In high resolution: JEOL celebrates platinum anniversary

By Kevin Robinson | Published: 31-Oct-2019

The manufacturer of electron microscopes and other scientific instruments has been in the business for 70 years. Bob Pohorenec, the company’s new president, reflects on the market and the challenges ahead

KSR: Tell me a little about the new position, what this means for you and how it reflects on where JEOL is going in the next few years.

BP: As president of JEOL USA, I am responsible for the northern and southern hemisphere — North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. I’ve been with the company for 35 years, exactly half of the 70 years that we’re now celebrating. JEOL USA is part of JEOL Limited and we represent about 10% of their global business.

Financially, our global sales are slightly more than one billion dollars per year. During my time here at JEOL, I’ve been in every part of the company. Japanese organisations tend to promote from within and move employees around to develop a well-rounded management bench. I feel quite fortunate in that regard.

On the development side, with an educational background in business, I started in customer service; but, because I had a pretty extensive electronics background, I ended up in Product Development for about 12 years.

We did a lot of systems integration here in the US and then I came to work at a more corporate level. As far as my responsibilities go, they’ve really broadened out to include a lot more marketing and science, as well as helping our product management group to promote our products and to help our parent company to steer the next generation of tools.

KSR: With the 70-year anniversary, what do you think has been the biggest change in that period, and what might we see in a similar time frame?

BP: In our kind of business, and I think it’s also true of our peer companies, it’s fascinating to see how people buy our tools to research new materials, chemicals and devices. Very often, they are developing components and devices that we will use in a future generation of instruments. In a sense, they’re constantly redeveloping their own tools … they just don’t know it.

A key example is if you look at an instrument built in the early 1990s. At that time, everybody had to make their own CRT-based displays and build their own internal microprocessor-based control computers. At the high-end, we were incorporating very expensive computers from companies such as Digital and Silicon Graphics that had costs in the $100,000–200,000 range.

Today, that’s all gone; most computers used for the majority of our products are consumer or business-level products. Most of the people who buy our instruments are actually — often, without realising it — helping us to develop the next generation of tools.

KSR: By challenging JEOL, do your customers help to drive your development?

BP: That’s a good question. None of our best product ideas come from exclusively inside JEOL. A close collaboration with a customer, or sometimes just a proposal from a customer, can be incredibly innovative. In fact, that’s how the company was founded. I keep an old IEEE transcript of an oral history with the two founders of the company, Kenji Kazato and Kazuo Ito, which explains how, from day one, that’s how we have always and will continue to operate.

We work very closely with numerous universities and private companies who have specific requirements. Typically, we have something that is a perfect fit, but sometimes it’s only 75% of what they need. When this happens, we have to collaborate with the customer to create something that may or may not be unique to them to fulfil the remaining 25%. It might not directly result in a new product but will certainly inform a future one.

KSR: In this domain, there is so much pressure on a given lab, particularly in a diagnostic or analytical one, to expedite throughput, implement automation and possibly reduce the overall staff count. Is that something that’s affecting JEOL?

BP: It’s certainly a concern, but there is another side of the equation; you have to look at the ageing workforce that people are dealing with in mature technology companies. In many such organisations, JEOL being one of them, 20–25% of the workforce could be within 10 years of retirement, so there are going to be knowledge gaps that need to be filled.

When it comes to our products and the push for artificial intelligence (AI), for example, it’s mainly to do more — not the same amount of work — with fewer people.

KSR: What fascinates me is, compared with 10–20 years, what is now possible in terms of automation and analysis. I’m keen to know, considering the challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry, how these developments are helping manufacturers to get their drugs to market in a more expedited way?

BP: I do a lot of lab tours, mainly universities, and I usually have a couple of people with me who got their PhDs 20 to 25 years ago. As we do our tours, we’re watching how the people in the labs use current technology and one of my colleagues will often say something like: “When I got my PhD, that would have been my entire thesis.”

We have worked with pharmaceutical clients mainly through the discrete sale of an instrument such as an NMR, a mass spectrometer or an electron microscope. It’s still early days, but there is more and more interest in combining data from these techniques, for example, using cryoelectron microscope data and NMR data to get better and faster structural analyses. The amount of work and the volume of data that today’s instrumentation can produce is astounding when compared with a decade ago.

KSR: Do you think there’s any chance that we’re over-producing data?

BP: I am not sure that I can say that we’re over-producing data, but bandwidth and data storage are a pretty consistent topic. Certain kinds of instrumentation can be very expensive, so the trend for the past several years has been to acquire huge sets of data as quickly as possible to conserve instrument time and then process the data later.

There’s a lot of work going on with techniques such as compressive sensing, basically trying to get answers without having to acquire an entire data set and making smarter decisions with less data.

Even that involves some level of post-processing, so the metadata is still out there. There’s an appetite for storage right now, especially for science data. I had been speaking with some people at a major medical school that’s working with a form of serial block-face imaging and acquiring huge image files of tissue samples.

They can’t actually send their data over their network and to the Internet. Instead, they send storage drives by truck to Amazon Web Services! It’s a growing issue ... and someone will need to come up with a solution.

KSR: Do you get a feeling that companies/individuals/research establishments are more willing to share and pool their data or is it still siloed?

BP: It depends on what the data is. Companies will always need to be very protective of their data. There are exceptions, such as databanks for NMR spectra or the Protein Data Bank, wherein contributors will share models of molecules, proteins or other structures.

KSR: Swinging back to the technology itself and the resolution that’s now obtainable compared with 70 years ago. How much further do you think we can go in terms of limits of detection?

BP: There are physical limitations to resolution, and we’re already getting close to the theoretical limit — but there’s still room for improvement in aberration correction within electron lenses. We have a new aberration-corrected instrument that has amazing resolution ... and our competitors are doing the same thing.

I think, at this point, we’re knocking off three-tenths of a picometre with each evolutionary step. These aren’t huge gains, but they’re still meaningful ones. I think that the advances to be had in microscopy will be in expanding the capabilities of the electron microscope through new types of lenses, such as field-free lenses, new sensor technology and new types of in-situ experiments.

Speaking about instrumentation in general, I think we will see a lot more AI used to make instruments much easier to use and cheaper to manufacture

KSR: What would you like to achieve and see the company do in the next few years?

BP: I expect that we will be looking at more and more partnerships and alliances on our medical equipment side, which I don’t personally deal with in the US. We separate our business into three groups; I deal with the largest sector, which represents about 65% of our product line and revenue.

On the medical side, we’ve been collaborating with Siemens and other companies, sometimes even relabelling our equipment with their brand on it. I expect that we’re going to start seeing more of those kinds of relationships throughout the entire business. We’ve started partnering more and more on the mass spectrometry and NMR side as well.

From a pharmaceutical perspective, the activity of biopharma companies and the quality control that’s required for them — and the regulatory affairs that they have to comply with — are also driving forces. We have a module that we can supply for 21 CFR Part 11 compliance; but, for the most part, a lot of the work that we’re doing is on the discovery side as opposed to the manufacturing side.

The industry is changing rapidly, so we’re always looking to be more innovative and develop our product offering. I feel very proud to be part of a company that has seen such growth during the past 70 years, and it’s exciting to see what the future holds.

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