Next 20 years: Future sensing technologies

14th July 2020
How might the development of low-cost smart transducers change the future of health, food and environment? Can we tackle food production inefficiencies and waste where it’s most needed? How can we envision the future of collaboration between research and industry? Imperial Tech foresight explored these questions with Dr. Firat Guder, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London. In the conversation, we found an advocate not just for new sensors but for progressive thinking in academics’ roles in bringing research to life to encourage local solutions to global issues.

Why is your research important?

In simple terms, my lab develops materials – hardware and software systems – that interface the physical, chemical and biological world with machines. These new inventions will ultimately lead to improvements in our society, health and the environment.

How much does “ingenuity” matter in your scientific exploration?

Ingenuity matters a lot. As a philosophy, we have adopted the concept of simplicity; devices or systems with fewer parts tend to be more robust and also easier to troubleshoot. When they fail, it’s possible to perform a quick analysis and figure out what went wrong easily. Simple systems also allow us to stack them on top of each other to develop more complex systems. When the overall device fails, we can debug it easily. Building such a system requires a lot of creativity and ingenuity. We usually overlook simple solutions because we think that people must have developed them before, but it’s often the case that they haven’t. A part of our efforts in the lab goes to exploratory research without obvious applications in mind. It’s driven by curiosity alone, and we like to see where some of the ideas we have will eventually lead us.

As an example of this, we have recently developed a paper-based device for measuring spoilage gases from meat or fish (PEGS-paper based electrical gas sensors*). It turns out that if you take a piece of paper, though it looks and feels dry, at a microscopic level it is actually wet. Paper consists of cellulose, a hygroscopic, water-loving molecule. Cellulose fibres absorb so much moisture from the environment that we are able to perform wet chemistry with seemingly dry materials without every adding a drop of water. By exploring this with a new perspective, we could create elegant solutions for challenging problems.

Your research is very expansive, with potential impacts in several sectors, how did you and your group decide to have such a broad focus?

It happened gradually. Some of the topics we currently work on emerged from key observations I made when I worked as a researcher at Harvard University. During my time at Harvard, I was part of a large chemistry group of 40 post-docs, and I realised that pretty much everyone worked in a field that was related to biomedical sciences. But biomedical sciences is not the only field in the world where there are massive problems to solve. With this observation, I started to look for challenges in other fields where I could apply my science and engineering background. One area that I came across was the food system, where there are a lot of problems. The way we use our resources to grow our food is very inefficient – both economically and environmentally – and the way we consume food is very poorly managed, producing so much waste. That’s why we divide the efforts of my lab into solving problems in healthcare and food systems. As we embrace multi-disciplinary research, we bring people with different backgrounds together to tackle problems in these fields. In my group, we have chemists, physicists, biologists, computer scientists and engineers of all sorts – electrical, bioengineering, mechanical, design etc. My aim is to accumulate as much knowledge as possible in-house, so that we can do things very quickly and support expansive perspectives.

What are you focusing on at the moment?

We have just finished a project funded by the Wellcome Trust for detecting pathogens. With the emergence of COVID-19, we have been trying to repurpose the technology developed in that project (a disposable micro-PCR system) to detect SARS-CoV-2. This is clearly a recent development hence it still has a long way to go.

We are currently working on several projects related to food systems ranging from measuring biochemical signals in plants in real-time to developing diagnostics for African farmers to detect plant diseases in resource-limited settings. In the latter project, which is funded by the Gates Foundation, we are not only trying to create a lab prototype, publish a manuscript and leave it at that. We are aiming to establish contacts with local manufacturers and other stakeholders in Africa and transfer our knowledge to them so they can build these devices there and tailor them in the future to meet their own needs. I really believe in the importance of knowledge transfer, it is our responsibility to share and exchange useful information with the people that need this information the most. On another food systems related project, we are working on predicting soil nutrients to optimise the use of synthetic fertilisers by combining machine learning with low-cost sensors. If we manage to make this technology work at the level that we desire, it will have applications everywhere across the globe. If farmers could make measurements and use the mathematical models that we developed to estimate the fertiliser requirements, this would be giant step in improving economic and environmental efficiency by reducing over-application of fertilisers.

In terms of our work in healthcare, we are working on projects to detect kidney disease non-invasively through breath and develop a wearable adaptive device to improve the fitting of prosthetics for amputees.

Why do you think your research is happening now and what has enabled the progression in your field over the past 5 years?

