imec pursues the Internet of Healthy Things

Wearable health monitoring can help deal with rising healthcare costs. Nanoelectronics enable disruptive innovations in healthcare with the move from traditional care to what Luc Van den hove, president and CEO of imec, called “predictive and preventive care.”

Traditional care, Van den hove said, centers on hospital care, rehabilitation, and home care. Going forward, he said, the gamut of functions will need to extend from prevention and early detection to end-of-life care. Healthcare providers will include family and community services, pharmacies, and long-term care facilities.

Van den hove, who spoke at the imec Technology Forum held in San Francisco in conjunction with SEMICON West 2014, presented a roadmap toward predictive and preventive care that includes fitness gadgets that empower people to help prevent diseases and live a healthier lifestyle—or at least manage the chronic diseases that modern living can lead to.

Unfortunately, he said, the accuracy of fitness gadgets in use today is not sufficient for many diagnostic applications, and he called for a low-power wearable ambulatory monitoring multisensory platform that could deliver medical-quality data.

Prototype flexible health patch
Courtesy of Holst Centre and imec

An approach to such a platform, Van den hove said, is a prototype flexible health patch unveiled by Holst Centre and imec in April. The patch combines ultralow power electronics and flexible electrode technology. It includes a one-lead ECG, a tissue-contact impedance sensor, and a 3-D accelerometer. It processes and analyzes data locally and transmits relevant information via Bluetooth Smart to mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.

Researchers from imec worked with SHINKO Electric Industries to make use of SHINKO’s SiP technology to integrate the patch’s functionality into a module measuring just 17.4 mm x 17.4 mm—representing a PCB area reduction of 52% compared with previous generations of the module. The module then was integrated into a flexible and stretchable patch designed by Holst Centre. The design combines system-in-foil technology with stretchable, integrated electrodes to create a lightweight patch that can be worn comfortably on the chest for extended periods. The module’s small size and the flexibility of the patch reduce motion artifacts and thus provide more accurate and reliable monitoring.

Van den hove also cited Samsung’s recently announced digital health initiative, whose centerpiece is Samsung’s Simband platform, which includes an open reference sensor module integrating sensing technologies from imec. imec announced on June 4 that it is collaborating with Samsung Electronics to accelerate innovation and collaboration among technology companies and researchers working in the burgeoning mobile wearable field.

“A growing public interest in healthy living is driving the emergence of activity monitors, with a number of devices already available,” stated Van den hove at the time of the announcement. “We are excited to have contributed to Samsung’s effort to take the next step in wearable health-monitoring devices with our Body Area Networks technology, developed at imec Belgium and imec The Netherlands/Holst Centre (Eindhoven). imec and Holst Centre’s cutting-edge technology, enabling highly accurate and noninvasive monitoring with clinical-grade functionality, paves the way for more efficient and better healthcare.”

“Samsung’s open digital health initiative promises to deliver revolutionary changes to the way that consumers monitor, interact with, and understand their own health and wellness,” said Young Sohn, president and chief strategy officer at Samsung Electronics, in the announcement. “With imec and our other partners, Samsung is excited to develop the next generation of wearable health sensors that can offer the best, most accurate, and most convenient health-sensing technologies to consumers around the world.”

At his presentation at the imec Technology Forum in July, Van den hove then cited—in addition to wearable ambulatory monitoring devices—diagnostics-on-chip technology. An initiative he dubbed “iLab” can analyze blood samples in about 10 minutes for about $10 per test.

Other imec initiatives in the medical field, he said, include diagnostics for infectious diseases, drug discovery, and on-chip instrumentation leading toward personalized medicine. DNA sequencing, he said, can become part of routine diagnostic tests. imec is pursuing cell-sorter analysis technologies that can analyze single cells at rates to millions of cells per second. And finally, the organization is investigating cancer treatment and smart and small implantable devices, such as low-cost brain probes.

The combination of medical and health technologies, he said, falls under the rubric of “The Internet of Healthy Things,” which in turn relies on integration, customization, and an ecosystem in which hospitals; pharmaceutical, biotech, and diagnostic companies; foundations; medical device manufacturers; and medical research organizations all participate.

He concluded his imec Technology Forum presentation by noting that a supplier hub enabled by core CMOS technology supports healthcare, low-power-wireless, sensor-system, and energy applications, with significant overlap among the four disciplines. The result is the Internet of Health and the Internet of Power as well as the Internet of Things. “Opportunities lie in the cross layer between industries,” he said.

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