In a move championed by Fujio Mitarai, the 65-year-old president and CEO of Canon, the Tokyo-based digital technology giant will increase spending on research and development by 2 percent annually within the next two years, with some of those funds, according to news reports, heading to commercializing DNA microarray production based on the company's pioneering ink-jet technology.
Canon may become one more industry giant in a queue that includes newcomers such as Intel and a cartel from Taiwan's semiconductor industry, joining firms like Amersham and Agilent Technologies in taking a market risk well illustrated by Corning and Motorola’s failed attempts.
Canon is targeting the diagnostics' market, which is already starting to heat up this year, after Affymetrix signed an 18-year collaboration with pharmaceutical giant Roche.
The allure of this emerging industry — projected to at least double over the next five years — seems attractive to a company that already has dipped its corporate toes in the gene-expression pool. Canon has collected a portfolio of microarray-related patents over the last five years, while creating a manufacturing process that ranks among the leaders in products such as optics, computer chips, and value-added technology such as scanners, printers and digital cameras.
Mitarai, the nephew of one Canon's founders, has aggressively reshaped the one-time office copier maker into a profit-oriented digital player with revenues of $23.5 billion in 2002. He took the helm of the company in 1995 after working in its North American division for some 20 years.
According to an April 25 report in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper of Japan, the company will seek to raise its R&D expenditures from 8 percent of sales to 10 percent. The article also said that Canon will start broadening its efforts in biotechnology, including DNA chips.
Separately, the company announced a new application of ink-jet technology for the mass production of DNA chips, according to an article in the April 21 Nikkei Weekly, another Japanese news publication. The article said that Canon will commercialize a new DNA-chip production technology by fiscal year 2005, with an eye to slashing prices for end users.
The company unveiled ink-jet- based DNA spotting technology back in 2000 and corporate documents list its ink-jet technology as one of five key technology business drivers going forward.
Agilent licenses Canon's thermal ink-jet technology, as well as that of Hewlett-Packard.
Canon's Bubble Jet technology dispenses between 4 and 24 picoliters and can lay down a 50-micron diameter spot from a 4 picoliter solution, while printing to a density of 20,000 spots per square centimeter on a glass substrate.
The company's core printing technology involves heating bubbles in a tube of liquid and expelling them through proprietary nozzles in order to print on a surface. The company says it has created a process that overcomes the issue of heat breaking down DNA.
The company is also considering developing protein chips using the same technology.
The Patent Portfolio
There are at least six US patents on file in this arena, dating back to 1998. The patents are held by Canon Kabushiki Kaisha, which is consistently in the top 5 companies annually receiving US patents, with 1,893 patents in 2002, second only to IBM, the perennial leader.
The company has DNA-chip manufacturing patents pending in the US, Japan, and Europe in additon to the following:
In April, Canon received US Patent No. 6,548,020, “Reaction site array with a black matrix to decrease cross-contamination between reaction regions.” The patent covers an array system with a black matrix made of a photoreactive resin and reaction sites of wells made of chromium, aluminum or gold, and fed by ink jet. The projecting walls of the wells control cross-contamination.
In July 2002, the company received US Patent No. 6,424,418, “Surface plasmon resonance sensor apparatus using surface emitting laser.” The patent covers an SPR system for detecting DNA, RNA, and protein nucleic acids.
In November 2002, the company received US Patent No. 6,476,215, “Ink jet method of spotting a probe and manufacturing a probe array.” The patent is for a manufacturing process based around using an ink jet to spot droplets of probes on the surface of a solid support.
In November 1998, the company received US Patent No. 5,830,643, “Partially double-stranded oligonucleotide and method for forming oligonucleotide.”