Originating in the ECSEL Joint Undertaking, the Health.E Lighthouse has been built on three main pillars: informing the ECS community of emerging medical devices, helping the medical domain to take advantage of open technology platforms, and gathering those who work on such platforms into a collection of European projects. As the Lighthouse draws to a close, initiators Ronald Dekker and Mart Graef look back on the lessons learned and future steps – as well as the joys of holding their first in-person event in over two years.
From semiconductors to healthcare
Ronald and Mart go back a long way: having both started their careers at Philips in the eighties, Mart has since become the Strategic Programme Manager at Delft University of Technology while Ronald remains at Philips in the role of Senior Research Scientist. For the past ten years, they’ve also been organising large European projects for programmes such as ECSEL and PENTA, which is where the origins of Health.E lie.
“Six years ago, we were at an ECSEL event in Brussels where [Head of Programmes] Yves Gigase announced that something new would be organised: Lighthouses. The funny thing is that nobody had any idea what a Lighthouse is!” begins Ronald. “But I still remember that we said to each other that we would apply for one in the area of health. My motivation was a growing frustration that an enormous amount of research is going on in microfabricated and electronic medical devices, but that very little reaches the market. A main reason is that projects start with basic technology development, then have to build a system around it, then have to go to clinical validation and so on. But this technology development is very expensive. What Mart and I learned from our work in the semiconductor industry was how important it is to have open technology platforms.”
These platforms can best be viewed as technology offerings which are available, for a commercial tariff, to multiple customers with various applications. The move from rigid and expensive point solutions to open platforms and standards has recently been seen in the automotive domain, but has its roots in the semiconductor industry some 30 years ago. Whereas Philips Semiconductors once manufactured everything themselves, they eventually ceased production of silicon wafers and photomasks on the basis that one or two companies can manage these more innovatively and sustainably at a higher volume. This concept has since pervaded the entire semiconductor industry but has yet to widely infiltrate the medical domain.
“The core is indeed the sharing of technologies,” says Mart. “Open technology platforms only work if you have generic technologies that a number of parties can benefit from within the value chain. It may seem obvious, but this runs against the idea of many companies – especially in the medical world – that sharing know-how means giving away intellectual property. That’s an obstacle we need to get over because we’ve already seen a pattern in which sharing accelerates innovation. And it’s not a matter of being nice to everyone, so to speak, but about serving your own interests by speeding up development and lowering costs. That’s the message we have to get out.”
Over the years, this message has been shared by a variety of projects under the Health.E umbrella, starting with POSITION and its creation of open technology platforms for ultrasound and smart, minimally-invasive devices. Another cornerstone is Moore4Medical, which will run until May 2023 and demonstrates the feasibility and benefits of open technology platforms in emerging medical domains such as implantable devices and continuous monitoring. Using information from such projects and feedback from several workshops and panel discussions, Ronald and Mart have recently produced an analysis of how emerging medical domains can best be served by the ECS industry: the Open Technology Platforms for Emerging Medical Domains white paper.
“Content-wise, we had to find the right stakeholders,” explains Mart. “Who should be involved and what are the medical domains? As presented in the white paper, we found 13 emerging domains. We could then look at the challenges related to open technology platforms for medical devices. This includes non-technical aspects, such as the Public Authorities’ perspectives on how you run European projects and the right ways to spend money. One of the insights conveyed in the workshops was that the European Commission and other funding authorities tend to subsidise based on scientific excellence. But the hard part is actually making sure that your good idea ends up in a real product. This can be solved by bringing the community together, which is something that funding authorities should consider a responsibility.”
This is just one of a number of recommendations identified in the white paper, which also analyses possible challenges in ownership and financing, ease of use and access, duplication and benchmarking, product lifecycle, data platforms, and regulations and certification. In spite of these potential obstacles, open technology platforms remain the fastest, most expedient and most cost-effective means of stimulating innovation in healthcare – as long as all parties understand the need to share pre-competitive knowledge and expertise across the multidisciplinary value chain of technology providers.
“For me, a major challenge was to hold these workshops with 150 people online. What helped enormously was that we had excellent moderators who guided the conversation and brought structure,” Ronald adds. “Something that struck me was that the definition of an open technology platform is not always clearly understood. Some in the medical domain still think it means that it’s free! For me, it has a number of ingredients: a technology offering accompanied by a design manual with the building blocks you can use to make an application for a reasonable price. Companies that offer them also typically offer a prototyping service so that you can test the product before you buy a million of them. All of this is outlined in the white paper.”
Like learning to drive
Having published the white paper in November 2021, what better time to present it than at the Health.E Lighthouse Symposium? Implementing ‘Moore For Medical’: Innovation in Emerging Medical Devices was held in a hybrid manner on 8-9 March 2022, making it the first event with a face-to-face component since the start of the pandemic. The gathering of more than 150 people at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, was a major highlight for Ronald and Mart, who note that the event felt like both a liberation and a celebration of the community.
“One of the main takeaways for me was that the system works: if you bring together people from the technology side and the user side, you can see that the discussions offer a lot of added value for those involved. And they wouldn’t meet these people in other contexts, so it’s new things they discuss,” says Mart. This was evident in the range of talks and activities at the symposium, ranging from an overview of currently available open technology platforms to a walking dinner at the Philips Museum. And, as Ronald points out, new terms such as ‘organ-on-chip’ will stick with participants long after more detailed information has faded from memory, helping to set the ball rolling on future ideas and projects.
Ronald: “For me, the Lighthouse was a movement to initiate a change in mindset that will help to realise concrete results. At the end of symposium, I said it’s like getting your driving license. You start with theory: the pitfalls and what you can and can’t do. That’s the Lighthouse. We’re now at the stage where we’ll bring all our theory to practice, which is the execution of European projects aimed at developing open technology platforms. Even though the Lighthouse is at the end of its mandate, I hope that the message continues.”
A growing awareness
Although the Lighthouse will come to a conclusion in April 2022, both Mart and Ronald are optimistic about the future. As open technology platforms become an increasingly well-known concept in the healthcare domain, the ECS community can expect more project proposals in which these play a defining role, not to mention future white papers that further elaborate on the insights from Health.E. A possible next step could be increased coordination between projects, such as using the technical outcomes from one project to inform the clinical validation of another. In turn, this can help to bring products closer to market.
“As Mart said earlier, Public Authorities have an important role in actuating changes in how we work,” says Ronald. “In the last white paper, we have clear recommendations for the Commission. I hope that they will take one or two of them up and that we see this reflected in the way that calls are organised in the future. After all, it was very gratifying for me to be in a European project and hear somebody say that open technology platforms should be part of it.”
“Open technology platforms never used to be part of these discussions but now people see a benefit,” agrees Mart. “So, the highlight is that this all works! Lessons learned in the microelectronics community can indeed be applied in the healthcare community. We shouldn’t take that for granted. We set something in motion by using technology platforms as an accelerator of innovation, and this will continue even as the Lighthouse stops.”