“If you can already think of a solution, it’s apparently not good enough.” Director John Baekelmans has set the bar quite high for his people at imec Netherlands. The Dutch branch of the originally Flemish research institute that is housed at the High Tech Campus Holst Centre together with the Dutch TNO, is a world leader in applied research around Internet-of-Things and Connected Health.
“Embracing a Better Life: with this slogan, imec wants to make clear to the world which goals it pursues. And no matter how successful, no one will ever find a product called imec – or Holst Centre – in a shop. Baekelmans: “We do not make an end product, we create innovations. We are a research company, our task is to get the attention of companies that do supply market products.”
“We don’t make an end product, we create innovations.”
Imec is a non-profit organization that is 70% financed by the market and 30% by governments. About ten years ago, at the request of Philips, it settled in the Holst Centre at the High Tech Campus Eindhoven. This made it one of the first external organizations on the campus. In TNO, imec soon found a logical partner: “We are good at measuring, TNO in turning everything that can be measured into wearables”, Baekelmans explains. “We fit together perfectly.”
Baekelmans, who has been in charge of imec Netherlands for more than a year now, is a fanatical user of the wearables that can arise from this or himself. “I try to keep fit by measuring,” he says with a glance at his smartwatch. “I’ve been doing that for years – and it helps!”
“Outcome-based research, this is still difficult for universities”
Although imec is not for profit, the organization is run entirely as a company, Baekelmans insures. “Very precisely: we are a research business. The better we are at bringing our knowledge to market, the closer we will get to our targets. And those targets, those are super commercial. That is where our success lies, that’s our core value. You can now see that universities are also shifting a little bit towards applied research, but in that respect, they will never be as good as we are. We guarantee results, which is why companies work with us. Outcome-based research, which is still difficult for universities.”
There are many ways to measure the success of imec, Baekelmans says. “But a paying customer remains the best proof for us that we are doing well. Philips is a good example of this. We have a long-lasting relationship with them, especially in the field of healthcare technology.
“A paying customer remains the best proof for us that we are doing well”
Holst Centre and TNO may – at least in the Netherlands – be established names, but imec is by no means as well known. Baekelmans realizes that there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. “This is partly due, of course, to the construction in which we work, but, as imec, we really should be better known in The Hague.” Not because the organization focuses solely on the Netherlands: “It is precisely because our work involves large investments and long periods of development that we often are dealing with foreign customers. Fortunately, however, hospitals and companies from the region are also regularly involved in our research. We also translate the knowledge we gain into local projects such as the Vitality Living Lab and Nano4sports.”
Imec is not only an international organization in terms of customers, it is also a global player internally, with 22 nationalities on the payroll. The “global brand imec” is popular with international talent and attracts knowledge workers from all over the world to Brainport. These people are active in two main groups: Internet of Things (IoT) and connected health.
Internet of Things: sensor technology with social impact
The IoT group consists of three main topics: ultra-low power radio (communication protocols via for example Bluetooth and wifi, where it all started with at imec), environmental sensing (measuring the quality of air or water very precisely with relatively cheap sensors) and small buildings and cities (exact measurements of air and water quality). Baekelmans points to a small box in the corner of the room: “Look, in all the rooms here in our building we have installed these sensors. This enables us not only to measure everything that happens here but also to give direct advice to the users of the space on that basis. Our customers are the building automation companies. Because we can detect how many people are in a room and when the air gets less good, a building automation company can claim: ‘We offer the best quality air in your building‘. It starts with the sensor, but of course, it’s about the data we extract, the insights. This means that there are now at least as many software people as hardware people on our team.”
From the interior of a building to the built environment of a city is a logical step. Baekelmans has long had experience with smart cities; even in his former position at Cisco, this theme already fell within his responsibilities. “Again, this is much more about insights than about technology. Antwerp is our test city, thanks to a multiple million-dollar injection from the Flemish government. We are fully responsible for finding solutions to make the air cleaner; in other words, real applied research. This is very cool: we are literally working on making life in that city more pleasant.”
For the first time, water quality sensors developed by imec Netherlands are used to measure the water quality in the river IJzer in Belgium and to give advice for improvement.
It is not just about roads and buildings. “Our ion sensors, which can measure water quality, have recently been used for large-scale projects in water management. Last week, for the first time in Belgium, we installed a network of small water sensors in the river IJzer, a real breakthrough. These things have been developed here in Eindhoven. The ultimate goal is to make sensors so small and cheap that they can be used anywhere to measure real-time water quality and provide objective advice to improve quality. Water shortages are real, we have to be careful with the resources we still have. It is no coincidence that such solutions are devised and made by our people here. Technological innovation in water management is crucial to the world of tomorrow.
At the official presentation of the water sensors in Flanders
The connected health group also has three main themes: wearables, application of data from wearables, and ingestibles or insertibles. “The latter is perhaps the least known, but it is very promising: it’s all about measuring instruments that are swallowed or placed somewhere in the body with an operation. Think of a pill you take, after which you can follow and control it with your smartphone on the outside of your body. Or sensors that are placed under the skin on a prosthesis; this makes it easy to measure how quickly someone heals and it eliminates the need for this person to come to the hospital every time to have x-rays taken.”
For the wearables, imec also focuses on the health sector. “With our health patch, which we have developed together with TNO, we can measure heart functions very accurately, again with the aim of reducing the number of people coming to a hospital for check-ups. But in addition to these ecg’s, major steps have also been taken recently with eeg’s: brain monitoring. Most people still know the pictures of patients with a bathing cap from which dozens of threads come up, but we have developed that further in a simple, easy to wear and wireless band around their heads. Together with the Japanese company Nihon Kohden, that product was created and now they have licensed our patents.”
But it’s not just health within the wearables group. Imec is also negotiating with major game developers to see if the “next generation gaming experience” is available. Baekelmans: “Imagine that you no longer need to use a controller, but simply think in terms of ‘jump’ or ‘shoot’ to control a game.”
“Imagine you no longer need to use a controller, but simply think in terms of ‘jump’ or ‘shoot’ to control the game”
And then there is the area of electro oculography (eog): “We have developed spectacles that measure the electric field of the eyes with incredible accuracy: every eye movement changes into a command”. (see main picture). And at least as interesting: the bifocal contact lens, including chip and battery, in a few square millimeters. Because all these measurements yield data, imec can ultimately also ensure that the switch is made to the users’ behaviour. “Smoking, obesity, if you can find the triggers, it will also be easier to dissolve them.”
If John Baekelmans can clarify one thing, it is how many fundamental social and personal challenges, thanks to the efforts of imec, are coming one step closer to a solution. In other words ‘embracing a better life‘. It is not that the prototypes that leave the Holst Centre on the High Tech Campus will be in the shop tomorrow, but that is where they will ultimately be. Filled with solutions that no one could have thought of beforehand, but that were the very reason why imec was born.