Japanese company’s office could be big deal

Toray Industries will have one employee on campus with hopes of expanding.

by Nicolas Hallett

The University of Minnesota has inked a deal with a Japanese company in hopes of creating a lasting medical devices partnership.

Toray Industries, Inc., has more than 40,000 employees worldwide and almost $15 billion in revenue, but only one of its employees will come to campus, and he will work in a 153-square-foot office.

The move keeps the state and University on the international radar as a major medical devices hub for future corporate investments.

Sarah Walbert, liaison between Toray and the state, said it would’ve been a blow to the medical devices industry in Minnesota if Toray chose to go to the East or West coasts like other Japanese companies have in the past.

“Minnesota has been a fly-over state as far as the Japanese are concerned,” Walbert said. “Now, maybe all of our hard work is beginning to pay off.”

The Tokyo-based materials conglomerate uses innovative technology to produce low-cost materials ranging from synthetic suede and pharmaceuticals to aircraft.

The visiting Toray scientist, Hiroshi Ohno, is slated to arrive in December.

Arthur Erdman, the University’s Medical Devices Center director, said he hopes Ohno’s visit will turn into a long-lasting partnership.

The U.S. Department of Commerce identifies central Japan’s industrial theme as monozukuri, or “making things,” with notable companies like Honda and Mitsubishi. But when it comes to composite materials, Toray is the big player.

Erdman said interactions between the University and Japan are nothing new since the MDC opened in 2008. Since then, Erdman said, 25 different Japanese companies and government entities have visited the center.

Toray Industries gave the University’s College of Science and Engineering a gift between $50,000 and $100,000 in November 2012. That same month, Toray suggested the idea of a visiting scientist after seeing the MDC in February, Erdman said.

University Vice President for Research Brian Herman said he expects Toray to bring a unique element to the University’s industry partnerships.

“They bring a different kind of competency,” he said.

Herman said Toray’s scientific approach to material production could make medical devices perform more

Combining faculty research with corporate expertise can commercialize scientific breakthroughs faster than publishing scientific research can, Herman said.

Minnesota has a distinct competitive advantage in the medical technology world because of cooperation between its leaders in academia, government and private industry, said Walbert, who is also a medical devices and biosciences specialist for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

“We are the global center of medical devices,” she said.

Herman said the University is in negotiations to replicate this type of partnership with other companies.

Ohno will stay indefinitely in his office, which is located behind the MDC’s back entrance. He’ll be able to network with University researchers and industry partners like Medtronic and Boston Scientific.

“We’re playing matchmaker,” Erdman said. “He’s not part of us, but he’s a potential collaborator.”

With Ohno as a global associate in the University’s backyard, there’s potential for further investment dollars and Toray’s expansion within the state.

“Clearly the trajectory is set for much bigger things to come,” Erdman said. “This is going to be an interesting possibility for everybody.”