If he had been a researcher at a major Japanese university, Koichi Tanaka could not have won the 2002 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
That is the claim of his employer, Shimadzu Corp., a Kyoto-based precision equipment maker that says it excels in nurturing researchers of the highest caliber.
Tanaka won the Nobel for developing an innovative method of analyzing life-forming proteins, a discovery paving the way for early cancer diagnosis. Tanaka was Japan’s first researcher to win a Nobel Prize while on the payroll of a private Japanese company.
But is it simply a matter of chance that the company, established in 1875, produced a Nobel laureate?
In the opinion of Shimadzu President Hidetoshi Yajima, it was not purely luck.
“Research and development are Shimadzu’s lifelines,” Yajima said at a recent news conference in Tokyo. The company sets aside some 12 billion yen for research and development activities every year, while still managing to project profits of 4 billion yen for the 2002 business year.
Shimadzu produces several cutting-edge technological products, including liquid chromatographs, a water quality analyzer, a DNA analysis system and advanced aircraft components.
To compete with rivals in the global market, Shimadzu offers its researchers a flexible working environment in which they can concentrate on research and development, Yajima said.
“We have been developing products in niche markets to become a global player in those business fields,” he said. “We usually wait at least five years before we see any outcome once we assign our researchers to the task of developing a new product.”
In general, researchers and engineers require a certain time to develop a new product, but many companies decide to cancel research projects before they have borne fruit, he said.
Shimadzu also urges its researchers to exchange opinions with clients in an attempt to develop and produce more client-oriented products, Yajima said. This is because researchers are, by nature, inclined toward their own pursuits, not those of business.
According to Yajima, Tanaka developed the method of analyzing proteins after close consultations with his clients.
In January, Shimadzu opened a mass spectroscopy laboratory named after Tanaka to commemorate his achievement. The Koichi Tanaka Mass Spectrometry Research Laboratory, at the firm’s technical center in Kyoto, is headed by the Nobel winner himself.
Shimadzu plans to spend some 200 million yen on the laboratory in its initial year of research and to increase the number of researchers in the fall from the initial six, Yajima said.
The lab is expected to go into full operations in the near future as Tanaka is currently busy writing a report on his Nobel Prize winning achievements.
In a statement issued when it was announced that the institute would be created, Tanaka said, “I would like to open a new opportunity for mass spectroscopy technologies by promoting exchanges among people at the laboratory.”
The lab is expected to focus on research into identifying illnesses by analyzing quantities of protein in blood. It will also study the chains of sugar on the surface of individual proteins to determine their functions.
Yajima admitted he had never imagined that a Shimadzu employee would win a Nobel Prize, partly because the company had no in-house system to compensate researchers or engineers for outstanding performance or discoveries.
“We therefore offered him a new laboratory, in addition to a special bonus amounting to 10 million yen,” Yajima said.
Tanaka appears more than happy with his employer’s offer at a time when legal battles involving patents owned by companies are being fought. In many cases, individuals have sued former employers over rights to new technology that they developed, claiming they have not received sufficient compensation for their discoveries.
To increase its competitive edge, Shimadzu is now considering a system that would reward researchers for their discoveries, Yajima said. It will be designed to reflect earnings the company makes from the results of their research and development work.
“The other day, Tanaka joked that he would have asked for a sizable reward if the company earned a profit from his new invention,” Yajima said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.