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U.Va. building Japanese partnerships
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U.Va. building Japanese partnerships
Patent Foundation opens licensing office in Kobe

Kobe (above), a central Japanese city of 1.5 million people, is interested in exploring educational and research opportunities with U.Va. Vice President and Provost Gene Block (below left), along with other U.Va. representatives, visited Kobe last September to meet with Japanese officials.

By Charlotte Crystal

On Jan. 17, 1995, a deadly earthquake rocked the city of Kobe, Japan, killing thousands of people and destroying vital port facilities.

Almost seven years later, the port is nearly rebuilt, but the city still is struggling to reach firm economic ground. Port traffic and heavy industry, previously the bedrock of the regional economy, might never be fully restored.

Kobe’s city government hopes that biotechnology can serve as the foundation for a new economy — along with new port facilities, a new international airport, an advanced information technology infrastructure and eight industrial parks — and that partners, such as the University of Virginia and its Health System and Patent Foundation, can help.

In fact, the Patent Foundation already has inked an agreement with a Japanese marketing and consulting company, C.U.E. Management Consulting Ltd., to open an office next door to the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology from which to market U.Va. technology. The office opened for business last summer.

“We live in a global world and can market U.Va. products to many multinational companies almost as easily as we can market to modest-sized companies in the United States,” said Robert MacWright, executive director of the U.Va. Patent Foundation. “But marketing to modest-sized companies in a particular country, such as Japan, can be difficult because we may not be sensitive to the cultural environment or speak the language. Having an office in Kobe with a Japanese staff will allow us to show off U.Va. technology to companies of all sizes in Japan. It also will make it easier to connect with multinational companies headquartered in Japan, and develop relationships with business associates who can speak to the Japanese leadership on our behalf.”

Last September, a group of U.Va. administrators, including Gene Block, vice president and provost; Dr. R. Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and public service; Dr. Erik Hewlett, associate dean for research with the School of Medicine; and Dr. Barry Gumbiner, chair of cell biology, traveled to Kobe to explore ways in which the University could support the central Japanese city’s efforts to rebuild while advancing its research and educational interests. In addition to speaking with city officials and visiting Kobe University, U.Va. representatives expressed an interest in establishing ties with the RIKEN Center, which is pursuing research similar to that outlined by the University’s Virginia 2020 Science and Technology initiative, involving stem cell research, biodifferentiation (a set of complex processes regulating the development of tissues and organs) and tissue engineering.

“We leaped at the opportunity to collaborate with an institution that has a focus very similar to what we want to do at U.Va.,” Block said.

U.Va. and the city of Kobe would like to establish a broad-based relationship that would include undergraduate and graduate educational exchanges and cultural visits, Block said, noting that such interests are mutual as the University seeks to expand its international programs. For its part, the University would like to extend its Japanese contacts beyond Kobe.

“This is our first entree into the central Kanzai Region of Japan, where there may be opportunities to establish exchanges not only with Kobe, but with the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, which also have major, world-class universities,” Block said. “We will be following up.”

Before the visit to Kobe, its mayor and city councilors visited Charlottesville in May 2000 to explore potential areas of cooperation. The Japanese officials were particularly interested in opportunities for intellectual property transfer through the U.Va. Patent Foundation and proposed the establishment of a Patent Foundation office in a Kobe industrial park, Block said. They believed that an office in Kobe would make it easier for Japanese companies to investigate and license U.Va. technology, which in turn could supply the intellectual property needed to stimulate the growth of an advanced medical industry.

The U.Va. connection to Kobe started with a chance meeting of David Kalergis, director of Virginia Gateway, and Katsumo Sakoh, a Japanese professor at George Washington University. Sakoh put the University in touch with Shun-ichi Shimizu, managing director of C.U.E., a consulting firm that advises the city of Kobe.

Shimizu promoted the idea of developing a relationship with a U.S. university in connection with Kobe’s new research park to open a pathway to U.S. university technology, Block said. While U.S. universities often spin out intellectual property that leads to local economic development opportunities, that is not the case in Japan, he said. So there was considerable interest in experimenting with the U.S. model, by encouraging the licensing of technology to small businesses and striving to rejuvenate Kobe’s economy by nurturing the growth of these companies, he said.

“There is a sense in Japan of U.S. companies being much more entrepreneurial — of course, a greater availability of venture capital helps,” Block said. “But Kobe officials thought this opportunity might allow their city to set an example for all of Japan.”


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