Sony acquires Champaign-based iCyt Mission Technology

Sony acquires Champaign-based iCyt Mission Technology

CHAMPAIGN – Sony Corp.'s acquisition of Champaign-based iCyt Mission Technology brings a big player on the global stage into the fast-growing field of biological instrumentation.

Sony announced Tuesday that it has acquired iCyt (pronounced like "eyesight"), a maker of flow cytometry equipment that employs about 30 in the University of Illinois Research Park.

The firm, founded in 1995 by President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Durack, makes cell-sorting equipment and research analyzers that range in price from $250,000 to $1.4 million per machine.

"Gary Durack will continue to lead the company through this period of growth and expansion," Sony said in announcing the deal.

Sony and iCyt have been jointly developing new flow cytometry devices since last April.

The sale was hailed as a "real home run" by park developer Peter Fox, who expressed confidence iCyt would continue to grow here under Durack's direction.

"Gary was the one who created and added to the value (of iCyt), along with a lot of talented people, and I think the acquirer will pay a lot of attention to that," Fox said.

Sony officials have visited Champaign-Urbana a number of times, he said, and "they wouldn't affiliate with someone if they did not support his visions."

The university has scheduled a reception at 11 a.m. today in the iCyt building to welcome Sony to Champaign. Other Fortune 500 companies already in the park include Caterpillar, State Farm, Deere & Company, Yahoo, Qualcomm, Archer Daniels Midland, Abbott and Science Applications International Corp.

In a statement released Tuesday, Sony Executive Vice President Keiji Kimura said marrying Sony's expertise in manufacturing consumer products with iCyt's technological assets will accelerate development of the business.

Sony has been trying to figure how its consumer-based optic technologies, such as those used for Blu-ray discs, could be used for health care applications.

Recent progress in regenerative medicine has pointed to the importance of cell analysis and flow cytometry as a tool for research, the company said.

Champaign-based iCyt had 50 full-time employees and a payroll of $2.7 million in 2008, but Durack said in October that iCyt had to drop a few employees last year "due to the economic difficulties."

He said iCyt had $3.5 million in orders lined up in late 2008, when financial markets collapsed and capital equipment sales evaporated.

The company was founded in 1995 as Cytometry Services. It adopted the iCyt name in 2002 and moved to the research park the same year. In 2005, it moved to a new building at 2100 S. Oak St., C, where it occupies the first floor.

Until 2006, the company made only devices that improved the effectiveness of cell sorters. But that year, Durack began producing the sorters themselves – and competing with some of the biggest names in the industry.

Major players in the industry include BD Biosciences, part of Becton, Dickinson & Co.; Beckman Coulter and Danish company Dako A/S. Fox likened Durack's push into the market to David going up against Goliaths.

Cell sorters are used by academic, government and independent institutions to sort biological cells. Initially, they were used primarily for research purposes. But it's expected they'll be used increasingly for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

For example, researchers can indicate "cells of interest" and isolate them using cell sorters. Scientists can then study those cells to see how they react to drugs and other agents.

In 2006, iCyt introduced its first cell sorter, named Reflection. More recently, iCyt unveiled a new product called Synergy that combines the cell sorting and analyzing functions.

A few years ago, iCyt entered an agreement with the Carle Foundation and the UI's Institute for Genomic Biology that would allow them to use a cell sorter at iCyt.

The purpose of the project was to isolate adult stem cells from bone marrow for use in treating cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and cancer and in developing new bone tissue.

Among the customers that iCyt's products are marketed to are pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, medical centers and research institutions.

Durack has been adamant about his company remaining local. At last year's annual meeting of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp., he told the audience, "We were founded in Champaign, we're growing in Champaign and we're going to stay in Champaign."

The company has twice been named one of the Best Places to Work in Illinois. The selections were made by Best Companies Group of Harrisburg, Pa., based on employee responses to a confidential online survey.

An electrical engineer by training, Durack entered the cytometry business in 1979 when he went to work for the Coulter Corp., a maker of cytometry equipment. Coulter later merged with Beckman Instruments to form Beckman Coulter.

Durack became manager of Purdue University's cytometry labs in 1989 and came to the UI four years later as director of its flow cytometry facility. In August 2000, he became assistant director for technology at the UI's biotechnology center.

Sony Corp. at a glance

Headquarters: Tokyo. The U.S. subsidiary, Sony Corp. of America, is based in New York.

Business: Electronics and entertainment. Sony's products include televisions, game systems, movies, music and Blu-ray discs. The company's biggest business segment is Consumer Products and Devices, but it's also involved in businesses ranging from life insurance to the Sony Ericsson joint venture in mobile communications.

Sales: $78.9 billion for the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2009. For the quarter that ended Dec. 31, Sony had net income of $985 million on sales of $24.3 billion.

Employees: 171,300 worldwide.

U.S. research and engineering facilities: San Jose, Calif.; San Diego, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; and Park Ridge, N.J.

U.S. major manufacturing facilities: Dothan, Ala.; Pitman, N.J.; San Diego, Calif., and Terre Haute, Ind.

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