The New Agricultural Revolution: B2B, Nano-drones and Organics


Picture Credit: DroneOmega

As an Upper (Connecticut River) Valley denizen, IAI admires the courage, toughness and resiliency of farmers who are entrepreneurs who start their days early and end them late. Stop some time to talk with an organic farmer- they are focused, overburdened by regulations, but committed to the Farm to Plate movement. What also may be surprising to city folk is that they are not uninformed, they are committed to pride in their production, and they are indefatigable. Now, there are a lot of new technological developments that are breaking in their favor.

So here are examples of some new tools to support farmer-entrepreneurs:

I. Commodities Exchanges: Wikipedia provides a 50,000 foot view: A commodities exchange is an exchange where various commodities and derivatives products are traded. Most commodity markets across the world trade in agricultural products and other raw materials (like wheat, barley, sugar, maize, cotton, cocoa, coffee, milk products, pork bellies, oil, metals, etc.) and contracts based on them. These contracts can include spot prices, forwards, futures and options on futures. Other sophisticated products may include interest rates, environmental instruments, swaps, or ocean freight contracts.


Equal Exchange- Pioneer in Championing Small Scale Farming: In 1986, EE founders Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal and Michael Rozyne embraced the mission to build long-term trade cooperative partnerships in Nicaraguan coffee that were economically just and environmentally sound, to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers and to demonstrate, through our success, the contribution of worker co-operatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.

II. Farm Management Software: Capterra lists a diverse group of FMS suppliers including these top six web-based offerings rated over 4 stars and 1000+ users:

  • Cropio: a satellite farm monitoring system that supplies real-time data on crop conditions in the fields (View Profile here).
  • Agrimap: simple, power farm software to make farmer’s lives easier. (View Profile here)
  • Agrinavia: helps reduce costs, increase efficiency, and promote exchange of data for precision agriculture. (View Profile here)
  • Agroptima: easy-to-use App & Farm Management Software that allows farmers to record their tasks and have an overview of the farm. (View Profile here)
  • FarmLogics: a full fledged web based on-premise or cloud installable agriculture ERP including contract farming module. (View Profile here)
  • FarmLogs – Data Science Tools to Farmers:  Jesse Vollmar and Brad Koch created web and mobile software that gives farmers instant access to soil maps, rainfall statistics and heat mapping and growth analyses to help make farming more efficient and profitable. After participating in the Y Combinator tech accelerator, FarmLogs raised $15 million in venture capital, including a $10 million Series B round funded late in 2015. (View Profile here)


Picture Credit: FarmLogs

III. B2BMarketplaces: Business-to-business (B2B) exchanges or marketplaces provide dramatic opportunities to automate collaborative business processes with customers and suppliers, generate internal efficiencies, and reach new markets at minimal cost. B2B Ag marketplaces have been undergoing rapid adoption over the past fifteen years and improved dramatically in the last three due to big data aggregation, cloud computing and early adoption of distributed ledgers or blockchain. The Chinese Agricultural University analyzed the benefits and critical factors of B2B e-marketplace in agriculture product marketing case study by Shandong Shouguang Vegetable Trading Market Online (SSVTMO) in this 2009 paper here.

F4F Exchange: Here’s an example of the B2B ag revolution that is focused on integrated “supply-centric” grain, seed, crop protection and fertilizer sectors. The F4F vision is to create a transparent, open farmer and consumer centric integrated agri-food supply chain. But the mission is much broader: to work with all parts of the agri-food market in providing business solutions aimed at helping their customers meet the challenges of:

  • Legislation on assurance and compliance with rules and standards
  • Supply chain consolidation – across every sector
  • Need to increase – productivity
  • Intensifying competition – on price, service, quality, green factors, and value
  • Challenges in data management – volume, types, web enabled devices, speed of change, real time
  • Sustainability – the need for our industry to rise to the global challenge of creating more from less
  • Food safety – provenance and assurance on food origin and treatment is high on the list of matters concerning consumers
  • Rapid evolution of technology – allowing changes to be made to business processes that were previously not possible

IV. Drones and Other Reporting Technologies:  DroneOmega explains that “the advancement of drone technology has seen many emerging use cases including the expanding use of drones in agriculture. The availability of imaging sensors provide farmers with new opportunities to increase crop yields, minimize crop losses, and thereby maximize their profits. Farmers are now using technology that was once reserved for the military to monitor their crops from the air, instead of visually inspecting their crops on foot. The information gained from drone crop imaging provides a larger, and more accurate view of crop health.” Canadian farmers have been aggressive in adopting both B2B exchanges and ag drones as shown below and they focus on these key “in-field” farmer concerns:

  • Confirmation: Frequently checking that plants are growing at the rate expected
  • Early Detection: This is key to addressing plant health issues in order to limit the impacts, and provide time to implement a solution
  • Fertilizer Planning: Crops seldom grow evenly, and distrusting fertilizer based on plant health, instead of spreading evenly and reduce costs.


