BIOTECHNOLOGY AND LIFE SCIENCES
Biotechnology, the controlled use of living organisms or cellular
constituents for practical purposes, has been recognized worldwide as a
critical technology. As such, Japan has pursued biotechnology in various modes
including Japan's Key Technology Center (JKTC) program. To date, 10 corporate
biotechnology centers have been established over the span of 13 years (since
1985). The centers, both past and present, are listed in Appendix D.
While not all current centers were visited, a selection was made that
permitted visits to centers that are characterized as old (established) or new,
small or large, and practical or fundamental science in nature. Additionally,
some centers are more oriented toward economic development in addition to
establishing a base of science and technology.
While generalizations are always subject to reality checks by exceptions,
the following comments apply to the centers visited and to the JKTC program. In
addition, information was gleaned from other sources such as technical
information presented by the JKTC headquarters, discussions with others in
Japan, or prior information released by a specific company center.
- The JKTC program has had and continues to have a good portfolio of
significant company centers dedicated to cutting edge biotechnology topics that
are being pursued in other countries including the United States. As an
example, the early days were focused on protein engineering, recombinant DNA,
and plant cell technology. Current company centers are focused on functional
genomics, bioinformatics, biophotonics and biomolecular engineering.
Bioinformatics is a topic that is being pursued in a number of centers (Helix
Research Institute-HRI and Biomolecular Engineering Research Institute-BERI),
reflecting an interest and realization in Japan that this area is a critical
one in biology.
- The centers have a good mix of both pragmatic and fundamental research
efforts reflecting the composition of the member companies and the founding
management of those centers. More fundamental centers include HRI and BERI.
More pragmatic centers include Environmental Immuno-Chemical Technology Co.
(EIC) and certain aspects of BioPhotonics Information Laboratory (BIL). For
example, HRI's orientation of genomics reflects the founding manager's
philosophy of the criticality of incorporating cutting-edge science in a new
technology area (Teruhisa Noguchi, former CEO) and the interests of the
majority of the corporate members that are pharmaceutical companies. Like in
the United States and elsewhere, functional genomics holds much promise for
drug development and is being actively pursued by HRI.
- A genuine commitment to economic development was seen in at least one
center visited, namely BIL in Yamagata Prefecture. This center is housed in a
technology park and has the financial backing of local and prefecture
organizations. Economic development interests were also evident in discussions
with management at that center. On the other hand, other centers, while still
having a programmatic charge for economic development, were not particularly
directed toward that objective. The centers located in large cities were less
oriented to economic development and more toward achieving credibility through
quality research results.
- The biotechnology centers, like other JKTC centers, were oriented toward
achieving significant research results to satisfy the needs of the academic
reviewers along with peer-credibility and recognition, and toward patent
filings to satisfy the needs of industrial sponsors. While these two indicators
of productivity have shortcomings, they are the ones that are the driving
forces for all centers visited.
- The more fundamental and cutting-edge science-based centers (HRI and BERI)
now have active participation by academic scientists in the form of permanent
employees (academic researchers who decided to leave academia and join a
center), visiting scientists (meaning actual research performance at the center
for a defined period), and collaborating faculty (where the scientists retains
his academic affiliation but where there is active collaboration of research
results and students). This exchange is relatively new but real. Reasons
gleaned from conversations include: the recognition of the value of academic
ties (as done in the West); the background of key managers and scientists at
these centers (many have been educated and trained in the United States and
they like that model); and the need for ties in fast-moving areas of
biotechnology such as genomics.
- The more fundamental and cutting-edge centers have a significant number of
foreign (non-Japanese) scientists, especially in the form of postdoctoral
fellows. This situation is a reflection of the need to bring in new and
cutting-edge technology from abroad, in particular from the United States and
Europe. Normally, the postdoctoral fellows stay for 2-3 years.
- The more fundamental and cutting-edge centers have significant publications
in leading science and technology journals along with patents. As in the United
States, both seem to be encouraged.
- One of the centers visited, BERI, was restructured successfully based on
changing interests and needs of corporate sponsors and JKTC management. The
original center, the Protein Engineering Research Institute, PERI, matured and
was terminated by program dictates at the end of its time. However, BERI was
then formed to pursue new directions in biomolecular engineering (that included
not only proteins but also nucleic acids) as well as to take advantage of the
large infrastructure of the established PERI laboratory facilities. The
transition seemed to be quite positive and successful. Some personnel, however,
were terminated at the end of PERI.
- While most JKTC centers visited have some similarity to other efforts being
pursued in the United States in academic or industrial laboratories, BERI seems
to have a unique distinction. First, BERI has an unequaled resource base in its
laboratories and associated instrumentation and equipment all located in one
place where interaction can easily occur. Second, BERI is focused on an
important area-protein engineering-that is now getting renewed attention in the
form of "proteomics," the study of relationships of proteins with genomics.
Thus, BERI is well situated to make contributions to basic and applied areas
coming from protein engineering that few other organizations could make. We are
not aware of any other equivalent U.S. organization dedicated to biomolecular
engineering that is so poised.
As with other JKTC centers, the biotechnology centers have some inherent
differences from centers in the West that can be viewed as either an advantage
or limitation, depending on one's perspective. These differences include:
- Commitment: Once a JKTC center is formed, it is a given that that center
will exist until its time for termination. This condition imparts stability for
the staff and solidifies the area of research to be conducted. In contrast,
most centers in the West are given short time periods (at times one year)
before a review may dictate changes in management, area and approach.
- Evaluation: JKTC centers have minimal review and evaluation (compared to
what is currently being done in the United States with equivalent activities).
Minimal evaluation reflects a greater confidence in staff and management and a
recognition that significant scientific and technical issues cannot be solved
in 2-3 years. On the other hand, minimal evaluation can bring on complacency
and mundane research.
- Management: Most managers at JKTC centers are former executives from
leading Japanese companies engaged in these centers. The benefits are that
management is mature and seasoned for such positions. Management also knows the
ultimate end results that can be beneficial to the participating companies. On
the other hand, management without young "hot-shot" and career-advancing
persons may not bring forth the drive that is needed to achieve world-class
results given the highly competitive and changing nature of biotechnology.
In summary, the JKTC centers dedicated to biotechnology have and continue to
represent different areas of science (from genomics, biophotonics to
immunology), different end applications (biopharmaceuticals, medical
diagnostics, and environmental screening of pesticides), and different end
industries (pharmaceutical, medical imaging, and industrial and agricultural
chemicals). New areas have definitely been recognized (genomics and
bioinformatics) and represent major activities now being pursued. Other areas
such as tissue engineering, bionanotechnology, or combinatorial biology do not
yet have a dedicated company center nor was there any discussion on such
possibilities dealing with these topics in the immediate future during the site
visits. Given the nature of how centers are formed, like in the United States,
a champion for a particular effort needs to be there to make it happen.
New JKTC centers, as well as those involved in cutting-edge science, have
more academic interaction and foreign scientist participation, reflecting the
reality that science is now global and that hot biotechnology areas such as
genomics are highly competitive. Some centers, in fact, are starting to have
discussions with foreign firms as an outlet for their technology but not
necessarily as participating members. However, foreign companies operating in
Japan can be members and some indeed are members.
Published: September 1999; WTEC