Rising Star: Nagoya University

David Cyranoski1

The Japanese city of Nagoya is aiming to turn a history of manufacturing success into fertile ground for science applications. David Cyranoski surveys its potential.

The car maker Toyota has brought international fame and economic vitality to Japan’s central coastal region, which has the city of Nagoya at its heart. The area’s industrial prowess has made it the country’s most productive manufacturing zone for the past three decades. But in terms of international standing in science and technology, Nagoya — Japan’s fourth most-populous city — and its university remain under-appreciated and largely unknown.

“Everyone knows Toyota, but people don’t know Nagoya or the university,” laments Nagoya University’s vice-president Takashi Miyata. Founded in 1939 as one of Japan’s seven prestigious imperial universities and with roots as a medical-training institution in the 1870s, Nagoya University has nowhere near the international visibility of national universities in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. It stands at 120 in the 2008 Times Higher Education Supplement rankings — the other three are all in the top 50. And yet four of the seven Japanese scientists to win a Nobel prize this century were graduates or staff of the university: chemists Ryoji Noyori and Osamu Shimomura, and theoretical physicists Toshihide Maskawa and Makoto Kobayashi.

Now the university and city and regional governments are planning to transform Nagoya into a research hub. They will focus on the region’s strong point: monozukuri, which, literally translated, means ‘making things’. But the term also implies integrated production and the ability to put things together in a creative fashion, the way that Toyota excels at putting together cars, says Miyata.

Nagoya University crystallographer Yoshikazu Takeda describes monozukuri as “manufacturing with craftsmanship”. He says it requires practitioners to “feel by their finger a difference in thickness as small as one micrometre”.

Scientists and science policy-makers are now striving to modernize monozukuri, using academic strengths in physics and chemistry, as well as a state-of-the-art plasma-research centre and synchrotron facilities. If all goes according to plan, they will bring Nagoya’s science to a new level of international visibility and economic fortune.

Monozukuri makes good

Efforts to develop applied science with industry applications are already poised to bear fruit. For example, Nagoya University’s Center for Embedded Computing Systems was established in 2006 and is supported through collaborative research projects with several companies, including Toyota. In a project co-developed with nearby AutoNetworks Technologies, the centre has applied for eight patents for technology that would standardize the networks of a car’s 80-plus electronic control units. Projects with Toyota include the development of a new multimedia system that would enable, for example, remote diagnosis of car problems.

But the monozukuri extends far beyond cars. Central government set up one of its 18 ‘knowledge clusters’ in the region in 2003. Called the Nagoya Nanotechnology Manufacturing Cluster, it includes Nagoya University, Nagoya Institute of Technology, Toyohashi University of Technology and Meijo University, as well as 56 local companies in the quest “to make environmentally friendly, highly functional materials that lead the world”. It aims to bring together expertise, foster collaborations and seek out industrial applications for science projects, with a focus on plasma nanotechnology. The cluster already includes the Plasma Centre for Industrial Applications, which started operating last August to help introduce new plasma technologies, especially to small and medium-sized monozukuri firms. It was set up with matching funds from the Aichi prefecture, where Nagoya is located.

Plasma, a partially ionized gas known as the fourth state of matter, has valuable properties. For example, its free radicals react with a substrate surface, enabling the etching of patterns for integrated circuits, even at room temperature. But finding the best match between a given surface, the desired pattern and depth and a plasma remains difficult.

“Plasma scientists don’t really know what’s happening,” says Keigo Takeda, a researcher on the project from Nagoya University. Generally speaking, the process is mostly trial-and-error. “There are huge amounts of waste,” says Takeda.

Takeda and his colleagues, led by Masaru Hori, have invented a device that not only can tell the type and concentration of the radicals in the plasma, but can also guide a self-adjusting feedback mechanism to ensure stable quality during production. “We’re aiming for a device that anyone can use, one that can really speed up research and development,” says Takeda. Hori’s team is now testing new applications, including the processing of materials for parts used in cars or aeroplanes. The plasma can be used to add a film that hardens the material or makes it easier to paint.

Rising star?Yoshikazu Takeda.

Nanotech cluster projects are already spinning off companies and collaborations. Hori’s device is being developed by a spin-off called NU Eco Engineering. Nagoya University’s Osamu Takai is also commercializing his biomimetic self-assembling monolayers — molecules that, under certain conditions, organize themselves into layers based on hydrophilic or hydrophobic properties. The super-hydrophobic films, created with plasma processing, are being manufactured by Nagoya-based spin-off n-Factory. The technology could be used in automobile parts, medical equipment, and DNA and protein chips, as well as in photoresistors in semiconductor manufacturing. The cluster has also given rise to Meijo Nano Carbon, which sells carbon nanotubes.

