Bangalore: Semiconductors, silicon chips that run mobile phones, game consoles, photo copiers, television sets and almost all other electronic devices are in search of a saviour—a killer application that can maintain its magic run that began with the personal computer and consumer electronics booms in the 1990s.
And, it seems, medical applications—growing at 12% annually, higher than any other semiconductor application, according to market research firm Databeans Inc.—could well be the knight in shining armour.
“The industry is looking for the next big thing; everybody is searching to find efficiencies in their businesses—improve productivity and reduce cost,” says Jaswinder Ahuja, corporate vice-president and managing director of Cadence Design Systems India Pvt. Ltd and chairman of industry lobby Indian Semiconductor Association (ISA).
Top priority: Semiconductor makers are looking at medical applications as the next big opportunity because other markets are saturated.
For these reasons, even though medical semiconductors comprise just about 1% of the global industry—and projected to reach $266.6 billion (Rs11.4 trillion) this year, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association, a US grouping—ISA assigned medical electronics top priority at its annual summit earlier this year. Ahuja says the sector offers unique opportunities in India, which has the need as well as the capability to address it.
The industry has begun chipping at the opportunity. Texas Instruments Inc., or TI, recently unveiled a new class of chips for portable to high-end ultrasound diagnostic equipment, which the company says allows better image quality and reduced power consumption.
In April, TI signed an agreement with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, to develop semiconductor technologies for health-care applications—the first association for the company with an IIT in this area, according to Biswadip Mitra, managing director, TI India.
GE Medical Systems Information Technologies Pvt. Ltd in Bangalore is currently evaluating this chip for its forthcoming portable ultrasound products, for India as well as the global market.
GE recently launched a portable electrocardiograph, or ECG, machine that gives results at as low as $1 compared with $25- $100 otherwise.
The second biggest medical semiconductor supplier, STMicroelectronics NV (ST), has virtually built a “technology toolbox” to facilitate convergence of semiconductor and health care industries.
Using technology that was originally developed for ink-jet applications, it recently unveiled a “lab-on-a-chip platform” called In-Check, whose first product, in collaboration with a Singapore firm Veredus Laboratories Pvt. Ltd, is an avian flu diagnostic test.
“India is one of ST’s most important centres for design and will play a major role as ST expands its offerings in healthcare,” says Michael Markowitz, director of technical media at ST. The In-check platform is now being used to develop other molecular tests, he adds.
Such diagnostics are made possible by what are called system-on-chips, or SoCs, where all the components of the traditional printed circuit boards are integrated on a single chip.
Freescale Semiconductors India is active in this space and has some “work in progress” which it is not ready to disclose yet. But its president and country manager Ganesh Guruswamy agrees that there’s plenty of innovation that Indian engineers can bring in the design while driving the cost down. “We can integrate more stuff, for instance if two-three chips are used for sensing, we could use one; or even add video processing,” he explains. It’s an emerging market and everybody is studying it, he says.
The Western world has started to look at medical applications as the next big opportunity as the phone and automotive markets are getting saturated and fast turning into commodity-like businesses. In India, these sectors are still driving the industry, but experts say it would be prudent to get started early on.
To the extent Indian engineers and semiconductor companies are already proving themselves to be the chip design houses of the world, medical applications, even if challenging, might just need priming the existing pump, some experts say.
According to a report jointly prepared by technology researcher International Data Corp. and ISA and released in April, the Indian design market was worth $6 billion in 2007 and is estimated to grow at 21.7% annually in the years to 2010, more than three times the global growth rate.
The intensity of design and testing work involved in chips associated with medical applications, for instance, makes such development a good fit for India. Custom design companies such as Cadence say biomedical devices also use a significant number of radio frequency, or RF, and analog-mixed signal components—both areas that are design-intensive.
In short, “chips should be designed to have high levels of sensing functionality and configurability,” says Poornima Mohanachandran, director of medical business development at TI India. “We see medical electronics as the next growth engine, particularly in a country like India,” she says.
Telemedicine, tele-diagnostics and other remote ways of taking medical help to rural areas are some of the uses that she thinks have vast scope here in India.
Intel Technology India Pvt. Ltd’s Sanat Rao, marketing director for the company’s embedded market division, thinks medical imaging is another area that places India in a strong position.
From traditional applications such as ultrasound machines, magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography scans to emerging ones such as home health monitoring, ECG machines with easy and common interfaces with computers and other devices, automated pathology equipment, India offers tremendous growth opportunities.
“We see several original equipment manufacturers developing products for the Indian market,” says Rao.
While leaders such as Intel and TI are betting big on embedded chips and dual core processors (a new technology that increases the speed of computing in electronic devices), smaller players such as Open-Silicon Inc., an application specific integrated circuit provider, think their offerings, particularly with radio and medical analysis capability, will play a big role.
Whether the medical chip sector will get divided in battle lines the way graphics chips today are trying to outflank each other in price and performance is a question that will need an answer a few years down the road when health care becomes accessible to a larger population. Currently, just about a third of India’s population has access to hospitals, according to the country’s drug prices regulator National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority.
Still, as of now, the challenge for the industry, according to ST’s Markowitz, is mastering a “knowledge network” that includes expertise in physiology, biology, chemistry, and regulatory issues that “semiconductor companies have little experience with”.
The other catch is affordability. While features in medical applications are certainly an advancement over what is required for most commercial applications, pricing the products within the consumer’s reach remain a challenge.
It is for this reason that some of the leading firms in this area may not look at India and developing countries seriously for technology-intensive opportunities such as SoCs, fears Chandrasekhar Nair, founder director of Bigtec Pvt. Ltd, a biotechnology company that is currently testing a SoC-based handheld diagnostic device in Hyderabad. “This is also possibly because the Indian market is very price-sensitive,” he says.
The developers could then emerge locally because India can serve as a proxy for the entire developing world.
“I am excited about how Indian players will step up to address the needs of the market, which is going to be the biggest growth driver not only for India but the global industry,” says Cadence India’s Ahuja.
Semiconductors in medical applications (Source Mint research)
* Smaller, lighter, and cheaper electronic devices like CT and MRI scanners, ultrasound and ECG machines
* Devices for drug dispensation like insulin pumps
* Implants for tissue repair; for example, deep brain stimulator for Parkinson’s disease
* Monitoring devices like glucometer, blood pressure meters
* Automated pathology equipment that do blood tests, clot detection, test for diseases such as hepatitis, avian flu, malaria, et al. For instance, GE and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are developing a ‘virtual microscope” that would let clinicians analyse slides from computer monitors and share their results with an expert anywhere in the world