as a director, supervising their work and making sure the science is sound without being too hard to grasp for the average viewer.”
The startup has attracted more than 10 clients so far, including pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and RIKEN – Japan’s largest scientific research institute.
Sciement, which Seo initially bootstrapped with his own savings, has raised approximately JPY 10 million (US$98,000) from private investors. When asked if he is interested in attracting venture capital, Seo says that he’s more keen to find “mentors” than additional investors, as he hasn’t solidified the company’s business model.
Like the bronchi in our lungs, Seo hopes to eventually branch out beyond animation. He’s interested in designing medical software that uses big data collected from a multitude of patients to create digital models of certain diseases and disorders – cardiac abnormalities, for example. A digital model would be extremely useful when actual human specimens are facing a shortage. He also wants to utilize an increasingly popular technology – 3D printers – to create scale models of internal organs, via CT scans of a patient.
“I don’t want our work to just look cool,” he adds. “I want it to be medically accurate.”