Picture Credit: Canadian drone adoption from

For further reading, Equal Exchange offers this list of resources here.


Dynamics Shaping the Future in the “Age of the Consumer” -Forrester


Picture Credit: NASA/ GSFC (artist rendering of solar winds on Mars)

Forrester highlights the dynamics shaping the future (in 2017) of the consumer experience and the changes are coming quickly and overwhelmingly like a the solar wind shown above. Navigating the change is going to require a blend of business reassessment, idea leadership, a focus on the customer experience and intelligent application of technology to transform business. The customer-led, digital-centric market is being driven by widespread adoption of “Millennial-like” behaviors (hooray!). CRM expert Kate Leggett cites Forrester Research that 21% of US consumers are “Progressive Pioneers” that lead the demand for innovation. Cliff Condon declares that Forrester’s  Empowered Customer Segmentation shows that “more than a third all US online adults want new and engaging digital experiences. They will switch companies to find these experiences.” So this signals a tsunami…


Picture Credit: French Senate (

Forrester cites these examples:

  • Banks try to innovate before digital banks become formidable competitors;
  • Big-branded retailers confront the digital threat with store closings and amped-up omnichannel and mobile efforts;
  • Manufacturers get serious about their digital business;
  • Relationship-driven investment firms try to adapt to the encroachment of tech titans; and
  • Utility companies launch customer experience (CX) initiatives to influence consumption habits and change their operations

IAI believes that the reinvigorated focus of businesses on the consumer is bring driven forcefully by technology firms looking to dramatically re-engineer customer engagement processes. Branding is being deeply embedded in technology data acquisition tools to customize routines but these approaches should all require customer “consent” and “opt-outs” and not collection of privacy-intrusion data. Facilitators offering end user “dashboards” should engage clients like fiduciaries and can embrace anonymized meta data collection approaches to earn client trust, creating a shared trusted advisory network (STAN). IAI believe that the concept of “propagation velocity” can be applied to STAN deployments.


Picture Credit: CORDIS European Union (

Forrester points out some striking trends underway:

Widespread Restructuring: One third of businesses are restructuring by devolving operational controls to brands and divisions to move closer to the customer experience, at considerable risk;

Customer-driven Matrix Structure: Replacing traditional silo-based functional relationships, these new matrices will “leverage shared functions to protect margin”;

CEO Turnover in Half of Firms: Forrester research shows a clear correlation between the quality of customer experiences and revenue growth and affirms that emotion is a core driver of customer loyalty and spending.

“Whole Brained” CMOS Needed: They must embrace both a right brain understanding of the customer experience and left brain embrace of technology and analytics. Marketing Measurement assessments by Forrester show low adoption of analytics by CMOs (Forrester Wave evaluation) ;

CIOs “Grab the Brass Ring”: B2C and B2B firms will need CIOs to lay out technology adoption strategy paths in an environment where tech budgets are forecast to grow at just 1.4%- a tall order: and

Trust is the core element: CX professionals must build client trust into every process when designing experiences that delight customers and contribute to P&L performance.

To learn more, download Forrester’s predictions guide. This guide is the front-end to 16 unique predictions that executives can use to budget, prioritize, and plan customer-obsessed strategies.



VW/Audi Management Failures – Argonne and Interoperability Centre Can Help!


Picture Credit: EU’s European Interoperability Centre

IAI believes that management failures-by-design (FbD)  [NO, not the band on YouTube here] represent “anti-innovation.” Car and Driver reported that General Motors and Toyota had their massive scandals. Now it’s Volkswagen’s turn– the owner of 70 percent of the U.S. passenger-car diesel market systematically cheated on diesel-emissions tests. From 2008-2015, VW falsified emissions reports on 11 MILLION “clean diesel” vehicles and now VW admits “emissions issues” on its Audi vehicles too (the Verge reports)!

