Technology is always promising to deliver something tomorrow that is not available today. It is this promise that underpins growth-oriented investments in fundamental research and breakthrough product development. In IVD, one such promise is personalized medicine, where an individual’s genetic information is used to predict disease development, thereby enabling tailored-to-fit treatments.
As the Neches Professor of Electrical Engineering, Medical Engineering, Applied Physics and Physics at Caltech, as well as being the Director of the Caltech Global Health Initiative, Axel Scherer strives for research outcomes that would bring personalized medicine to routine clinical practice.
Professor Scherer’s research focuses on the design and micro-fabrication of optical, magnetic and fluidic devices, with revolutionary findings in the miniaturization and demonstration of microfluidic “laboratories” and single cell analysis systems.
Professor Scherer has co-founded several companies in the area of silicon photonics and biomedical diagnostics, as well as co-authoring over 300 publications with over 50 patents on the area of micro-fabrication and more generally the design of devices.
Given my own firm belief that new technology can disrupt markets and bring dramatic growth for companies commercializing these technologies, I am very pleased to be catching up with Professor Scherer today as part of Invetech’s Executive Series on Growth.
Colin: Axel, good morning, and thank you for your time.
Axel: Good morning Colin. How are you doing?
Colin: I’m doing very well, thank you.
Axel, I thought just by way of background, it might be appropriate if you gave a thumbnail sketch of your group at Caltech. What is its role and how does it operate?
Axel: We have a group at Caltech where we are trying to miniaturize devices. We have about 15 students and post-docs that are working on various projects to miniaturize a variety of different devices, ranging from tiny silicon structures (that we make into transistors and lasers) to diagnostic tools. The group consists of an interdisciplinary selection of people doing electrical engineering, physics, biology and chemistry. The idea is to build systems, and we commercialize as we go. We have a couple of devices that have made it into companies; one of them being a silicon photonics company, and more recently, a qPCR molecular diagnostics company.
Colin: The field certainly is evolving both technically and commercially. Looking forward, what opportunities do you see for new diagnostic devices and in what particular applications?
Axel: Yes, over the last 30 years or so, the methods for detecting diseases have developed. They were originally focused on identifying diseases by using the molecular signature of the DNA. These fingerprinting techniques have now gotten to the point where they are available for clinical use, and there are a lot of assays available to measure all sorts of different diseases. We are very interested in building more efficient, less expensive systems that allow us to use these molecular diagnostics tools. As you might know, a couple of years ago you would have had these devices in hospitals and big laboratories, but right now we are trying to push these kinds of devices closer to the patient, or what we would consider the point of care. In order to do that, we need to automate these systems so that you can actually operate them in places that don’t have the labor, skills or technique support that is available in these medical centers.
Colin: Do you see that trend continuing, that trend towards point of care use for some of these devices?