Nobel-winner Tanaka seeks no reward


Engineer Koichi Tanaka said Thursday he does not intend to ask his employer for a special reward for the invention that led to his winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

“I’m unconcerned about patent income, and I see the patent as a mere official record of my invention,” he said, referring to a patent on a mass spectrometry technique owned by his employer, Shimadzu Corp.

Tanaka was notified Wednesday that he won this year’s chemistry Nobel along with an American and a Swiss.

A researcher with the Kyoto-based precision-equipment maker, Tanaka developed the basic theory of soft laser desorption, a technique used to identify and map proteins. His innovation has been used to aid the drug-development process.

Shimadzu filed a patent for the technique with Japanese authorities in 1985, naming Tanaka and a fellow researcher as its inventors. The firm said it has yet to file any similar patents overseas.

Shimadzu has said it owns the patent and thus has the right to earn royalties from its use.

As the patent only covers minute details relating to the technique, it is possible to manufacture mass spectrometry devices without infringement.

A top U.S. manufacturer of precision equipment draws on Tanaka’s concept to produce similar devices, but not in a fashion that requires it to pay royalties to Tanaka’s employer, Shimadzu said.

Legal battles involving company-owned patents are being fought with increasing regularity these days. In many cases, individuals have sued former employers, claiming they have not received sufficient compensation for their discoveries.

In one instance, Nichia Corp., a manufacturer of blue light-emitting diodes, was sued by Shuji Nakamura, who invented them and is now a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Although a court rejected Nakamura’s lawsuit, it recognized that he should be eligible for a reward. He is still demanding 2 billion yen in compensation from Nichia.

Tanaka will share half of the $1 million Nobel award with John Fenn, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. The other half will go to Kurt Wuthrich, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Tanaka said Thursday his achievement has finally sunk in.

“It came so suddenly yesterday that I could not understand what was going on,” Tanaka told a crowd of reporters in front of his office. “This morning, when I saw my face on the newspaper and television, I finally got it into my head.”

Clad in formal attire, the 43-year-old Tanaka headed to work at Shimadzu’s head office shortly before 8 a.m.

He told reporters he had been too nervous and excited to sleep the previous night.

When asked about his future plans, Tanaka voiced some anxiety but vowed to sharpen research on how his accomplishment can lead to the development of new drugs.