Founder: Sony Biotechnology had 'fantastic employees' here

Founder: Sony Biotechnology had 'fantastic employees' here

CHAMPAIGN — Sony's stay in Champaign lasted not much longer than a single presidential term.

Sony acquired Champaign-based iCyt Mission Technology in 2010 and two years later changed the name to Sony Biotechnology.

On Thursday, the company confirmed it will close its offices in the University of Illinois Research Park at the end of September and move its headquarters to San Jose, Calif.

Twelve of the facility's 22 employees will be offered transfers or given the opportunity to work as field employees, and the other 10 positions will be eliminated, said Lisa Gephardt, a Sony spokeswoman based in New York. Employees were informed of the move Wednesday, she said.

Sony Biotechnology, at 2100 S. Oak St., C, manufactures flow cytometry equipment, including cell sorters and cell analyzers.

Its products, sometimes sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, are marketed to research institutions, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and medical centers.

Instead of manufacturing that equipment in the U.S., Sony has decided its domestic biotechnology operations will focus on sales, service and marketing of products manufactured in Japan for all markets except for Japan and the European Union, Gephardt said.

Sony Corp. will do the product development and will handle sales service and marketing in Japan, while Sony Europe will handle sales, serving and marketing for the European Union, she said.

Gary Durack, who founded iCyt and stayed with Sony Biotechnology until 2012, said Sony had some "fantastic employees" here. At one time, he said, the flow cytometry company employed about 90. At the time of its sale to Sony, it employed about 30.

"They (Sony) have to make business decisions that align with their priorities," he said. "I wish Sony well and all the employees well, and I hope they find alternative places to contribute within the community."

Gephardt said some employees have been offered relocation packages to San Jose. Others will be given the chance to continue with the company as field-based employees "who could perhaps work out of their homes," she said.

Sony Biotechnology CEO Allen Poirson will be among those going to San Jose, she said.

Gephardt said the two products made in Champaign are the SY3200 cell sorter and the EC800 cell analyzer.

"Flow cytometry products developed by Sony Corp. are No. 1 in Japanese markets," she said. "There's a good opportunity to increase sales globally with a foothold in North America and tremendous growth opportunities in Europe."

The history of the locally based company dates to 1995, when Durack founded Cytometry Services. That business adopted the iCyt name in 2002, about the same time it moved to the UI research park.

Until 2006, the company made only devices that improved the effectiveness of cell sorters, which are used to sort biological cells. But that year, iCyt began producing the sorters themselves.

The equipment is used primarily for research purposes but is increasingly used for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

When asked to reflect on iCyt/Sony Biotechnology's contribution to the field, Durack said, "The greatest impact was in developing high-throughput cell sorting technology and the improvement of biosafety.

"We were the first to integrate cell sorters into biosafety cabinets that protected the operator from any contamination and protected the sample to keep it sterile. We did a number of things in the company that the entire industry then followed," he said.

"Sony picked up on this and introduced the disposable microfluidic chip, a major innovation," Durack said. "They took a great big machine we were making and reduced (the cell sorting module) to a plastic microfluidic chip that could be replaced each time the customer used the machine."

Durack said the company employed 'a wide variety of professionals — engineers, people in the life sciences," many with master's or doctoral degrees. Others were in sales and marketing, or in design and manufacturing.

"I have nothing but the highest praise for the people who committed their time and effort to building the company," he said.

When he was president and CEO of iCyt, Durack insisted that the company remain local.

"We were founded in Champaign, we're growing in Champaign and we're going to stay in Champaign," he proclaimed at the Champaign County Economic Development Corp.'s 2011 annual meeting.

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