“I probably have got a solution”, says Ajay Kottapalli, Associate Professor at the Engineering and Technology institute Groningen (ENTEG), University of Groningen. “However, I’m never walking around in hospitals so I don’t know to what exactly I have a solution. For that, I need doctors from the UMCG.” He is talking about sensors, both implantable or wearable. For example, measuring equipment that the patient wears to estimate if he or she is sufficiently recovered to walk independently again. Or tiny sensors inside intravenous tubes or urine drainage bags hanging from the hospital beds. He explains it: “my research is not useful if I can’t apply it anywhere in a hospital or make it meaningful to society.”
“Only when society indicates that the solution is beneficial, the hospitals will apply them.”
Although the C in HTRIC stands for Cluster, Ajay envisions a Community consisting of professors, doctors, engineers, researchers and, in the future, entrepreneurs. For him, HTRIC is a place where connections between these people are made. “You know what the problem is because doctors explain, the engineers invent a solution, and the entrepreneurs inform if the solution can be implemented. And only when society indicates that the solution is beneficial, the hospitals will apply them. This network is unique and it is created at the right time.”
According to Ajay, some things are needed to let HTRIC excel. For example, make things tangible so that people can see and touch them. In a small lab, you could make prototypes, demonstration material that others can use to devise new applications. This way, you can exhibit to researchers and businesses what the outcome of HTRIC is. “In my case, I would design an in-shoe pressure sensor that can process the data of someones gait, which they can read on their phone.” Ajay expects researchers probably would like to pay for some of these facilities, such as 3D printing (because many scientists make use of it) or a clean room.
“We are a little too modest here. But sometimes you have to tell the world what you do. Even if it’s just to inspire. I did my postdoc at MIT. There they have a museum where not only scientists, but also ‘ordinary visitors’ and businesses come to test all kinds of things. They become all eager when visiting. The museum also organises contests, in which a number of groups have to design something. These are exceptional designs. The winner’s design is then exhibited in the museum. It would be great to have a museum like this or a place for demonstrations here.”
“Consider all the things that create an impact, but hardly exist within the university.”
HTRIC starts with curiosity, thinking of solutions and then making an impact. This expressly means, for Ajay, that the results from research serve society, also when it results in a commercial product. Ajay explains that “HTRIC must look further than the research phase, which means that scientists must be trained in how you can set up an impactful start-up. This means considering financing, scaling up, and the willingness of insurers to pay for it. All these things that create an impact, hardly exist within the university.”
According to him, these are things that can make people slightly anxious. Better yet: he is in the middle of this process because of the start-up he recently set up. With his start-up, he hopes to bring sensors to the market that collect data based on fluids that enter a patient’s body through an intravenous tube and exit as urine. Currently, nurses use heaps of valuable time to check this data at each individual bed of patients.
It’s still exciting to see how we can produce this on a large scale, Ajay says. There is a long way to go before these specific sensors can be found at the hospital bedsides, and the process entails prototypes, tests on animals, finally, a clinical trial and more. Ajay is enthusiastic about setting up such a start-up and hopes that, via HTRIC, others will see the progress in this too. “I’m thrilled about HTRIC due to the brains that come together. That there is a platform where people easily connect. It will be a dedicated cluster championing clinical care and biomedical research.”
Prof. dr. Ajay Kottapalli is an Associate Professor at the Engineering and Technology institute Groningen (ENTEG) at the University of Groningen. His specialisations include: