COVID-19 prompts global med-tech innovation boom

Concept of SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19
One benefit of COVID-19 has been an eruption of global technology innovation around testing, screening and crowd management. Three companies discussed their efforts with Fierce Electronics. (Maksim Tkachecko iStock/ Getty Images Plus)

COVID-19 has prompted a frantic medical technology renaissance—an explosion, really-- involving hundreds of companies and tens of thousands of engineers, by some estimates. Innovators globally are exploring ways to adapt advanced techniques to new pandemic technology applications.

“COVID has forced innovation upon us,” said Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium, a medical device engineering design and manufacturing firm in Houston.

Some of the technology in telemedicine, remote monitoring and diagnosis has been ready before, “but now people are starting to realize it can work well” with pandemic applications, Purvis said. “The biggest barriers before were perception.”

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In March, Velentium engineers worked nearly around the clock with contractors to set up critically-needed testing systems for the Ventec Life Systems VOCSN ventilator system to ensure mass production of hundreds of thousands of the units at an idled General Motors plant. Every ventilator underwent exhaustive tests before being used with a patient.

RELATED: COVID-19 ventilator testing tries engineers’ resolve with 18-hour days

Now, Velentium is working on a remote monitoring wearable for COVID and related uses.

COVID-19 has created “intense interest in the ability to monitor patients in their homes,” Purvis said.  “If a simple device could monitor SPO2 (oxygen saturation), respiratory effort and temperature in a short-term, disposable fashion, then if a patient is exposed to COVID, they could wear the device with the confidence that symptoms will be caught as they materialize.”

“To the extent that a care team can watch the vital signs of a patient, it can reduce the requirements for in-office visits,” Purvis added.  “The current standard of care if you test positive is to go home and see if the symptoms appear.  With a COVID patch, you could know if symptoms are appearing and a care team could respond.”

Purvis noted that 33 million Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a risk condition for COVID.  “With a simple, at-home sleep test off a single patch, you can know if you have OSA,” he said.

Velentium plans to present the OSA patch to the Food and Drug Administration for approval in the early fourth quarter, Purvis said.

Many of the largest semiconductor and sensor integrated circuit makers in the world are also answering the COVID call for new technology.

At Infineon Technologies AG, the Sensor Systems Group is applying human machine interface (HMI) work to use cases for COVID-19 specifically to help people get back to work and gather safely according to government regulatory requirements.   Infineon, based in Germany, is the 10th largest semiconductor maker in the world.

“Our HMI activities encompass using our sensors together with smart AI/ML software to offer complete solutions that mimic human [actions] on a day-to-day basis,” said David Jones, head of marketing and business development for intuitive sensing at Infineon.

For example, Infineon has MEMS (micro-electro- mechanical system) mics that mimic hearing, pressure sensors that mimic touch, environmental sensors that mimic smell and time-of-flight and radar that act as 3D sensing eyes.  “By using these separately or combining them with sensor fusion software, we can apply our artificial intelligence/machine learning algorithms to develop smart interactions with commonly used devices,” he said.

For a safe back to work experience, Infineon is developing and deploying products to monitor the number of people entering or leaving a specific space in a business or a building entrance.  That information can be used to control the number of people in an area at any one time and could be tied to contract tracing systems, Jones said. Sensors can also detect the distance between people for correct social distancing.

Infineon is also working on touch-free tech to retrofit or eventually replace the need to touch objects, buttons, screens and other surfaces.  Gestures instead of touch could be used in a work environment, replacing the need for gloves or other restrictions. 

Infineon’s customers are developing products to use such technologies that will endure for years as COVID-19 spreads and is eventually, mostly, contained with vaccines and treatments. “Most of the companies we are talking to are taking a long term view that is not going to go away any time soon and they are talking about a ‘post COVID-19 world” of most stringent precautions,” Jones added.

“It is almost like a new industry,” Jones said.   “Even if COVID-19 goes away, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep these types of technologies in place going forward.”

Austria-based sensor maker ams AG is using spectral sensing technology for better COVID-19 rapid testing, according to Filip Frederix, director of the health segment of advanced optical sensors at the company.

The company has prototyped a small, inexpensive and disposal test to provide an accurate digital antibody test for COVID-19 using a sample of a patient’s blood in the first generation of the test.  It relies on an ams AS7341L spectral sensor to provide a readout of a lateral flow immune assay, a process that is similar to a rapid pregnancy test such as the at-home point-of-care Clearblue test, Frederix explained.

Test results from the device are delivered via Bluetooth to a smartphone app.  Results will be available in as little as 30 minutes, a vast improvement over the 24 to 48 hours commonly required in COVID testing via a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test that requires a sample to be taken to a lab, Frederix said.

RELATED: ams AG -- Accurate coronavirus test results in minutes with life-saving new application of chip-scale spectral sensing

Ams worked with Senova, a manufacturer of in vitro medical devices based in Germany. In experiments, they found detection of serum proteins in concentrations as low as tens of milliliters, which is 10 times more sensitive that with standard rapid test read-out devices, according to a press release.

AMS hopes to scale the test kit manufacturing on an accelerated timeframe by partnering with Jabil Healthcare. The companies plan to have a certified test kit for use by medical professionals in September, with a device certified for home use at a later time.

Purvis, Jones and Frederix will speak on a virtual panel on Thursday July 16 at 11:45 a.m. ET as part of Sensors Innovation Week, a free event. ams AG General Manager Jennifer Zhao is offering a sponsor keynote on spectral sensing technology at 11:15 a.m. ET as well. Check out the full agenda and free registration online.

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