Every once in a while it helps to step back and take a look at the big picture. For me, attending events like this week’s 2010 Medical Electronics Symposium, co-hosted by MEPTEC and SMTA, is one way to do that. This year’s theme was Successful Strategies for the Medical Electronics Sector, so although 3D and MEMS technologies were addressed in a few of the presentations (I’ve addressed those in a separate post), most of them focused on market opportunities, trends that are shaping the future of device development, and the end-use devices that are driving technology developments.
Keynote speaker, Ben Costello, VP of Product Engineering, Proteus Biomedical, put it succinctly in the opening comments of his presentation, Improving Healthcare with Intelligent Medicine, “Here’s the model: You develop a better device, convince the FDA that it’s better than what’s previously been approved, convince insurance companies to cover it, then, if you’re start-up, you sell your company to a larger one with the marketing muscle to convince doctors to use your product.”
While outlining the strategic trends shaping this new kind of medicine, Costello noted the internet of THINGS vs. computers; any device that has a plug or battery will have an internet or cell phone connection. “The future of medical electronics is devices that are consumer-centric, networked, tangible, have a quantifiable economic benefit and address the global market. It’s up to us to invent those devices.”
He also said the concept of “networked medicine” is a trillion dollar opportunity, and we shouldn’t be dissuaded by cuts in health care spending. For example, he said, although the UK’s NHC has announced a spending freeze for the next three years, it realizes it can save money by spending more on a device that keeps people out of the hospital by managing medication delivery.
Mehran Mehregany, executive VP of engineering for the West Wireless Health Institute, echoed many of Costello’s sentiments, saying that “pervasive technologies” – meaning devices that involve ubiquitous sensing, wireless connectivity, cloud computing, and social networks – will transform health care. He said such devices can be incorporated into the patient’s living environment, worn by the patient, monitor a given disease, and act as a gateway to transmit information to the back-end, which can then be transferred to patient’s social network where friends and family help a patient stay on track. Conditions like obesity and diabetes are targeted for this type of monitoring.
(Hold on. What’s that you say? If I cheat on my diet it’s going to be posted on Facebook? Yeah, that last part threw me too. You know I’m all about the advantages of social media, but making the details of a given health condition available on a public forum is more along the lines of invasion of privacy than progress in health care, but maybe that’s just me. What do you think?)
The social networking feature notwithstanding, the rest of this trend towards what Jeff Perkins of Yole Développment referred to as “the convergence of home care, in vitro diagnostics, and medical devices” holds a lot of promise. The goal, he says, is to get people out of the hospital, improve home care, speed up diagnostic processes and get it out of the lab.” Perkins also said he doesn’t believe that all the devices involved will be wearable or implantable – it depends on the nature of the illness – but at the very least, being portable is critical to improving quality of life.
And that’s where the opportunities lie for micro-devices integrating technologies like bioMEMS, microfluidic chips, Si based sensors, and 3D packaging. Miniaturization is a challenge and Perkins notes that clearly, semiconductor industry knowledge is critical to move this forward. There are 3D opportunities in medical applications. Size, power and reliability are the drivers, the solutions being 3D integration, wafer-level packaging, and system-in-package (SiP). All this is happening in the semiconductor world and can make things portable in the medical world. However he warns that while the high technology level is important, understanding the biology remains the main success factor. Partnering with a major medical diagnostic player is therefore critical to success.
Once again I was reminded that unlike consumer electronics, this is not a fast paced sector of the industry. As one attendee commented after Medtronic’s presentation on what regulatory hoops you have to jump through to make an improvement to a product, “it seems more cost effective to develop a new product than change an existing one.” Either way, the red tape is long, the funding is tight, and although the opportunities are many, it takes endurance, tenacity and deep pockets to go the distance. Success comes in small increments, but should be viewed as no less significant than major medical breakthroughs for all the effort that goes into them. – F.v.T.