Midwest and Japan to share biotech ideas

Thursday, October 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska have put their differences aside to represent the Midwest on a mission to Japan.

Tom Sharpe, executive director of UM’s Office of Technology and Special Projects, is representing the UM system on a weeklong tour of Japan’s Kansai region. He is one of more than 70 delegates from 11 Midwest states visiting the country.

The trip was arranged by the Chicago office of the Japan External Trade Organization, which promotes international trade for the Japanese government. The mission’s goal is to form ties and coordinate research efforts between biotechnology companies and life science research facilities in the Midwest and Kansai.

Envoys from 21 Midwest biotechnology companies left Saturday with delegates from several universities, including Washington University in St. Louis, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Nebraska.

“All of us are looking for opportunities in building research and development,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe hopes to learn more about research interests Kansai universities share with UM campuses in plant and animal sciences and health care, he said. He also plans to explore licensing and technology resources that UM facilities can offer.

Kansai is home to four of Japan’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies and most of Japan’s research institutes, according to a press release from Japan External Trade Organization. The trip is the latest step of the Kansai Midwest Biotechnology Initiative, a series of symposia held to coordinate biotechnology research and development between the two regions.

“Japanese industries have earmarked life sciences as one it plans to develop,” said Eric Mercer, co-coordinator of the Missouri Economic Development Department’s business trade and development team. The department sent its own delegate, Zatuilla Nara, to help the two regions’ biotechnology industries learn more about each other.

Missouri’s exports to Japan totaled $311.2 million in 2002, making the country the fourth largest buyer of Missouri goods after Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Long-term agreements reached with contacts in Kansai could lead to new funding for UM research, Sharpe said. But the immediate goal is to establish contacts.

“You don’t just go over there once and come back with a briefcase full of money,” Sharpe said.

Research activity in life sciences has increased at all UM campuses, but especially at Columbia, Sharpe said. For instance, MU’s $60-million Life Sciences Center, scheduled to open in spring 2004, will have more than 40 laboratories for interdisciplinary research.

Delegates plan to attend presentations and networking sessions and tour facilities in the Kansai cities of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. This includes a two-day global forum in Osaka.

Tomoharu Washio, chief executive director of JETRO in Chicago, said he hopes everyone on the mission leaves with at least 50 business cards from Kansai’s top companies. “Everything will begin from this stage,” said Washio, who is also the trip’s coordinator.

The trip follows the agency’s U.S. biotechnology forums held earlier this year, when Japanese companies visited St. Louis, Chicago and Madison, Wis.. The forums focused on ways in which Midwest companies can compete with the East and West coasts by tapping into Kansai’s growing industry, Washio said.

This month’s trip offers an opportunity for “more concrete business networking,” and several negotiations between businesses are already under way, Washio said. Washio would not reveal the companies involved but said he expects agreements to be announced “within a few months.”

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