Apr 15, 2021
Life sciences industry insights with Zemax CTO, Sanjay Gangadhara
Rockley Photonics recently announced that they will be going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC)1. As a part of this move, the company will shift their focus to technologies addressing the medical and life sciences markets. This move highlights the growing opportunities for optics and photonics in the life sciences industry, coupled with a drive towards miniaturization for the technical solutions being developed for the industry.
Optics and photonics have always played a critical role in life sciences. This role has been amplified by the pandemic, but not just in providing a means to track and fight the virus. The pandemic accelerated the need for monitoring and treating individuals outside of clinical settings, to ensure both patient and doctor safety. We know that optics and photonics support virtual communication technologies that are a part telemedicine, and that telemedicine will continue to grow in usage and popularity (as demonstrated by a recent expansion of reimbursement policies from the federal government2). But for telemedicine to be maximally effective, patients also must be able to self-monitor and self-report their health status, and this requires portable and wearable diagnostics.
Significant effort has gone into the development of compact, portable diagnostics over the last few years, ranging from optical coherence tomography devices3,4,5 to spatially heterodyne spectrometers6 and more. In parallel, the development of wearable diagnostics offers a potentially simpler, more direct method for monitoring patient health, and optical sensors are key components of these systems. Several companies – including Odin Technologies7, Maxim Integrated8, and Rockley Photonics9 – are making great progress on the development of wearable devices. While handheld and wearable diagnostic are still primarily being used by clinicians and researchers, opportunities are now arising to deliver easy-to-use systems directly to patients for in-home usage.
In addition to on-going innovations in existing optical technologies, micro-optics and integrated photonics are also driving miniaturization of healthcare devices. While micro-optic solutions are being used to develop high resolution microscopes11, endoscopes12, and more, silicon photonics and photonic integrated chips are the basis for new devices being created in both industry9 and research13. And although deep learning has received attention for its ability to simplify systems14 and extract meaning from large datasets, this technology will also enable the development of more compact devices.
Though advancements have been made by moving from traditional geometries to complex freeform optics (which can now be readily produced using plastic molding or 3D printing technologies) and from traditional catadioptric designs to ones that include diffractive and holographic materials, these benefits introduce new challenges with fabrication, alignment, and testing. In addition, the impact of structural and thermal perturbations introduced by mechanical packaging and heating from both internal and external sources will be more severe for smaller, more complex devices. For the medical and life sciences industry, performance requirements are stringent and governed by regulation, meaning there is very little room for error in product development. These trends highlight the growing importance of integrated co-simulation and design for companies that are building the next generation of optical devices and diagnostics.
Nonetheless, given all the excitement and opportunities in the medical and life sciences industry, I will not be surprised to see more companies follow the path taken by Rockley Photonics. This is just one way in which optics and photonics are shaping our world and making life better, for all of us.
Chief Technology Officer