Biophotonic Sensor Field 'Ripe With Opportunity'
By Kipp Lynch, PhD
SAN JOSE, Calif.,Jan. 31, 2007 -- The field of biophotonic sensors is ripe with opportunity, according to Dr. David Krohn, managing partner at Lightwave Venture Consulting. Krohn spoke to a packed audience at Photonics West Thursday as part of an Industry Perspective presentation, “Trends and Opportunities in Biophotonics.”
“I focus on instrumentation for detection and sensing systems -- not imaging or clinical therapeutic uses. The overall market opportunity, for all technologies, in detection systems and sensors across agriculture, homeland security, biomedical diagnosis and the military, is estimated to be about $16 billion,” said Krohn. “If you drill down and just look at biophotonics and photonics detection systems, the market potential is still over $2 billion by the year 2011.”
The market for biophotonic sensors is broad. Military applications include chemical and biological agent detection, biowarfare defense, field intelligence and explosives detection. Medical applications include diagnostics, therapeutics and drug and vaccine development. Homeland defense, one of Krohn’s areas of expertise, includes water supply monitoring, intrusion sensors, border protection and cargo container security.
“If you look at the port of Hong Kong versus the port of New York or Los Angeles, they inspect 100 percent, while the United States inspects less than five percent of the 10 million cargo containers entering the United States each year. We are really vulnerable here,” Krohn said.
There are many barriers to overcome before biophotonics are in widespread use in homeland security. Much of the sensor technology to date, such as that used for drug discovery, uses point sensors. The two basic types of biophotonic sensors, Krohn said, are intrinsic sensors, which detect via the modulation of light by the imbedded bimolecular properties of a sensing element, and extrinsic sensors, also known as hybrid fiber-optic sensors, which monitor biological processes by conventional photonic sensing methods.
“The problem with taking it from doing pharmaceutical and clinical work to homeland security is that you need a network of these. I don’t want point sensors -- I need multiples -- and I need them integrated together,” Krohn said.
Another obstacle for biophotonics is one of trustworthiness; culture analysis is still necessary to verify whether the pathogen or toxin is actually present. “People need to respond quickly, but if the biophotonic sensor sends out an alarm and you still have to go back to conventional technology to confirm that it’s real, you’ve lost valuable time,” said Krohn. “We need to demonstrate that the technology is reliable enough that we eliminate the need for people having to verify with conventional technology.”
A key to overcoming some of the technology obstacles in homeland security applications, according to Krohn, is microarray technology, which he believes is also the largest market opportunity. Microarrays will enable biophotonic sensing technology to monitor over 2000 pathogens, detect toxins in minutes rather than hours and simultaneously monitor multiple pathogens with reduced amounts of testing material.
The detector systems need to be able to withstand harsh environments and must have longer shelf life. In homeland security applications, the systems need to be staged in place, while in a laboratory or bench setting materials and components can be easily replenished or swapped out.
“If you are doing a subway system in New York City, in which there are over 4000 entrances to the subway, you don’t want to have to change these things out every three months; they have to have a fair amount of lifetime,” explains Krohn. “To that end, there’s a lot of innovation needed in materials technology, the substrates and how to preserve these things so that they are viable for some period of time.”
Academic language differences present another obstacle to the development of biophotonic sensors; there is a very real communication barrier between optical scientists and biologists.
“Very often, the same term has a different meaning to different people. And that is a real translation barrier,” said Krohn. “I’m interested in the commercialization of this technology, and one of the most important things is to make sure the biologist doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and go out without realizing that there’s 40 years of technology that’s been developed on the photonics side to do the detection and apply it. There has to be a better communication; you have to have the biologist and the photonics people talking to each other.”
The final barrier for biophotonics sensing is simply getting companies, organizations and the government to work together on such a complex problem as homeland security, he said.
“For example, in shipboard and truck cargo container security, there is the tracking system, there is wireless interconnect, radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging, biophotonics sensing for 2000 potential pathogens to detect, and you also have look at radiation detection and intrusion. And all of this has to integrate into a small package. No one company has all the technologies to do that,” said Krohn. "It needs a consortium, it needs industry support, and it needs Washington support. Unfortunately, it only has Washington lip-service, but we need people to step up to the plate and do it -- through lobbying and putting a consortium together.”
Krohn remains optimistic but emphasized the need to present a unified industry voice to the government; to build strategic partnerships for technology development; and to encourage companies and organizations, such as SPIE and OSA, to participate in theOptoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA) sensor consortium, a nonprofit that focuses on the business of technology.
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