After his speech at the EPIC AGM in Paris at the beginning of the month, Professor Jürgen Popp, director of the IPHT in Jena, Germany, says more work is needed to connect the various players of the biophotonics value chain
Within the last few years, research and development activities in the area of biophotonics solutions have risen worldwide. National and European funding programmes have been initiated, motivated by the growing socio-economic importance of biophotonics. However, even if there is a strong demand for biophotonics solutions, the market deployment of products is not as strong as it could be.
The market for biophotonics is predicted to reach €85.5 billion by 2020 – that is about 14 per cent of the global photonics market . The demand for biophotonics is, among other reasons, mostly due to demographic change. Social structures are shifting: today there are 78.9 million people in Europe older than 65 years; in 2050 there will be 132.6 million! In addition, age-related diseases are increasing: in Germany alone, the number of heart attacks will almost double from 313,000 to 548,000 per year by 2050 . Infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis or sepsis are also becoming more prevalent. Dealing with these challenges is one of the most important tasks for our healthcare systems, and biophotonics will play a crucial role for more effective and personalised healthcare.
Although Europe has excellent R&D results in individual Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) like photonics, it often fails or takes too long to bring these ideas and research results as innovative products to market. As a result, biophotonics solutions often get stuck in the ‘valley of death’. In the specific case of biophotonics, there are several structural weaknesses in the innovation and value chain:
Research on tools and methods is often still technology driven instead of being based on a medical need. As a consequence, technology is developed to the proof-of-concept stage but not further since potential applications are missing or unknown.
In many cases, optical technology companies (in particular SMEs) are highly innovative but lack the knowledge on how to transfer the results of research and development into marketable products, not least because of extensive and complicated regulatory frameworks and affairs.
FDA approvals or analogues require up to 10 years or more to be granted (this includes technologies using biological labels like fluorescence microscopy, since labels are treated by the law as drugs), and companies often lack the large investments to survive this lengthy time-to-market.
A product, once approved, needs to be accepted by the clinicians and by the health insurance companies, a fact that is often disregarded by companies.
Quite often, several companies have to be involved in the different stages of product development, from component provider via system developer to full solution provider. System developer and full solution provider might not be aware of newly developed components that could either provide high cost savings or bring the system to a new level. On the other hand, component providers might not be aware of the potential of their particular component. In addition, companies are often not aware of the potential that new scientific research offers.
These critical points need to be overcome in order to exploit the potentials of biophotonics solutions fully by:
Strengthening R&D capacities in SMEs: While SMEs successfully develop biophotonics solutions, many of them find it increasingly difficult to disrupt the market. Therefore, new strategies for funding and regulatory issues on the European level need to be developed to help SMEs to overcome the ‘valley of death’ successfully.
Bridging gaps in the innovation and value chain: A key requisite for accelerated translation in biophotonics solutions is the close cooperation of academia, industry, and lead users from the medical field. Such truly interdisciplinary and multilateral cooperation holds great potential to close the existing gaps in the innovation and value chain. We need to install measures to support those collaborations which are still too sporadic to date.
Generating knowledge exchange between users and developers: Deployment of biophotonics solutions is often hindered by missing knowledge on their potential among medical practitioners. On the other hand, academic and industrial R&D is suffering from the fact that method and technology developers are not fully aware of urgent medical needs and user requirements. Shared laboratories and facilities in the clinics would be the way to foster cooperation and to show physicians and technologists how fruitful working together can be.
Strengthening interdisciplinary and business skills of young researchers: It is vital for SMEs, and also for academic institutions, that their R&D specialists possess basic management knowledge; in the biophotonics sector, they also need a profound ability to think out of the box. To ensure sustainability in the field, young researchers especially should acquire these skills. Therefore, there is a requirement to develop interdisciplinary courses and summer schools for young physicians and technologists to develop interdisciplinary spirit and provide them with the needed knowledge and tools.
What we need is a platform, possibly linked to the European technology platform, Photonics 21, which connects all stakeholders, helps to develop and promote solutions, and makes concrete recommendations for actions to remove the hurdles and issues involved in developing biophotonics equipment.
If some of the barriers to developing and deploying biophotonics solutions were removed, Europe’s leading position in biophotonics research and innovation can be maintained and even accelerated. If this cannot be achieved, however, a great opportunity for European companies and citizens will be missed.
Professor Jürgen Popp is director of the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology (IPHT) in Jena, Germany. The institute develops custom solutions to problems in the fields of medicine and life and environmental sciences.
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 F. Beske, A. Katalinic et al, Morbiditätsprognose 2050. Ausgewählte Krankheiten für Deutschland, Brandenburg und Schleswig-Holstein, Kiel 2009.