Funding renewed

In October 2008, the central government made this one of only nine clusters to be renewed for another five years, earning it ¥1 billion (US$11 million) a year from the central government, to be matched by ¥500 million a year from city or prefectural governments.

Rising star?Osamu Takai: commercial goals.

The government’s decision was partly influenced by the training of industry-minded scientists and collaborations with foreign and domestic partners. For example, Nagoya University’s Plasma Nanotechnology Research Center has ties with ten foreign research institutions. Infrastructure development also spurred government backing. Largest among these projects is the Central Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Facility, which has received ¥20 billion in funding from the Aichi prefectural government. Based east of Nagoya and expected to start operations in 2012, the synchrotron will swallow ¥8 billion of the budget. It joins SPring-8 (the world’s most powerful light source) in Hyogo to the west and Photon Factory northeast in Tohoku, but unlike these, it will have commercial aims. “It will be built to the specifications, in terms of reliability and stability, needed for industrial research and development,” says Yoshikazu Takeda.

Rising star?Nagoya University: home to four Nobel laureates and now hoping to raise its profile worldwide.

The potential users are many — starting with Toyota. The company has used SPring-8 to help design exhaust gas catalysts, hybrid car batteries for its Prius, and fuel cells. “But the rigorous specifications will be a boon for basic researchers who are able to use the facility,” says Takeda. He says it will cover 90% of the research topics possible at SPring-8 and will have some capabilities that SPring-8 does not have. For example, the new synchrotron will have capacity for long-term studies looking at 1,000 samples in a series to ensure reliability of industrial products and reproducibility in basic-science experiments.

Regional policy-makers hope that the infrastructure investment will attract more venture capital and encourage more university spin-offs. Aichi had 74 university-driven business ventures in 2007, placing it in sixth place in Japan. Masaki Kato, of the Aichi New Industry Division’s science and technology section, says they could do better. “There is less capital here than in Tokyo, for example, but because of all the industry there are big opportunities,” he says. Although the recent recession has caused a drop in capital, Kato notes that many venture funds have been established, such as Aichi Venture House, and he is encouraged by a growing interest in industry among university researchers.

Bioscience efforts also tap the local expertise in nanotechnology and engineering. Nagoya University’s Innovative Research Center for Preventive Medical Engineering was established in 2006 to bridge the fields of medicine and engineering with a budget of ¥1.7 billion for four years (half from the science ministry and half from local companies). A group led by the centre’s chemist, Yoshinobu Baba, for example, developed a method for separating out cancer stem cells in a blood sample, and other groups in the centre found new markers to predict metabolic syndrome and developed techniques to diagnose milk allergies.

Hoping to commercialize his technology, Baba will start working with Nagoya University Hospital, which is part of a medical network with more than 20,000 beds. He is confident that commercialization will move swiftly. “There are many monozukuri companies that want to collaborate with my group,” he says. The centre is now applying for a ¥4.2-billion renewal of its grant for the 2010–16 period.

Nagoya still lacks a significant biotech or pharmaceutical presence, especially since Pfizer cancelled a planned Nagoya-based research arm in 2007 as part of worldwide cutbacks. There is, however, some hope: the unit’s intellectual property was spun off as a biotechnology company named RaQualia Pharma, which has set its sights on an initial public offering in 2011.

But to make good on its international aspirations, the city will need a new and diverse crowd of scientists. Baba and others have foreign postdoctoral students, but attaining more senior positions remains difficult for foreigners, largely because of language barriers, says Yoshikazu Takeda. Nagoya University has set up liaison offices in eight cities around the world to help with recruitment. But even if it continues to struggle to match the scientific reputation of Japan’s better-known hubs in greater Tokyo and the Kyoto region, current efforts to enhance its capacity for monozukuri could soon make Nagoya a major player.

*There is a Correction associated with this story. The original article was incorrect in stating that the car-maker Toyota was named after its home city. In fact, the city was named after the car-maker. In addition, the photo on page 833 is of Yoshikazu Takeda not Keigo Takeda. These errors have been corrected in this version of the story.

David Cyranoski is Nature’s Japan correspondent