First Business Dept.
Nutrition & Agriculture Business Unit
A passion for science has driven Tatsutaka Sato throughout his career. He is now in charge of Mitsui’s Agriscience Division.
Japan is actually the fourth-biggest producer of agrochemicals in the world. Now is an exciting time to be working in AgriScience. There’s a wave of consolidation going on with the “Big 6” companies that dominate the sector. That opens up opportunities for Mitsui to acquire products which the new, enlarged entities sell off due to rationalization of product portfolio.
The market is changing in other ways too. Agrochemicals in excessive quantities can have negative impacts on the environment and food safety. That’s why there’s a move to cut back on chemical pesticides by using them in tandem with microorganism-based biopesticides. Mitsui is contributing to that change: we acquired Thermo Trilogy, a U.S.-based biopesticide pioneer, in 2001. It’s now called Certis USA and its sales have really picked up since 2011.
I joined the AgriScience Division in 2015. Most of my prior jobs were pharmaceutical-related. From 2003 to 2008, I worked at a Mitsui subsidiary that developed new drugs. The CEO was Dr. Ichiro Shinkai, a legendary Japanese chemist who had been senior vice president at Merck. We used Japanese know-how in chemical synthesis to create new drugs. We outsourced the actual manufacturing, so the business was a combination of IP and sales. We definitely did a good job in helping Japanese contract drug manufacturers realize their enormous potential, get the most out of their technology, and compete at the highest international levels.
One of the big trends in Mitsui is this shift from a trading model to an investment model, where we acquire and run businesses. In 2011, when the well-known Japanese wine company Mercian spun out its pharmaceuticals and chemicals business, Mitsui bought it. The company—MicroBiopharm Japan—uses the fermentation and bioconversion technologies it originally developed for winemaking to make pharmaceutical ingredients. The firm has a library of over 50,000 microorganisms isolated from soil, plants, bodies of water, and so on. These microorganisms can be candidate compounds for new products, both pharmaceuticals and biopesticides. In fact, around half of all the world’s drugs have their origins in microorganisms. I often went to the U.S. and Europe to meet with biotech startups and big pharma companies while at MBJ.
My major at university was applied chemistry. Personally, I really like fermentation. It’s a technology which Japan has traditionally excelled at; after all, everyday Japanese foods like miso, soy sauce and sake are all the products of fermentation. With chemical synthesis you can eke out productivity gains of a few percent, but with microorganisms you can do things like double the productivity of a process just like that, or collapse 30 stages of a process into just one. It’s miraculous.
I have spent most of my career on the manufacturing side, and that is the thing I am most passionate about. When I worked in pharmaceuticals I was in development and manufacturing, so I was at a certain distance from the end user. Now in AgriScience, I’ve moved downstream and am closer to the distributors and farmers. I try to keep in mind that we are helping food manufacturers produce better, safer food and be kinder to the environment. We are helping agribusiness evolve in a positive way.
In my case, science is very much at the center of what I do. At the same, I try to go beyond the day to day, look at the big picture and try to figure out how science will affect specific industries, fields and trends in the future. Historically, science is one of Mitsui’s greatest strengths. But science alone is not enough. It is when you combine science with the ability to connect people, institutions, companies and countries that you can really make that link between R&D and customers in the market. And that’s what really makes Mitsui special.
Posted in March 2017