Lab-on-chips could become a major growth area for the semiconductor industry but in the past no-one has been prepared to risk the cash needed for volume production. Alec Reader of Innos believes it is now time for that risk to be taken.
Speed to market is a critical factor in our industry. It is what delivers a competitive advantage, wins market share and keeps the wheels of research and development turning. But what happens when the technological capability is present, as are the applications for it, but the economies of scale inhibit high volume production. This is the position we face as Europe currently leads the development of lab-on-chip technology. As the industry stands today we are stuck in an all to familiar catch 22 situation.
Currently lab-on-chip is a concept without a viable market entry point and although potential end users that I speak to extol the possibilities the technology will offer them, it appears that the very advantages that make lab-on-chip so appealing - advanced technology for the masses and small throw away single use devices that can be used to move laboratory processes out of the lab - are inhibiting its widespread rollout.
The reality is that it takes a committed investment in research and development to get to a working prototype and manufacturing requires high volume production to spread this cost. The volumes we are talking about are thousands per month in order to drive down the unit price to a desirable and marketable level. Currently the low volumes prospective users are prepared to order make it too expensive for the foundries to produce. So why would they take the risk?
The mid-to-long-term future market scope for lab-on-chip devices is vast, if an attractive pricing model can be established. The opportunity for these low-cost high volume devices could represent a significant source of revenue for design houses, research and development facilities, manufacturers and users alike. Mobilising the expertise out of the laboratory into the field speeds up analysis and therefore anywhere where quick analysis is required, there is a potential user of lab-on-chip.
Some of the many real world applications include blood testing (testing for HIV for example), forensics and drug screening at the roadside; a key issue for the police force looking to catch those driving under the influence of drugs. Under section 4 of the UK Road Traffic Act 1988, drug driving is just as serious an offence as drink driving. In much the same way as a breathalyser is used to measure the amount of alcohol in the body, the police need a device for suspected drug use, which can deliver immediate results that can be acted on.
To date, on-the-spot tests that have been used have failed to provide a standard that is admissible as evidence, requiring laboratory-based tests instead. This is just one challenge that lab-on-chip has the potential to solve.
In essence, with the right research and development, it is a simple process to take standard silicon processing techniques into the bio-chemical world. But it is important to remember that we are currently in phase one of the lab-on-chip revolution - the technology capability is there to do whatever is required, but the problem is getting there. The utopian multifunctional chip capable of delivering the aforementioned multi-substance analysis is a clear destination for the future, but phase one is one chip to test for one thing.
Once there is market pull, investment will become available and the market will explode with opportunity, but initially someone has to take a leap of faith. The first to manufacture a high volume low cost lab-on-chip device with a clear application, without having an early adopter market in place to sell to, will face huge risks. But the rewards of success are huge.
So how can we break this deadlock? Government agencies are pushing lab-on-chip as the next big thing. But without the legislation that would require the technology (eg roadside drug testing), it remains an economic problem and the government is therefore reluctant to get caught up in the debate.
Europe is strong in biotechnology companies and has world leading design houses and research and development facilities. With Europe becoming much more integrated, the negativity of not having an inherently large domestic market is no longer a plausible excuse. In fact, legislation coming from Brussels would deliver a market size far greater than that of the US.
Perhaps another more immediate option is to consider cheaper alternative materials. While silicon provides the greatest level of precision, there are plastics available that can deliver a viable, more economic product.
It is frustrating for all those involved, convinced about the potential lab-on-chip promises. Let us remember that all significant advances in technology go through this pain period and it is usually a change in economic conditions such as manufacturing costs, use of different materials or changing legislation that have an impact.
End users wanting to implement the technology too are positive. They recognise that this type of functionality is the future, but want it cheaper before they make a commitment. Lab-on-chip will take off. It is just a question of when and whether European commerce can capitalise on the opportunities when it happens.
Lab-on-chips could pave the way for portable blood testing kits for checking everything from HIV infection to substance abuse.