Friday, July 13, 2012

What does healthcare have to do with semiconductors?

July 13, 2012 -- SEMICON West, which just wrapped in San Francisco, CA, gathers all things semiconductor R&D and manufacturing. So why was healthcare such a popular topic at the show? From research organizations (imec, CEA-Leti) to industry roadmappers (ITRS), semiconductor-focused groups are looking at ways to improve healthcare. The refrain that today's healthcare system is unsustainable echoed through many sessions. The semiconductor industry sees plenty of engineering solutions to the healthcare problem.

"We cannot continue with the medical system as it is today" -- Patrick Cogez, ITRS.

The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) 2012 update included a new focus on semiconductor device applications, one of which was healthcare. Semiconductors and micro electro mechanical systems (MEMS) offer patient care and health monitoring at home, at a vastly lower cost than hospitalization. Read more about ITRS's applications focus, in partnership with iNEMI, here.

"Semiconductors can change the landscape of modern medicine" -- Andrew Thompson, Proteus Digital Health, imec panel discussion

At the imec Technology Forum co-located with SEMICON West, several speakers looked at the cost of healthcare, our increased lifespans, and different diseases and disease mechanisms (how viruses spread, the needs of chronically ill patients, etc). What options does the semiconductor industry offer? Diagnostic tools today are relatively low tech, and generally captive in a hospital, said Serge Biesemans, VP of wafer technology and smart systems, imec. Microfluidic lab-on-a-chip wafers allow nearly instant analysis for virus and cancer detection, among other uses. With multiplexing on a wafer and advanced microscopy, diseases can be detected earlier. The semiconductor industry can apply its vast experience with Moore's Law to make these tools fast, small, cheap, and accurate, releasing diagnostics from the hospital into doctor's offices and homes.

Sensor technology is evolving to allow health "predictions," much like we predict the weather today. We need to move from reactive healthcare to predictive, and sensors are the conduit, imec argues. MEMS-based sensors that are cheap and portable can produce readings comparable in accuracy to expensive medical equipment and procedures like indirect calorimetry. MEMS, thin-film, and CMOS image sensors under development at imec can analyze sweat, breath, stress, pain, and the composition of skin, to name a few applications.

Thompson, CEO of Proteus Digital Health, spoke about the edible semiconductor concept, where patients swallow a semiconductor "pill" that then sends data to a smartphone. We need to eliminate the doctor, nurse, and hospital building in our thinking about healthcare, he asserted. The technology exists to track medicine intake, sleep, social behavior, and other factors in a patient’s life. And this technology is non-intrusive -- as easy as swallowing a pill or applying a band-aid. Through semiconductor and sensor technologies, we can prevent drastic, expensive medical interventions, like diabetes-related amputations.

All this led up to imec's concept for a cross-disciplinary consortia, from wafer fab to bio lab. imec's vision is to bring together semiconductor stakeholders -- fabless companies, wafer fabs, tool and materials suppliers -- with medical/healthcare stakeholders -- instrument makers, biologists, materials developers, etc.

"The next big thing for semiconductors is healthcare and medical technologies" -- Laurent Malier, Leti.
CEA-Leti develops middle-term research projects on transistor technologies. The work these researchers are doing to enable super computing, photonics and electronics integration, and ubiquitous sensors could be of enormous benefit to medical electronics, said Malier, Leti's CEO. He told me during CEA-Leti's research updates (check out highlights of CEA-Leti's research here) that he expects to be talking a lot about healthcare and medical technologies at SEMICON West next year. Many semiconductor industry professionals have an ah-ha! moment when they learn about the technological needs in medicine, Malier said, because they never considered the two fields to be related before.
In none of these presentations was the political side of healthcare directly addressed, beyond discussions of the cost of care today. In true semiconductor engineering fashion, these research and roadmapping groups see a problem and envision a technological solution.

-- Meredith Courtemanche, digital media editor,

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