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 Innovations | Future Shlock Skip to content


Category: Innovations

So, with a nod to a previous post I put on here a few months ago regarding how much it makes sense and looks likely that cars will start driving themselves soon enough, with technology emerging today that could see this done in coming years – it seems that things are indeed moving quickly in this direction.

I read a short article a few days ago from the NYT reporting that Google is a company who’s working on this and has gotten quite advanced…surprising when you think of the nature of the company, that this development has come from the mogul of search rather than from a Toyota or Mercedes. In any case, it’s a welcome piece of news and if things keep advancing this quickly we may be chauffeured around by automatic cars sooner than we thought!

It does make you wonder whether Goog is looking at this from a general geeky “wouldn’t it be cool if…” point of view or whether they actually see a business in this which fits in with their model. They say they don’t have a plan, and looking at the time horizon this may be true. It does make sense however that if people spend time in their car and are not driving it – they have more time to spend online and thus are more exposed to advertising. However, car automation is way out of Google’s core business…interesting to see what comes out of this one…

One of the major disconnects in the pharma industry, for a variety of reasons (historical, regulatory, organizational) is  the one between product development and the marketing which follows. Products have always been developed mostly tailored to functional specs, with the needs and convenience of patients who end up taking the medicines a secondary, or marginal, factor (beyond a basic, obvious level). Indeed, such product-related elements such as formulation, vessel and packaging design are purely functional – syringe, self-inject pen, pill, gel-cap etc. etc. Marketing these products has mostly been conducted post-hoc, based on a finalized set of characteristics, which the market itself had little effect on, aside from the initial basic medical need.

Or, should I say, that was the way things have always been.

A widely used phrase in healthcare is the “consumerization of patients”. Indeed, they/we are seen as becoming much a more prominent factor in recent years, expecting more of our doctors but also more from the medical products that we (and our health insurance) are paying for.

Thus, the evolution of medicines from the conventional products we’ve always known into more sophisticated consumer products is set to change the way pharma companies develop and market their products and, of course, the way patients consume them . In order to meet the increasing expectations patients have of their drugs, based on patients’ increasing power and voice, medicines will be designed to be more friendly to patients, more useful, more comfortable, even more interactive where possible. All this, despite restrictive regulations and the very slow pace at which the legal framework surrounding the industry moves. With R&D naturally not dealing closely with non-medical patient needs, the natural move will be to interface marketing and product development.

Adding user-friendliness and the will to meet expanding patient needs will touch a variety of fields which are central to the industry’s business, including packaging, formulation, medical monitoring, patient adherence to name but a few. For patients, the solutions offered should touch upon all phases of the treatment journey, from the product received at the pharmacy, to routine usage, to re-ordering and result monitoring.

Some examples for possible different capabilities are:

  • More convenient packaging for patients with motor issues; waste disposal and collection services for used syringes.
  • Extended use of environmentally-friendly materials.
  • Integrating medical follow up and result assessment with medicine taking: pills and/or syringes which measure and indicate the patients’ condition (e.g. blood or other internal parameters) upon injecting /digesting.
  • Pillboxes which calculate the number of pills taken out and automatically remind the patient of the dosing regime, or syringes which include RFID broadcasters to indicate via computer-linked receivers to the doctor when patients have self-injected.

Manufacturing these medicines, making them more appealing to consumers not only for their health benefit proposition, but also on associated extra added-value as part of the empowered patient’s self-disease management, will require not only new skills and innovative ideas from product development people, but, equally as important, a linking of market knowledge prevalent in marketing & sales departments with the product development and design capabilities which exist in R&D departments.

This, of course, will require much closer work between these two important segments of pharma companies – the relationship between which has historically been non-existent, weak, or even one of mutual suspicion. Different staff profiles, a different work cultures and routine, a completely different “language” have all contributed to this internal gap. However, if companies want to really meet their customers needs, if they want to innovate, grow and succeed, making these two meet will be crucial.

car of the future

On one of the recent 4-hour-trips I make weekly from Strasbourg to Brussels and back I thought to myself: “wouldn’t it be great if I could use these 4 hours constructively, and not just have to drive all the time?”

Now, this led me to think that:

A. I’m sure many others like me who have long commutes would be happier spending this time working, reading, eating, sleeping, watching TV, or any other activity you can think of.

B. The technology to allow automatic control of cars – i.e. ultimately allow them to drive themselves (with manual override, of course) has existed for decades (cruise control), and more advanced generations (based on radar/IR/GPS etc.) are already beginning to enter the market, admittedly in simple form. In a few years these will naturally come into their own, starting with safety aspects of driving but then moving on to allowing drivers to more and more let the car handle the driving and free up more time for other stuff.

Sound something like the Jetsons, or some sci-fi? Well, despite the fact that rigorous safety testing will have to be performed and manual control will always remain an option, the lure of freeing several more hours a week for work or leisure activities will be so great as to compel auto makers to include these features in their top models first, and then filter them in to the massive selling models as well. The economic benefit of freeing millions of commuting hours to work (if one so chooses to do so) will also drive this. Not having to contend with stop-start traffic jams and just relaxing will lure people to use this, and the ability to feed advertising to people during these hours (and not just via radio) can further increase it’s appeal. And if one wants to enjoy driving, one can always take control and drive the old-fashioned way.