There are many reasons, but one of the most important is the availability of rapid prototyping and open source tools. 3D printers for example, they are inexpensive; if you want to design something or create a new instrument or a new prototype, the mechanical construct can be built very quickly at low cost. Prototyping is an iterative process and it is very rare that you get it right the first time, therefore speed makes a huge difference. Open source development environments such as Arduino have a huge community behind them, and have also improved the speed of development. Another thing that has changed in recent years is that the borders between disciplines has become more blurry and interdisciplinary research is becoming easier with increases the speed of knowledge exchange and progresses research.

What do you think needs to happen to accelerate research even further?

In the fields that I work – sensors, actuators – there are not many big companies. By nature, organisations in this space are smaller companies many of which are startups. Academia should work to reduce bureaucracy and bring down the walls between these small organisations and universities. Our institutions are not used to dealing with very small organisations, but we could really accelerate research by reducing the barriers of collaboration. SMEs would benefit a lot from working with us because they just simply don’t have the resources to R&D and develop new ideas. Often, they don’t have dedicated state-of-the-art labs. There are many SMEs interested in working with us, but the process is not yet streamlined nor clear. I hope that these barriers will soon disappear, and we will have the opportunity to work together with these smaller yet agile companies. Another barrier is something that every interdisciplinary scientist faces which is obtaining funding for their ideas. Most scientists are still not interdisciplinary scientists hence the peer-review process is difficult to manage for most funders for interdisciplinary projects. Solving this puzzle would significantly accelerate interdisciplinary research.   

How do you see current limitations or challenges being addressed in the next 10 to 15 years?

In academia, there is still this general perception that if you do good work, that has some sort of an application outside, someone will knock at your door, take your work and make it a reality so that everyone can benefit from it. That is, however, often not the case; as scientists I think we have a bigger responsibility. Aside from communicating our discoveries at conferences or through publications, we should also explore how we can get involved in translational activities. I think that this is something that has not been addressed enough. I know many academics that are interested in this but do not know where to begin, also in many cases, this effort is not valued too much at an organisational level. My old supervisor used to say: “you invented this technology and you know this technology better than anyone else in the world, so if you don’t bring it out, most likely nobody else will…”. More often than not, thinking “oh my part is done, somebody else should come and take over” will likely not take us far. It is perhaps the case that the new world requires a new definition for being an “academic” to overcome the massive societal and environmental challenges ahead.

What industries do you think will be impacted first by your research?

I would say food. During the COVID-19 outbreak, one thing became extremely clear: any industry can dysfunction due to unforeseeable events except for food. We all need to eat; all the time. Hence we need to spend more resources in making the food system more efficient and resilient. Producing food is terribly environmentally costly, yet we throw away one third of the food we produce. If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases; food waste costs around a trillion dollars. It is a huge problem and we have not really done much about it yet. After our lab developed the paper-based spoilage sensor (PEGS), one of our start-ups – Blakbear – took on the challenge to commercialize the technology. They have been successful in raising investment and they are a strong team. I think they have a good chance to make this idea a reality. We also made a press release concerning this technology through the College and suddenly we had interest from all around the world – Philippines, Australia, East Asia – people were asking us how they could help make this technology available. We are hoping that this interest will carry this idea beyond the academic lab into the real world.

We have also formed two other start-ups, Unhindr and Spyras, to translate two of the technologies developed in our lab to solve problems in healthcare. Through these two companies, consisting of brilliant scientists and engineers, it is my hope that our work will create more impact toward making healthcare more affordable and accessible. We also work with other companies to help bring more technologies to the clinic.

 If you were to imagine the future in 20 years, what are some of the changes that your research will lead to?

In the next 20 years, the way we consume and produce food is going to change radically. The population of the world is still growing, so we need to find ways to produce more food while reducing our environmental impact. I hope our technologies will help create a more sustainable and cheaper production and distribution of food in developed and developing countries.

Using the technologies developed in my laboratory, we will hopefully also be able to detect diseases at an earlier stage, so that they will not require costly and invasive interventions. Some of the sensors developed could also contribute to digital therapeutics in which treatment is gamified to turn highly customisable/personalised rehabilitation and therapy into an enjoyable activity. I hope that the low-cost diagnostics that we currently develop in our group will be used in the poorest regions of the world to improve healthcare and help reduce premature deaths.

 

Dr Firat Güder is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London. Firat and his team explore sensors at the juncture between material science, electronics, chemistry and biology, focusing on the development of new materials and low-cost transducers to interface the physical, chemical and biological world around us with machines. Firat is passionate about solving problems in healthcare, agriculture and food systems. He is also speaking at the TF2040 event in June 11th. 

*https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190605100401.htm