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'Brown diamonds': ex-Japan soccer star using athletes' feces to improve people's health

Keita Suzuki, former Japan national soccer player and head of intestinal bacteria research firm AuB, is seen at a shared office space in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on Jan. 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Arina Ogata)

TOKYO -- Keita Suzuki, 39, is a retired professional soccer player who represented Japan and played a key role in the J-League team Urawa Red Diamonds. Now he heads AuB, a company which uses human stool samples to research intestinal bacteria.

    The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with Suzuki to find out about his trip to the Middle East that spurred his career change, the difficulties he had managing cash flow for his new operation, and how he's strived in the business of feces, which he describes as "more valuable than diamonds."

    At a shared office space located near Kyobashi Station in Tokyo, an employee calls out to "Keita-san" in an easy tone. Suzuki soon appears in a casual-looking get up of white trainers and black pants. Due to the recent spread of the coronavirus, Suzuki has largely been working from home. He met the Mainichi Shimbun on Jan. 12, on the one day of the week he comes to the office.

    "When I look back at my lifestyle through working at home, I see that I've been going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. When I get up I do some activities. When my feces comes out in a sort of banana shape I think I've passed a good stool, and today was also a healthy day," he said.

    As a company, AuB examines athlete's stool samples to analyze their intestinal conditions, the results of which are then used in research leading into product development. The firm has six full-time employees, and has research facilities in Tokyo's Nihombashi neighborhood and in Kagawa Prefecture in western Japan. But due to research involving the handling of bacteria, non-researcher employees aren't able to frequently enter the facilities. As a result, most of its employees work from shared office spaces and other locations.

    Suzuki said, "I want to inform people of lifestyles that are fit for them by examining the intestinal conditions of athletes. When people want to do what they want, and to challenge themselves, I think it's important whatever age you are to have a body you can move. I'd like it if we could make a contribution to that. At present, feces are getting attention as 'brown diamonds.'"

    Keita Suzuki is seen holding up the AFC Champions League trophy with members of the Urawa Red Diamonds and others in Saitama Stadium 2002 after the team's win on Nov. 14, 2007. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

    But why did a professional soccer player decide to study intestinal conditions as their second career? Part of the answer lies in Suzuki's upbringing. When he was young, he was of a slight build, leading his mother -- a professional cook -- to pay special attention to her son's physical health and what he ate.

    He explained: "From a young age, my mom would tell me every day, 'Look at your poo.' She'd say I should because the intestines are what absorbs food. I was raised doing that, so examining my stool became a habit."

    Suzuki was born in the east Japan city of Shizuoka, the heartland of Japanese soccer. From a young age he was acquainted with the game, and it was his goal to become a professional player. When he was in junior high and senior high school, he began paying attention to physical conditioning.

    "I would sweat a lot and desire cold beverages, but I consciously drank warm tea. I think I was probably also influenced by the fact that the area where I lived, Shizuoka, is known for its tea production, and by growing up seeing my grandfather having warm tea after eating his meals," he said.

    In 2000, Suzuki joined the professional soccer J-League team Urawa Red Diamonds. In March 2004, he was invited to join Japan's under-23 national team. At their final round qualifier for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, there was an unexpected development; during their round playing the United Arab Emirates away, many members of the Japan squad complained of physical difficulties due to coming down with diarrhea.

    "Everyone had diarrhea, but my stool was coming out as normal. I don't know the reason why, but I think maybe it had something to do with me always taking care of those things. If you get diarrhea, your health deteriorates, and it's bad for your physical condition. I really got a sense of how important looking after your stomach is," he said.

    When he was an active player, he paid attention to his digestive system. He would make sure to wear a belly band when he went to sleep, avoid consuming cold drinks, and bring green tea with him when the team went abroad.

    Keita Suzuki is seen driving down the pitch during the final qualifying rounds for the Under-23 Athens 2004 Olympic Games, in a match against Lebanon held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on March 3, 2004. (Mainichi/Takeshi Noda)

    Due to the events of the trip to the Middle East, and the fact that the team began checking their urine to get a sense of their body water levels, the idea for the structure of a business started developing in Suzuki's head.