Now, the Top-Gear brigade will of course complain that cars were meant to be driven by us humans, that it’s fun and that by taking control from the person and giving it to some sensor-laden computer you’re ripping the heart and soul from these automobiles, to which I’d say: true, you’re right. However, giving the option to drivers to switch to auto-pilot and do something much more (or much less) productive is one of the main points of technology. Auto-pilot itself is used frequently to allow airline pilots to sleep/booze up/ take a vacation in Wisconsin, all the while people can still enjoy piloting. If you’re a petrolhead, go ahead and switch it off.

It seems that most concepts and discussions regarding cars in the future focus either on cool radical designs or on the energy source. The question is, will the actual role which the car plays in our life not change? What will cars turn into, once they are fully capable of driving themselves? If you could do anything in your car while on the road, what would you do?  Eating, sleeping, watching TV, Internet, talking to people (fully concentrated), and many other activities are the potential beneficiaries of this suddenly free time. In effect, the car will become an extension of the home. This will radically change the interior design of cars, with space utilization for  activities other than driving becoming a prominent factor, replacing the current guiding principle of a well-designed driver’s environment and comfortable sitting positions for him/her and several passengers.

future car

Entertainment units (large screen TVs, onboard PCs (or macs), games console etc.), minibar, seats which collapse into beds, perhaps even basic cooking facilities seem reasonable, bringing what is available in chauffeur-driven cars and mobile homes into your everyday car. Or is there anything else you would think could be done in a car instead of driving?

EDIT: an interesting story regarding this topic can be read here, claiming that the first models of self-driving cars could be on the road within a decade!

A recent TR article reports that researchers from UC San Diego and from Clarkson University in New York are aiming to develop a chip which will continuously monitor soldiers’ physiological chemistry (initially glucose, oxygen, lactase, and norepinephrine) via enzymatic sensors. At signs of substantial changes to normal levels of the markers, the chip, carried externally but connected to the soldiers’ systems via electrodes and presumably tubing,  will be able to release the appropriate chemicals to give initial treatment to the injured. This rapid diagnosis and treatment is crucial in the battlefield, where the majority of deaths occur within half an hour of injury.

Smart sensor

While this development is certainly on the books and will sooner or later be realized, as both critical need and technology are there (or feasible with current and near future levels of technology), the reported “4 years to completion” seem overly optimistic, perhaps they are talking about a very rudimentary prototype.

Besides the complexity of getting the enzymatic reactions and proposed logic gates right, transferring biotechnology which works in solution in the lab to external conditions can take years. Furthermore, the ability to incorporate these into a chip which is rugged enough and retains its operation in battlefield conditions will take substantial time and effort. This without mentioning the rigorous quality testing these chips will need to undergo to ensure no malfunctions, which may be life-threatening.

The current design speaks of an external chip which monitors the soldier’s condition via electrodes implanted subcutaneously or at other locations. Such connections will have to overcome numerous obstacles, both engineering- and biology-related. Further system generations involving implantable chips (for which immunological scarring and other difficulties will have to be overcome) are even further away and will be the target of such development.

While these advanced models may take a long time to develop, this project may end up pushing through technology which can prove extremely useful in “civilian” medicine as well, similar to many DARPA projects. Imagine being able to implant medical chips into patients, with these monitoring all vital signs and markers continuously and releasing therapeutic compounds at the precise time and quantity required. These chips will also be able to communicate wirelessly with the physician, and allow perfect monitoring and immediate treatment of patients’ condition.


Battlefield Medic on a Chip

Time magazine has released its top inventions for the year, and topping the list is the much-heralded 23andMe retail DNA sequencing kit. Beyond the hype factor, which is bolstered by Sergey Brin’s wife being the co-founder, the question is what can people get from getting such a test done at this stage.

Don’t get me wrong – sequencing technology and its move into the retail domain have been a long time coming and will take part in changing the medical landscape in the coming decades. However, this is the problem these test currently face – it will take that long to change from a cool, futuristic gimmick which gives people taking it in-depth knowledge about their genome and the diseases they may be more likely to have over their lifetime to a test result which can directly lead to targeted preventive therapy and compensating for any potential problems stemming from specific underpar genes.

The 23andMe test

The 23andMe test

No doubt, the big cheeses who have invested in this venture (google, among others) realize very well that it is a long-term effort that will take many years to fulfill its promise. Moreover – this fulfillment will not come from the company but rather from medical research moving forward and ushering in  the much vaunted era of personalized medicine.

Once again, a few years off as yet.

However, this does not spoil the chance for all the luddites to cry foul and cite all sorts of reasons why this development should be restricted. As expected, many will try to piggyback on an emerging, potentially paradigm-changing development and make some noise, each for their own agenda.

The potential of personalized medicine is so huge – it will become as commonplace as current medicine is, for the simple reason that targeting medicinces to patients by their unique genetics will make therapies more safe, effective and will thus increase both life quality and length. And that is what medicine is all about, and what patients will want.


TIME’s Best Inventions of 2008


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