The application of electronics to the treatment of health conditions is nothing new. For years for example pacemakers have been used for the treatment of irregular heartbeats and other cardiovascular conditions.
New technologies and pioneering engineering however are opening up whole areas to bioelectronic solutions and bioelectronic medicine is now a real possibility. Researchers in Washington, for example, have been working on implantable and biodegradable electronic devices that can stimulate nerve regeneration.
Likewise, transistors are being developed which can interact with human skin to monitor signals given off by the body – a technology with obvious applications in the treatment of conditions ranging from diabetes to hypertension. It is for these reasons that the World Economic Forum has named bioelectronics a technology that is likely to shape the future of medicine and healthcare.
It’s no surprise then that with sophisticated electronic devices being applicable to an increasing range of health conditions, the bioelectronics market is expected to grow substantially in coming decades with a recent report suggesting the market could grow to $60 billion by the year 2029.
For innovators in this market, and for patients, there is a huge amount to play for. With substantial investments being made in research, development and gaining regulatory approval – it is vital that innovation in this market can be protected and, where innovation can be protected with patents, it should be.
Given that bioelectronics is a relatively new area of technology there may not be a great deal of prior art (evidence that an innovation has already been invented or discovered). This in turn means that truly novel, and patented, technology in this area could present innovators with the opportunity to ring-fence a section of the emerging bioelectronics market, and license that technology to the rest of the market – leading to potentially significant returns on initial R&D spend.
The hybrid nature of this technology – straddling as it does technologies ranging from electronics to biotech – means that drawing conclusions about the volume of patent filing going on in this market isn’t easy.
Medical technology continues to be the largest single patent filing category at the European Patent Office however, and some of this is likely to be accounted for by bioelectronics. The EPO’s latest annual report reveals that filings in the medtech category grew 5% in 2018. Likewise, filings in the categories of measurement, biotechnology, electrical machinery and analysis of biological materials also grew.
While not conclusive, this filing could point towards growth in the bioelectronics market already occurring.
While presenting potential licensing opportunities, the hybrid nature of bioelectronic technology also presents challenges both to start-ups and more established companies who may be looking to break into this market. Central to these challenges will be developing the in-house expertise needed to successfully compete in this market and finding the engineers who are as comfortable with circuitry as they are with chronic illness.
As the bioelectronics market grows, no doubt so too will the pool of individuals and firms specialising in electronic healthcare solutions. In the meantime however, great care will need to be taken to ensure that pioneering technologies developed in this space are adequately protected and commercialised.
New technologies such as AI and 3D printing are leading to enormous innovation in healthcare – with technological solutions being found for health challenges ranging from better diagnostics which can reduce over-prescription of antibiotics to the emergence of sophisticated algorithms that can replicate a human pancreas.
The emerging field of bioelectronics will have a huge role to play here and has the potential to lead to ground breaking new treatments and the creation of world beating enterprises. Protecting this innovation with intellectual property will be key as this industry grows, and begins deploying its technology to meet health challenges globally.
Duncan White is a Partner at Marks & Clerk