How can nanotechnology
improve our life expectancy?
In this series of Moonshot interviews, imec Netherlands talks to experts about the impact of nanotechnology on our future society. In this third episode, Nico Van Meeteren, General Director of the Top Sector Life Sciences & Health, and Sywert Brongersma, Director Strategic Partnerships at imec the Netherlands within Holst Centre, discuss the opportunities for technology in preventive care.
Vital citizens in a healthy economy. That is the motto of the Top Sector Life Sciences & Health, one of the ten Top Sectors designated by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs to make a substantial contribution to the four social themes of the (resigned) Rutte III Cabinet. To realize the five missions of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport for the social theme Health and Care, the Top Sector is building on the strengths of Dutch health and preventive care. And there are plenty, according to Nico Van Meeteren:
"If you calculate that we as humans have been around for about 120,000 years and that we have succeeded in almost doubling our life expectancy in the last 150 years, then that is downright impressive."
But at the same time he stresses that medical care has only had a limited influence on this. "Of those 40 years of life gained, you can attribute 90 percent to education, clean drinking water, infrastructure, but above all to poverty reduction. In fact, we have unconsciously become proficient in preventive care," Nico concludes. "Of course we can further improve healthcare, but the potential there is much smaller. With preventive care we can still gain another 10, 15, maybe even 20 healthy years."
We are at a tipping point
Nico's conversation partner Sywert Brongersma, who is responsible for strategic partnerships at imec within Holst Center, shares that view. From his experience with vitality projects for the business community, Sywert also sees an important supporting role for nanotechnology. "If you look at the past 40-50 years, technology has mainly made us more and more inactive. But we are at a tipping point. Thanks in part to artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and data science, technology is now so advanced that it can understand your situation and context." Nanotechnology will ensure that people will soon be imperceptibly healthier and more vital, is Sywert's conviction. "It becomes a natural part of our daily lives." Nico agrees: "Don't forget that a lot of technology already invisibly, unconsciously invades our lives and contributes to our health. I believe that nanotechnology can help us to make a big leap forward, if more people start to see the enormous added value of this technology."
Start in the workplace
A logical starting point for using technology to increase vitality is the workplace. Because which employer doesn't want fit, productive employees, without too much stress or absenteeism? Sywert thinks the potential is enormous. "The credit crisis has triggered the entire development of energy efficiency. Yet, on average, energy accounts for only a few percent of operating costs, compared to 90 percent for staff. This means investing in healthy employees could yield much more." Sywert believes that reach and scalability are the major advantages of nanotechnology. "With courses and coaching on healthy behavior you only reach a small part of your staff, and usually only the people who were already in to this lifestyle. But with smart offices and workplaces everyone benefits."
Unknown makes unloved. That is why imec has joined forces with its FITT-partners, among others, in the Workplace Vitality Hub: a promising preview of the workplace of the future located on High Tech Campus Eindhoven (see text box). According to Sywert, the current corona crisis demonstrates that vitality is rightly an important theme, among other things to make us more resilient against these types of viruses. But not only that: "Employers will have to facilitate working from home, but they also have to entice their employees to return to the office again. At least partly, because this is more convenient and effective for certain tasks. Technology will play an important role in this. How to better connect the office with home will be a challenge, because completely different technology companies are active in both domains."
Autonomy and trust are key
When it comes to employee data, especially in relation to health, you automatically reach the sensitive topic of privacy. "The employer-employee relationship is complicated in that area", Sywert agrees, "but if you look at health insurers then employees are already being steered towards desired behavior. Ultimately, I expect that opportunities will arise in the collaboration between employees and health insurers, with employers in a facilitating role." Nico sees increased opportunities for safe data sharing: "The Internet of Things is slowly being replaced by the 'Internet of FAIR data and services' (a set of principles to better organize the use of data for health and care, ed.). This means that we are more and more able and willing to manage our own data, to determine who we allow to use it and who not. It' much more about autonomy." Sywert: "That's right, autonomy and trust in our solutions are key. At imec we consider these aspects, in addition to data flow security, as the biggest challenges for the transition we envision."
Health gap is growing
Preventive care in the workplace is great, but how do you ultimately ensure that everyone benefits and society as a whole becomes more vital? Nico observes: "If you look at health inequality, there is indeed still a significant and growing gap. On average a person living in poverty has a six to seven years shorter life expectancy. That's a big challenge." Sywert: "Nevertheless, the workplace is a logical place to start. You need stakeholders such as employers and health insurers who immediately understand the importance and potential of technology. In addition, employees are more likely to be tech savvy. Ideal for learning from, so that other groups in society can also benefit from this later on." Nico adds: "I see that as an organic process. Technology will continue to evolve. Ultimately, I see nanotechnology as a welcome Trojan horse, improving society unnoticed. I have high hopes for that."
Learn with our grandparents
In addition to technological innovation, Nico believes that there is a great need for social innovation in order to be able to take next steps in preventive care and vitality. "I think there's quite some room for improvement in that respect", Nico sounds concerned. "I think education is a good example. Schools used to be the engine of progress and a connecting factor in society. How can education take up that role and place again, now and in the future? Can we give such a place the right social, physical and mental dynamics? I also strongly believe in the benefits of learning, or rather developing, in a mix of ages and contexts." According to Nico, this is related to another major challenge in our current society, namely that we must learn to deal better with the elderly. He sees this as an opportunity: "What could be more fun for young grandchildren to learn with grandparents? Ergo: can schools once again become the engine of prosperity and life expectancy, just like in the past? And how can technology contribute to this as well?" Sywert: "Our challenge is to ensure that technology becomes a commodity, that it's an intuitive and accepted part of your daily life. It's interesting to see how this can also enhance the interaction between students and the elderly, which does not have to be very different from "on-the-job-learning" with a remote expert. And then substantiate how we can demonstrably add quality to our lives. Technology certainly does not solve everything, but we can play an important supporting role."
Welcome to the workplace of the future
In order to make the transition from science to the workplace, imec at Holst Centre gains valuable experiences with smart technologies, data and Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace Vitality Hub on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven. Fontys, TNO, Eindhoven University of Technology and imec are working together with TWICE and HTCE in this living lab. The aim is to create new applications for a smart working environment with established companies and start-ups. Sywert: "Innovations include lighting that automatically adapts to the moment and the situation, sound scaping that helps you concentrate better, and furniture that automatically adapts to your posture, or an office chair that teaches you to sit properly. But technology can take us even further. For example, by remotely measuring someone's breathing and heart rhythm. And we can see the functionalities of wearables being integrated completely invisibly and intuitively into our working environment in the future. The hybrid electronics available within Holst Centre, where chip technology and free form electronics come together, are very suitable for this. In the office, in a production environment, or at home. Together with its partners and the business community, imec is working on new solutions to work healthily and vitally in a post-COVID society, where people instead of bricks are at the heart of innovation.
About Nico Van Meeteren
Prof. dr. Nico van Meeteren is General Director of the Top Sector Life Sciences & Health (LSH) in The Hague. LSH, which also operates under the name Health Holland, coordinates the implementation of the Knowledge and Innovation Agenda of the Social Challenge Health and Care of this cabinet. In addition to General Manager, Van Meeteren is professor of Perioperative Health at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. Van Meeteren is also Chairman of the Board of the Topcare Foundation, which contributes to excellent long-term inpatient care and treatment.
About Sywert Brongersma
Dr. Eng. Sywert Brongersma studied Applied Physics at Eindhoven University of Technology and obtained his PhD at VU University in Amsterdam. After his postdoc at the University of Western Ontario, he joined imec's Advanced Silicon Processing division in 1998 as chief scientist. In 2006 he moved to imec within Holst Center to set up a research group for chemical sensors for wireless system solutions. Currently, as Director Strategic Partnerships, Brongersma is responsible for European and regional public funding and is working on setting up new partnerships.