Medgadget was recently invited to attend the imec Technology Forum conference in Antwerp, Belgium. Imec is a non-profit R&D innovation organization specializing in nanoelectronics and digital technologies. Like many digital hardware companies, imec saw a lot of potential in healthcare technologies and started researching them about 12 years ago.
Chris Van Hoof has been there since the beginning. As the Director of Connected Health activities at imec, he oversees all the research that goes into wearables, smart sensors, and more. In the midst of a busy first ITF conference day, Chris was kind enough to sit down with us and chat about his work at imec and his thoughts on the connected health devices industry.
Scott Jung, Medgadget: Can you tell us about yourself and your role at imec?
Chris Van Hoof: My background is in electrical engineering, and I’ve been with imec for 31 years. Imec has evolved incredibly over these years; we were 120 employees when I started, and now we are over 3000 worldwide. About 14-15 years ago, I moved from a more technical position directly involving components into wireless sensors for health. This was before the iPhone, and it was actually a pretty hard sell. We started with physiological monitoring, but no one knew how to get and work with the data. With the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, business changed dramatically, and we’ve had exponential growth since then. In a nutshell, I’m interested in making things that will make it on the market, so I oversee projects that I think customers will use, which is my sign of success. 80% of our business is driven by customers with specific needs, and 20% are independently developed in-house for a couple years, then marketed to potential customers. In some occasions, we’ll spin the tech off as a new venture if we think that it’s a potentially-disruptive product with no customers interested yet.
Medgadget: Given that imec has historically focused on semiconductors and chips, what motivated the organization to get into the healthcare space?
Chris Van Hoof: When looking at healthcare, we saw electronics was everywhere for diagnostics already, but it was all very big and not portable, and we saw that our technology could potentially shrink them. It was a bit of a technology push at first, but we wanted to see what was possible, and gradually, it became a pull.
Medgadget: You mentioned that the introduction of the iPhone was the turning point in terms of imec’s health technologies gaining traction. Given that the iPhone didn’t start off as a health device, why do you think the iPhone introduction was so momentous?
Chris Van Hoof: Indeed, it wasn’t because you could do health applications on the iPhone, but because it was a wireless communications hub. Before the iPhone, you needed an extra device, such as a kind of hub specific to a monitor that would connect to a phone line somewhere in the hospital, which was cumbersome and not very scalable. With the iPhone, the connectivity hub was there, so that made it easier for our customers to say “It can work”, because the user/patient didn’t need any special connectivity hubs; just a smartphone that’s all part of his or her normal life. We continue to consider it an opportunity and not a threat that tech companies like Apple and Samsung are exploring medical applications with their products, because it gives us hardware features that we can use and look to see what other medical applications can be developed.
Medgadget: During your talk at ITF, you shared how disease prevention technology is starting with mental health. What makes mental health such an attractive area of medicine for technology to be at the forefront?
Chris Van Hoof: First off, I think mental health is an area that is largely technologically agnostic and underserved. In almost all domains of medicine, technology, while not a magic solution, is becoming a very important tool. But mental health management is still an empty field. But it’s a blue ocean; there’s got to be opportunities to be more personalized in sensing and enrich the patient experience. With the standard of care right now, a psychologist will often ask patients questions whose answers are obvious, where the patient has a really hard time answering. Can a patient always accurately answer, “Are you more stressed than last week, or early in the day?” This usually only happens with memorable events and is different than, say, pain, where you pretty much know when you have pain and whether or not it’s getting better. Mental health and stress is very subjective, so using technology to make it a little more objective, at least toward more personalization will help with the discussion. A psychologist would be able to say, “This device shows that your stress is going up. What has happened to you in the last week?” and ask much better questions. We see it as a thermometer where a psychologist can track the ups and downs and craft far more actionable questions. And this is the aim, to intervene at the right time and to speed up mental disease management.
Moreover, mental health disease management also gives us a lot of contextual information, especially from smartphones. I don’t need a sophisticated device to monitor your vitals if your calendar is showing overlapping appointments all day, it’s pretty clear you could be stressed. But surprisingly, that’s underused today; it’s invisible information, but so easy to get.
Medgadget: For our readers who might be have an idea for a new health device, how can they make their device stand out in an industry that is so broad in terms of medical applications, as well as their claims and product quality?
Chris Van Hoof: I think what not to do is focus on the device and form factor initially. Enough startups have done that and spent money developing one platform and unfortunately have wasted it because the technology, even if great initially, is going to be obsolete in a few years. That’s the wrong path. The key path is looking first at the clinical applications and validate them. If you make a claim, and it only works for a small group of people, then you don’t stand a chance.
Another factor is your hardware platform development approach. I think that there are winning advantages to building upon already existing hardware. One of our imec spinoff companies, Fibricheck, doesn’t even use a wearable; the company leverages the camera technology in smartphones to detect Afib. It’s already reimbursable in Belgium and is undergoing FDA approval.
Medgadget: Where do you see medical wearables going in the next 10-20 years?
Chris Van Hoof: Not long ago, Dr. Bill Hait from Johnson & Johnson described about a vision of “a world without disease by 2030”, and I think for medical devices, this means moving technology toward prevention and disease interception. This means catching it before there are symptoms so you can prevent from happening with medication or therapeutics. I think also that wearable devices will better address the behavioral aspect of our health. Wearables will be well-integrated into the events of your life and provide more timely and personalized advice that is far more fit for you for more effective behavior change. If we can accomplish this, we can cut healthcare costs in half decrease the incidence of chronic disease due to our behavior choices by as much as 80%.
Link: imec homepage…