SAN FRANCISCO Handheld and implantable medical devices could become a leading driver for electronics in the next decade, said the chairman of ARM Holdings plc in a keynote speech at the Embedded Systems Conference Wednesday (April 23).
In a sometimes tongue-in-cheek presentation, Robin Saxby gave a tour of emerging devices beginning to populate the biomedical landscape.
"In ten years, medical monitoring systems will have a similar impact and be a similar driver to what the mobile phone has done for our industry in the last ten years," Saxby said. "Biotech applications are on the way, and I think they will stretch the definition of what is a system-on-chip," he added.
The ARM chairman highlighted more than a dozen devices now hitting the market as the leading edge of a growing host of health-care systems. The microprocessor-powered devices ranged from smart packages that record drug intake and patient feedback to an implantable insulin pump from Teledyne Microelectronics.
The new systems are being spawned by the convergence of electronics and biotech to attack rising medical care issues. Many leverage RF and low-power processor technologies developed for cellphones and PDAs.
For example, 17 million people in the U.S. suffer from diabetes, the sixth-leading cause of death. One company has shipped an insulin inhaler that tracks the time and dosage amount. Another has delivered a microprobe patch to measure blood insulin levels and report results to a wireless handheld monitor.
"Some day the device might report the results to a cellphone or a watch," Saxby said.
Royal Philips has developed a $2,295 home defibrillator to help as many as 250,000 heart-attack victims a year, 70 percent of which occur in the home. "This could become the best seller for Christmas 2010," Saxby quipped, referring to the aging population of America.
Saxby showed other handheld gadgets already on sale to measure blood alcohol level, predict ovulation dates or deliver medical information to rural doctors in India. He also noted research developing an artificial retina, cochlea and other implantable devices.
"Now that we can't get people to carry any more ARM-based devices we have to implant them," he joked.
Saxby said U.S. public biotech and drug companies now have a slightly higher market capitalization the telecom companies and twice the valuation of U.S. semiconductor companies. The U.S. health-care industry is now spending more than $25 billion annually on computers and networks, he added.
In an interview after his keynote, Saxby reaffirmed his belief in the long-term potential of biotech as a driver for electronics. However, ARM currently does not track sales of its cores into medical electronics, a market which today contributes a negligible sum to the company's revenues, he said.
In the short term, broadband home networks, digital TV and other consumer gear form the most likely market to pull the electronics industry out of its current historic slump, he said. "I believe it will be a consumer-driven recovery," Saxby said.