Q5 Interview – Professor Chris Toumazou, Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Imperial College
Thursday 8 January 2009
Professor Chris Toumazou, Director and Chief Scientist at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Imperial College, London, talks to Electronics Weekly about the the status of biomedical engineering in the UK, how the worlds of semiconductors and bioengineering come together, and his view on the status of the engineer in the UK.
What is the role of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in the UK’s electronics and high tech industries?
One core model that we are pursuing at the Institute is the creation of disruptive technology. The Institute is providing a really unique environment where engineers and medics and scientists can come together and innovate
By bringing inventors and users together, we can not only develop new technologies but, crucially, we are also creating an implicit business model around usage. This delivers a huge advantage in terms of technology transfer, and providing industry with a more mature and proven technology base to take into commercialisation.
Taking one example, the mobile phone is now playing a major part in healthcare monitoring. How do mobile phone manufacturers determine a business model around a phone that’s now become a healthcare device? Similarly, how does the medical industry take a standard healthcare device and make it into a consumer product, out of the hospital and into the home? The structure we have at the Institute plays a major role in enabling the economies of scale of the semiconductor industry to be leveraged for these types of translational technology applications.
How would you characterise the status of biomedical engineering in the UK?
The British are very good inventors. In terms of manufacturing however the UK has not invested sufficient funds into delivering medically-approved, regulated technologies, in comparision to, say, the US. In this sense, the US works much closer to its markets, and much closer to the true cost of medical device development.
In the UK, we have a very good practice of medics and engineers working together but we have not traditionally been as good at exploiting our own innovation. In order to harness disruptive technology in the healthcare market, we’re going to need a giant like an Intel or a Google or a GE to bulldoze these models into the hospital environment.
How do the worlds of semiconductors and bioengineering come together?
When people think of bioengineering, they might initially think of bionics. But the use of semiconductor technology isn’t only about replacing biology with prosthetics; it’s increasingly about monitoring and early detection. We have the capability to replace major organs in the body, but it is far better to work towards not having to replace them. This combining of diagnostics with therapy is the driver behind what we call “personalised health” or “intelligent medicine.” As the emphasis moves toward prevention, it then becomes a consumer market, which the semiconductor industry understands extremely well.
We are already seeing the type of intelligent, personalised healthcare solutions that this nexus of semiconductors and bio-engineering can create, with wireless body monitoring technology such as Sensium (being commercialised by Toumaz Technology, an IBE spin-out company). Right now at the Institute, we are focused on making semiconductor chips that switch on and off with DNA, which provides a way of testing for genetic mutation and early detection of disease.
What are the opportunities for electronics companies in biomedical engineering?
I think there will be enormous opportunities because electronics companies fundamentally understand consumer markets. Healthcare is the last major segment to be revolutionised with chips, and the digitisation of the healthcare market represents a massive opportunity for the electronics industry. Semiconductor margins will be higher because the semiconductor will now be the key to the system, rather than simply a component part. The opportunities will initially be business-to-business, within hospitals and the healthcare provider industry, and then begin to open up in B2C markets.
What’s becoming clear is that if you apply just a fraction of technology to healthcare that goes into the development of the mobile phone, for example, you can start to make major innovations. In the IBE, this has been demonstrated with cochlea implants to replace the hearing of born-deaf children, blood glucose monitors and, most recently, our wireless Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW) pressure transducer that can be permanently implanted in the heart to allow continuous blood pressure monitoring. All of these advances were developed from components found in standard mobile phones.
The medical space is now strongly focusing on translation research. The wealth of electronic gadgets that have been developed for the consumer are now being successfully applied to the medical arena, and becoming a fundamental part of improving life for millions of people. Semiconductor chips that can determine whether a patient can metabolise a particular drug – at the point where the drug is actually being prescribed – is a great example of disruptive medical technology
As one of the first electronics engineers to be elected to the Royal Society, what is your view on the status of the engineer in the UK?
The engineer is a true inventor, but invention has never really been truly accepted as innovation because it doesn’t have the perceived rigour of, for instance, mathematical theory. Now, we’re finding that engineering solutions are absolutely key if we are going to tackle the major global challenges of the 21st Century, including climate change, energy, security, health and poverty. It’s also very interesting to see how some of the best solutions are coming from engineering that has in some way been inspired by biology, for example, bio fuel cells.
I think there is a real drive now to accept the creative status of an engineer, and engineering invention is now being put on the same par as a conjecture in mathematics. I have recently been asked to chair a new Royal Society fund, The Theo Murphy Blue Skies Award, which will be predominantly focused toward new technological solutions that sit at the interface of disciplines. The creation of this fund – which will be investing ?1 million annually – is really very timely in terms of nurturing the freedom to invent, and harnessing the major engineering strengths in the UK.
British engineering is certainly driving global solutions. As an example, another IBE spin-out (Future Waves) is focusing on novel solutions to on-chip multimedia and TV on mobile phones. This British semiconductor technology has attracted great interest in Taiwan, which is a mecca for chip manufacturing. With looming recession, people are now turning back to our engineering base. There is every reason to be extremely positive about the status of the engineer in the UK. The timing is very good for engineers. around a lab bench. It’s this interdisciplinary knowledge base that is the key to disruptive developments in the medical arena.