Bendable electronics will revolutionize healthcare
An ultrathin, electronic patch with the mechanics of skin, applied to the wrist for EMG and other measurements. (Courtesy: John Rogers )
August 23rd, 2011
01:15 PM ET

Bendable electronics will revolutionize healthcare

Editor's Note: Ben Schlatka is VP of Business Development and co-founder and Professor John Rogers, University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, is co-founder of mc10, a company that makes bendable electronics. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By Ben Schlatka and John Rogers - Special to CNN

While ubiquitous, powerful, small electronics have spurred a mobile revolution that has changed the ways we consume, communicate and exchange information, these devices remain encased in rigid enclosures, greatly limiting how we interact with them.

Now, new classes of ‘soft’ electronics that can bend, stretch, twist and fold like a rubber band are set to completely change the old paradigms. These innovations have implications across many industries, but there will be a particularly strong impact in health care – from wellness and fitness to chronic disease management.

Imagine a world in which electronics live outside of rigid, square boxes and can naturally bend and flex like human skin.  These systems can integrate directly with the body in ways that are virtually invisible to the user, and provide a natural interface between humans and electronics. 

Several social and technical megatrends are driving innovation in health care. A deluge of cool gadgets enabling the “quantified self” are shaping a new paradigm in fitness and wellness.

Exploding costs demand smarter ways to proactively monitor physiological status outside the hospital and cheaper more efficient ways of delivering acute care inside the hospital. And, hand-in-hand with increasing life expectancy and an aging population is the reality of pervasive and chronic disease.

Companies around the world have been racing to provide solutions to these trends, and low power, smart computing devices are becoming available. These components interact with an increasingly sophisticated infrastructure, deployed by companies such as Intel, GE, and AT&T, designed to handle the data requirements of health monitoring and maintenance.

The underlying technologies, however, are conceptually old, and rely on semiconductor devices originally developed for data processing in industrial environments.  Their adapted use in the form of rigid boxes that strap, or tape onto, or implant in the body provide unsatisfactory solutions. Our company, mc10, is bridging the gap between available healthcare devices and the human body by designing electronic systems that themselves are soft and conformal, much like biological tissues.

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

Ubiquitous Health Decals: It is becoming increasingly evident that continuous monitoring of certain physiological signals will become a key part of fitness, wellness and chronic disease management. mc10’s ‘epidermal’ electronics allow for a host of fitness and monitoring products that do not hinder performance or comfort.

Imagine sticking on a thin electronic temporary “tattoo” before a walk or run that can monitor your muscle activity, heart rate, temperature and hydration. These devices match the properties of your skin to allow non-invasive operation, with the ability to wirelessly report on how the run went and eventually on your general health status.  That information, saved over time and analyzed by healthcare professionals, will open up new approaches to preventive medicine.

Smart Interventional Devices: Millions of people every year undergo procedures that use catheter-based surgical implements.  The operation of these catheters is, at present, largely mechanical in nature, without any of the sorts of electronic or sensor based technologies that could be greatly beneficial to a doctor during a procedure.

These devices lack this level of sophistication because the body, as well as the catheter itself, is fundamentally incompatible with the traditional classes of hard, brittle electronics needed to provide the desired sensing and computing capabilities.

Read: The facial recognition revolution.

mc10 has invented methods to process and package high performance semiconductor devices in ways that allow their deployment on balloons and around tight curvatures in soft stretchable geometries. As a result, catheters can now be ‘instrumented’ with high performance electronic sensors that will allow physicians to more safely and efficiently perform these procedures. These smart devices should markedly improve how acute healthcare is delivered in the hospital.

Biocompatible Implants: In the future, thin, conformal electronics will be mounted on biocompatible materials for new classes of implantable devices designed to manage chronic health problems like epilepsy and pain.

Instead of square chips plugged into rigid boards, electronics will be combined with biologically compatible, natural materials such as silk. This strategy facilitates placement of high performance electronics on the varied contours of the heart, brain, and central nervous system, in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

Today, these approaches allow leading scientists and researchers to use sophisticated electronics to understand better the root causes of the pervasive disease states by connecting electronics directly to human tissue in more natural ways.

We are on the cusp of a revolution in health that is driven by societal need and is enabled by technological innovation. Over the last 60 years, high performance electronics have touched nearly every aspect of our lives. In the next five years, advances in the design of these devices will bring them, quite literally, into direct contact with every aspect of our physical self. The entire health care spectrum from fitness to chronic disease management will change as a result.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ben Schlatka and John Rogers. Check out CNN.com/Innovation for more on the inventions and ideas that will change your world.

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Topics: Health • Innovation

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Mr. Inventious

    I was planning to invent something like a small tiny mechanism that can be inserted into a human and prevent crimes from happening, or from natural illness. It doesn't bother me that jail has a lock to put around your feet, but it would be for the better of citizens. To find an escape convict, insert this so called "chip" into the convict way before he escape so that when ever they escape from prison or jail, its much easier to catch then to call out an alert and scared people to there nuts.

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