Sadayuki Sakakibara, president of Toray Industries Inc., is confident there are researchers at his company who have the potential to win a Nobel Prize, just like Shimadzu Corp.’s Koichi Tanaka.
“I think it’s possible,” said Sakakibara, who is also chief operating officer of Toray. “At least three researchers at our company are engaged in work that may qualify them as Nobel Prize candidates in the future.”
In a recent interview with The Japan Times, the chief of the synthetic fiber maker said nurturing and utilizing high-level technologies will help Toray overcome its current slump.
In the year to last March 31, Toray saw its worst results in 77 years of business. It posted an operating loss of 5.8 billion yen, its first ever.
“Our business is built on science and technology,” said Sakakibara, who became president in June. “We won’t be able to survive unless we maintain the world’s highest level of technology and constantly deliver new materials with new characteristics.”
Toray began as a textile maker, but its products are now ubiquitous, ranging from swimsuits to water purification systems to films used for bases of IC chips and other computer products.
In the arena of nanotechnology, the company recently developed an ultrathin nylon fiber that can be spun into textiles capable of absorbing moisture better than natural materials, Sakakibara said.
Each nylon fiber, with a diameter of 60 microns, is actually a bundle of more than 1.4 million fibers, each just tens of nanometers thick. Water seeps through the spaces between these fibers, giving the material two to three times the absorption capacity of cotton.
Toray has not come up with a concrete plan of what product the new “nanofiber” will be used for. But Sakakibara said that it will debut in the market within two to three years and that other new discoveries are waiting to find applications in the market.
“The results of our research are expected to bring 50 billion yen in revenues this year alone,” said Sakakibara, who holds a master’s degree in applied chemistry from Nagoya University.
He attributed the company’s recent poor performance to the severe global environment for the industry.
For example, the fiber and textile sector, Toray’s mainstay, was hit hard by severe competition with an influx of cheaper products from Asia, he said.
Alarmed by the results, the firm in April adopted “New Toray 21,” a medium-term business plan. The plan lays out measures ranging from streamlining management, reviewing loss-making businesses and concentrating on sectors with high growth potential.
To cultivate new demand, Sakakibara said Toray is participating in the development of Airbus Industries’ new A380, to be launched in 2006. Each A380 will use 37 tons of carbon fiber produced by Toray, compared with 7 tons currently used for a Boeing 777.
Thanks to the business plan, Toray’s consolidated operating profit is expected to post 30 billion yen in the current business year to March 31, front-loading the initial target of posting 22 billion yen in operating profit.
As a long-term strategy, the company has chosen three areas for strategic expansion: information technology, life science, and environmental and safety technology.
Toray plans to create in May a new research institute that will attract the world’s leading researchers in biotechnology and nanotechnology. It will open with a staff of 50 researchers, but the number will grow to 100 in three to five years, Sakakibara said.
“Utilizing biotechnology and nanotechnology, we can create a world we only dream of,” he said. “I’ve asked the researchers to find the seeds of the technology that will draw profits for Toray in 10 to 15 years’ time.”
Concerned about the government’s lack of policy toward information technology and biotechnology in the past decade, Sakakibara has worked closely on various proposals with Toray Chairman Katsunosuke Maeda, who was a member of the government’s Council for Science and Technology Policy, now headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, for two years beginning in January 2000.
“What we proposed was to inject more funds into universities and laboratories to nurture scientists, especially in the field of IT, life sciences, nanotechnology and the environment,” he said, adding that as a result, the government adopted a basic plan to spend 25 trillion yen on the science and technology sector between fiscal 2002 and 2007.
“I think a focus on science and technology is the only way for Japan, which does not have rich natural resources, to survive in this world,” he said. “And the same is true for our company.”