It was a sunny May day a year ago. Japanese medical entrepreneurs Ryuji Ueno and Sachiko Kuno had just toured the historic Evermay mansion and were standing in the garden, enjoying the view over the rooftops of Georgetown to the capital city beyond. They were in love with the home and the grounds.
Kuno knew the mansion had been on the market a long time, but the initial asking price, $49 million, was prohibitive—the highest on record for a private home in DC. Recently, though, she had Googled it and learned that the price was down by half, and now here they were with a dream at hand. “Everything was beautiful,” she recalls. “We decided there in the garden that we would buy Evermay.”
Seller Harry Belin accepted their offer of $22 million. That alone would be a remarkable real-estate story, but it didn’t end there. Before deciding to buy Evermay, Kuno and Ueno had been looking at another historic Georgetown mansion, Halcyon House. Both were of the Federal period—Halcyon circa 1787, Evermay 1801. Like Evermay’s, Halcyon’s asking price had started at $30 million. But three years later and well into the recession, its price was dropping too. By fall 2011, it was down to $15 million.
Kuno smiles and admits, “It’s amazing,” but she and Ueno decided they wanted to own both Evermay and Halcyon House. Owner John Dreyfuss accepted their offer of $11 million for Halcyon.
The year ended very publicly for the private and unassuming Japanese couple who had flown under the radar even though they were renowned biochemists, owners of patents on landmark medicines, and majority stockholders in two pharmaceutical companies they’d created.
They had lived in Potomac for years, raised his two sons, and been involved in the Washington National Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Gallery of Art, and other cultural causes, but when their names were made public as the buyers of Evermay and Halcyon House, their profile dramatically changed.
“Once we decided to acquire Evermay, we recognized that it’s going to be a very big responsibility—we are now the owners of a national treasure for the American people, one of the most beautiful and historic estates,” Kuno says, sitting in the spare but elegant dining room at Evermay. Two grand chandeliers define the room. “We brought those from the P Street house.” Yes, there is a P Street house, too.
Kuno and Ueno like to buy houses. She makes no apologies. They live in Potomac and use the other properties for family, friends, and visiting scholars and researchers. What about the rumor that she bought one of the houses just for her cats? “That’s not true,” she says. “I had two cats from Japan. One was 22 when she died last year.” Is the other cat at Evermay? “No, not yet.”
Kuno makes clear that Evermay eventually will be their home, but she’s in no rush. A renovation, headed by interior designer Jodi Macklin, is complete except for the kitchen. The couple has entertained at Evermay, mostly to feature performances by Japanese musicians. Kuno was involved in the National Cherry Blossom Festival centennial celebration. Two baby cherry trees, propagated from the century-old original tree at the Tidal Basin and a gift from festival president Diana Mayhew, are now planted in the Evermay garden.
Halcyon has had to take a back seat to Evermay. “We haven’t yet decided how we’re going to use the house,” she says, adding that there are no plans to rent it out, as Dreyfuss did, for weddings and other events. They hope Evermay can be a home for them and a retreat for scholars, and perhaps their foundation will be headquartered nearby at Halcyon.
The quiet, petite, 57-year-old Kuno has been making big decisions since she was a girl in the Yamaguchi prefecture of Japan. She did her undergraduate and graduate studies in biochemistry and industrial biochemistry at Kyoto University, then spent a postdoctoral year at the Technical University of Munich. Back in Kyoto at age 28, she met another biochemist, Ryuji Ueno. She was hired as his researcher.
Was it love at first sight? “No,” she says. “I was very much focused on my research. We started dating more than 10 or 15 years later.”
Their research led them to create two important, FDA-approved pharmaceuticals: Amitiza (lubiprostone), for constipation and irritable-bowel syndrome, and Rescula (unoprostone isopropyl), a topical eyedrop used in the treatment of glaucoma and ocular hypertension. They have two major companies, R-Tech Ueno, in Japan, to handle manufacturing and distribution there, and Bethesda-based Sucampo, which performs the same function in the United States. Soon they hope to have an operation in Switzerland serving Europe.
They founded R-Tech Ueno in 1989 in Tokyo and expanded to the US seven years later, meeting with FDA scientists to learn whether their work, especially Rescula, would be viable under American guidelines. They considered basing their US operation in San Francisco, La Jolla, Boston, or New York. The benefits of Washington were obvious—from the FDA to NIH to research centers such as Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. “We wanted to have good consultants and advisers at hand,” Kuno says. “We felt we could build the best team here.”
Life got better when Kuno and Ueno, who is now 58, settled in the area. They started their American company, Sucampo, and realized they were in love. They married in 2002.
Though a scientist herself, Kuno became the business half of the partnership. After starting as “only the two of us,” they grew to two operations, each with nearly 100 employees. Aware that she needed more knowledge to handle an American company, she enrolled in a three-year international-business program at Georgetown.
She laughs when she points out that Ueno was her boss when they met and now she is effectively his—and this dynamic carries over beyond business matters. Ueno loves cars and collects Ferraris. He used to race them, but “now that we’re a public company,” she says, he had to quit driving on the racetrack. Does she like to ride with him and go fast? “My Mercedes is faster than his Ferrari.”
Are Halcyon and Evermay enough to satiate their homebuying desires for now? Kuno says they have “no plan at this moment to buy other houses. We have the two most beautiful houses in Georgetown.”
This article appears in the June 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.