Belgian R&D Organization imec Finds Opportunity in Central Florida
It’s not that we are focusing just on things that could only happen in space. These developments bear a much wider context.
— Veerle Reumers
Memory foam was created in 1966 to protect astronauts during takeoff. Materials used in Nike Air trainers, developed in 1978, originated from spacesuit construction technology. Scientific cameras small enough to fit on spacecraft were developed in the 1990s during a project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA.
At the intersection of science and business is research and development — integral practices for progress and innovation. Belgian-based imec is a global not-for-profit research and development institute with smart application areas spanning health care, smart cities and mobility, logistics, manufacturing and energy.
The U.S. headquarters in Florida, which is based at the BRIDG microelectronics manufacturing facility in the emerging NeoCity in Kissimmee, is specializing in advanced high-speed electronics, photonics and imaging technologies that will contribute to these application areas and others. Concepts from imec appear in all kinds of technology products, from smartphones to laptops to wearables.
Inventions that were developed for use in space exploration, including infrared temperature sensing and liquid-cooled clothing, have been translated into applications people use every day in countries around the world. When people question the importance of space medicine and wonder, “We have so many challenges here on Earth — why are we trying to solve health issues in space?” Imec Research and Development Manager Veerle Reumers has an answer.
“What people don’t realize is that many issues relevant in space have applications on Earth, which makes space health and life sciences a relevant and applicable research topic,” she said. “Put it this way: imec doesn’t sell products. We sell technology and knowledge, and we collaborate with different academic, government and industry partners. There are plenty of needs with respect to technology necessary for monitoring the health of the crew, which is mostly what we are currently working on. We are trying to leverage imec technology for space applications.”
Every human biological system is affected by gravity to some extent. “From bones to the cardiovascular system, all of these aspects are affected by the environment,” said Susana Zanello, another research and development manager at imec. “Therefore, there is a need to monitor these changes, as well as the efficacy of countermeasures, using various technologies.”
Developments in this area would allow for blood tests, for example. Focused on health technology including nanofluidic devices, biomechanics and wearable health applications for astronauts and those in remote locations, imec began to target health care research and product development more than 10 years ago. Along with nanofluidic testing, the company and its partners have collaborated to develop lens-free microscopy, which monitors and classifies airborne particles or blood cells, depending on the application.
“Another important challenge for human deep space exploration is the fact that it comes with a series of unique hazards such as remoteness, confinement and isolation,” Zanello said, “and with that, there is an increasing need for crews to gain autonomy in their operations.”
In other words, astronauts must be equipped with the technology and knowledge to conduct medical procedures and testing while in isolated, extreme conditions where they don’t have the support of a whole scientific or medical team.
The goal for imec is to develop technologies that allow for a comprehensive physiology and molecular profile of how human systems are impacted after periods of being in the space environment. “The scientific community is trying to develop a profile in order to understand what happens to the body during the course of a mission,” Zanello said.
With progress in space exploration and a potential for humans to populate other planets, space health applications are paramount in enabling exploration and, in the process, developing current and future medical technologies. The team at imec feels that medical technology translates between space and Earth.
“It’s not that we are focusing just on things that could only happen in space,” Reumers said. “These developments bear a much wider context.”
One Small Step, One Giant Leap
One of imec’s strongest markets is in the United States. Positioned near Kennedy Space Center in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, imec found a home in 2016 at the heart of Osceola County in Florida’s High Tech Corridor. In the BRIDG facility, imec works alongside other entities that are developing the most modern emerging technologies. BRIDG is the cornerstone of the future 500-acre NeoCity technology district about 60 miles from Kennedy Space Center.
Reumers is imec’s first researcher to make the leap from its Belgian headquarters to Florida, and she brings with her deep expertise about how to use technology for life sciences applications. Zanello has 12 years of experience at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and continues to run NASA-funded research projects at imec. “We’re working on multiple fronts to identify opportunities in Florida, Texas, and across the globe,” Reumers said.
Hope on the Horizon
Staffed with a team of researchers, doctors and engineers, imec is equipped to establish predictions for precision medicine and make advancements in the field. “Even though we’re talking about astronauts, certain characteristics can be found in populations or circumstances on Earth,” Zanello said.
Reumers recalled a recent project she worked on while living in Belgium. “Your heart and brain cells communicate via electrical signals. So, we developed a chip to measure those electrical signals and packaged it in a way to build organ-on-a-chip platforms.”
Reumers’ aunt has Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative disorder that affects neurological function, causing neurons to degrade or die. “What was cool for me is that the results of the project I worked on in Europe were picked up by the Chan-Zuckerberg foundation in the U.S. When my aunt learned about the project, she saw hope in the technology we were developing. She knew it was not going to mean treatment for her, but it inspired hope that there was more research being done to help people with degenerative diseases. These same platforms can be used by pharma companies to enable drug development, which is an activity they are also expanding into the space environment.”