Morihara, 73, spent the 1990s running biotech companies in the Bay Area while also running Persimmons Golf Course in Gresham. Morihara has identified four major U.S. utilities as potential customers.
// Photo by Eric Näslund
Morihara was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1937. He came to the United States after receiving an invitation from a friend of his eldest sister, who served as an interpreter to the U.S. military after the Second World War and went on to study at Oberlin College. He jumped at the chance to come to Dearborn, Mich., and study at the University of Michigan. “At that time I wanted to be a diplomat and travel the world,” he says. “Because my mother told all of us after the war ended, ‘Japan is a small island nation. The world is big. So if you have an opportunity, take it.’”
After earning a BS and a master’s degree at Michigan, Morihara took a job near Buffalo, N.Y., with Union Carbide. When he wasn’t working or teaching skiing, he was taking courses at SUNY Buffalo. Eventually he took so many courses that an administrator forced him to choose a degree program, and he eventually earned his Ph.D in mechanical engineering.
The division he worked for at Union Carbide was a research and development group trying to develop new businesses. Morihara’s team was working on a project funded by the Department of Energy and managed by Jet Propulsion Labs, to produce low-cost photocells for space exploration, and after they made a breakthrough in efficiency, Union Carbide decided to build a commercial plant. The search for inexpensive electricity led them to the Pacific Northwest, where they built the plant in Moses Lake, Wash. They ended up selling into the semiconductor industry, just as computer sales first took off.
Unfortunately, not long after the plant began operating, Union Carbide experienced a disastrous chemical spill at a plant in India and ended up selling off non-core businesses to pay $4 billion to the Indian government. Instead of lucrative payouts for their efforts, Morihara and his team got pink slips. The Moses Lake plant was sold to Korimatsu and operated successfully for years. Its current owner, REC of Norway, recently spent $1.7 billion expanding it.
By the time his job at Union Carbide ended, Morihara had settled in Vancouver, Wash., with his wife, Mary McSwain. He did some consulting with the plant’s new owners, and then migrated down to the Bay Area following opportunities in biotechnology. One of the biotech companies in the Bay Area he consulted for, a startup called American Peptide, ended up hiring him. He served as president from 1990 to 1994. Next a similar thing happened with Peninsula Laboratories. “I was brought in to sort out some management issues, and I made recommendations, and the board said, ‘You seem to know what you’re doing. Why don’t you run it?’ So I became the CEO and chairman,” he says.
Peninsula Laboratories had about 100 employees under Morihara, and about half of them had Ph.Ds. Morihara somehow managed to run this complex Bay Area biotech company without moving to the Bay Area. His weekly air commutes took him well over a million miles. And if that weren’t enough, he also had the golf course, which he and a partner bought from Portland businessman Junki Yoshida in 1993. “From 1993 to 2000 I was managing the golf course,” he says. “So I would come home Thursday night and work Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the golf course. And Monday I’m gone.”
Morihara and McSwain did not have children, but they did sponsor visiting students from Japan — 32 of them. Morihara, a big believer in self-discipline, set tough rules for the teenagers to follow, including daily three-mile runs at 5:30 a.m. before school. “The reward was we went on trips all over the place and we skied and we had a good time,” he says. “But I think they appreciated the discipline. When it was time to leave they didn’t want to leave.”