    "I was introduced to people making an app that records information on people's stool, and learned more about the present state of intestinal research. When I asked them, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to look at stool produced by athletes?' they said, "It definitely would be." It was then I decided I'm going to start a company."

    In October 2015, while he was still an active player, Suzuki founded AuB with stomach bacteria researchers and others. In January 2016, he retired from the game and took up his position as the company's CEO, and set about first collecting the excrement that would become their samples. The first athlete to provide them with his stool was Kotaro Matsushima, a rugby player who represented Japan at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

    Suzuki said regarding the rugby player's decision to help, "Kotaro trained under a person who has been looking after me for many years, and Kotaro and I would go out to eat together. I thought he had good material, so I said to him, "Could you bring us some?" He went, "Yeah sure," and gave us his stool.

    Among the many other athletes to have lent their assistance are long-distance runner Daichi Kamino and pro-baseballer Motohiro Shima. AuB now has over 1,400 sample stools from 28 different fields, a number that has apparently even surprised researchers abroad.

    "They're packed with athletes' data, so it's not easy to collect stool samples from sports players. At the start we were even making quite pushy requests through contacts we had, but slowly people came to appreciate what our business does, and to cooperate with us. Athletes are always thinking they want to improve their condition. I hope there might be some hint to that found through the research we do on intestines.

    Between 500 and 1,000 kinds of bacteria live inside human intestines. Looked at under a microscope, they appear to cluster like plants, and the term "gut flora" comes from the way that they look like fields of flowers. They also have some effect on the strength of people's immune systems.

    A research laboratory belonging to AuB, which investigates intestinal bacteria, is seen at the Kagawa science and technology research center in this image provided by AuB.

    "Some 70% of immune cells are in the intestines, and it's said that if the inside of your stomach has a variety of bacteria, then your immunity is also improved. Through AuB's research, we've come to understand that top-class athletes do have more varied microbial environments in their intestines than ordinary people do, and that they retain more than two times the levels of butyrate-producing bacteria that can alter immune function," Suzuki said.

    But it's not all been smooth sailing. In the spring of 2019, three years after he became the head of the company, the firm was only conducting research and was not making any profits as it did not sell products. It would have reached the end of its available finances in a few months. The support and goodwill they had received from athletes would be wasted. Amid their desperation, they went to see companies and individual investors who might be willing to inject funds into the business.

    "Without money you can't make progress, and it was difficult to get the funds together. To realize the world I wanted to see, I was prepared to do what I had to. I felt it was a rite of passage. The more you advance, the more people you get involved, the harder it gets, and you become worried about more stuff. But it feels like I'm alive, and it's better than leading a life with no meaning, isn't it?"

    After about five months, the company had raised 300 million yen (about $2.9 million), and overcome its difficulties. In December 2019, it began selling an intestinal supplement that combines 29 kinds of bacteria; the product is based on its research of bacteria from athletes' intestines. It's doing well, had sold about 10,000 units up until the time of writing.

    In September 2020, the firm discovered a new type of bifidobacteria, and announced it had filed an international patent application for it. Although the commercialization of the product is one of his successes, Suzuki says something else makes the work feel worth it.

    "It's when athletes and customers send us messages telling us how good they think what we've done is. It warms my heart. I feel moved knowing that we have positively affected the feelings of others. The knowledge we gain from researching top athletes can contribute to solving the issues of people leading ordinary lives. I want to go on giving back to society," he said.

    ***

    Keita Suzuki, the head of intestinal bacteria research firm AuB and a former top-flight soccer player who played for the Japan national team, is seen in this image provided by AuB.

    Keita Suzuki was born in the city of Shizuoka and joined the professional soccer J-League team Urawa Red Diamonds in 2000 after graduating from Tokai University Shizuoka Senior High School. In 2006 he was called up for the first time to represent Japan in the national team, and under head coach Ivica Osim he was in the starting line-up for all of the team's games. In 2008 he was voted footballer of the year for the 2007 season by sports journalists across the country.

    Suzuki appeared in 379 J-League games and scored 10 goals; in the 2015 season he retired from the game. While he was still a player, he founded the research-and-development venture firm AuB, and took up the post of CEO after his retirement.

    (Japanese original by Arina Ogata, Sports News Department)

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