It’s time for clean fuel vehicles with accurately reported, independent emissions testing ! The industry response is uneven, to be sure but with some meaningful progress. In contrast, ANL and IC plus a number of commercial enterprises like Tesla, GM, Ford (improving the 100 mile range Focus should be where small car production should remain in the US- more anti-innovation), Mercedes (new line!), Jaguar, and Toyota (for example) are innovating to address the challenges associated with developing improved vehicle drivetrain designs, use of new materials, employing cleaner fuels, adopting adaptive manufacturing and pioneering better processes to support our Green planet’s transition to a cleaner, more sustainable transportation future. The transport sector now accounts for about a quarter (7.3 Gt) of annual global energy-related CO2 emissions (32 Gt), yet at 3.5%, it has the lowest renewable energy usage of any major component, confirmed by the UN “Care for the Climate” report and C2ES reports that of transportation energy use by mode that 59% comes from light vehicles and 22% from trucks.

Picture Credit: C2ES

Take note, and check your biases at the door, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shaanxi Normal University just forecasted in ScienceDirect that road transportation energy consumption in China is expected soar 50% in the five years from 2015 to 2020 ! (226,181.1 ktoe -2015 to about 347,363 ktoe-2020- twice the EU then and a third above the US and FOUR times India). The EIA, DOE Oak Ridge and the Sustainability Journal have a wealth of information available.)

With a quarter century record of over 600 collaborations, ANL appears to represent a compelling partner for transportation mobility entrepreneurs (ANL Innovation link here). DOE has finally begun to engage in cross-lab collaborations to increase innovation efficiency. An August 2016 collaboration between DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) and Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) and brings together DOE national laboratories and industry stakeholders to simultaneously conduct tandem fuel and engine research, development, and deployment assessments.

Argonne National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories for science and engineering research, employs 3,400 employees, including 1,400 scientists and engineers (75% doctorates). Argonne’s annual operating budget of a three-quarters of a billion dollars supports over 200 research projects. At a recent conference in Ispra, Italy, researchers discussed the “e-mobility” market, transportation electricification, and the importance of transnational vehicle, grid and system interoperability.

ANL’s Center for Transportation Research: Focused on transportation mobility, CTR operates through its system-driven research platforms, some of which are highlighted below:

Transportation Energy Analysis: automated vehicles, connectivity and sensor-based infrastructure and a;dvanced vehicle powertrain configurations;

Vehicle Systems Energy Modeling and Research: developing vehicle-level control algorithms to minimize energy consumption (ECons) and is complimented by next-generation vehicle research on ECons from environmental conditions, driver use profiles and fuels at ANL’s Advanced Powertrain Research Facility (APRF);


Picture Credit: ANL Advanced Vehicle Research

EV-Smart Grid Interoperability: engaged in Electric Vehicle (EV) standards development to ensure they are universally interoperable, reliable and simple to charge and working with the EU’s European Interoperability Center since 2013;

Engines and Fuels Optimization: relying on high-performance computing capabilities (via the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility) CTR is evaluating technologies for improved fuel efficiency; the study of renewable and alternative fuels and the characterization of engine particle emissions and catalysis;

CONTACT:  Ann Schlenker, Director, Center for Transportation Research
Phone: 630-252-5542  or   Email:

As a non-footnote, but topic for a future IAI blog, Argonne just opened up the exciting I3:

Integrated Imaging Institute (2016): I3 opened recently and now “offers a broad suite of powerful imaging and data analytics capabilities to scientists, providing structural, chemical and functional information from the atomic level to the macroscale.” Argonne’s Integrated Imaging Institute (I3) seeks to build on Argonne’s position as a world leader in experimental and computational imaging science by promoting an integrated, top-down approach to scientific discovery and understanding through imaging.




Harvard Life Lab Opening @Allston ! Congrats!


Picture Credit: Inhibiting Sclerostin May Prevent Osteoporosis- from

On Thursday, Harvard University will open a 15,000-square-foot life science lab in Allston named after Steve Pagliuca, and executive at Bain Capital and co-owner of the Boston Celtics. The Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab will be the home to 20 startup ventures founded and run by Harvard faculty, alumni, students, and postdocs. “The fully equipped wet lab environment, collaborative co-working space, and educational resources will support high-potential biotech, pharma, and other life sciences-related ventures that have at least one Harvard founder. Teams were evaluated on a number of criteria including their science, stage of development, potential for impact, and ability to be a strong community member,Harvard explained.


Mayor Marty Walsh will attend the opening this Thursday at 3 p.m. at 125 Western Ave., right next to the Harvard Innovation Lab, which opened in 2011, and the Harvard Launch Lab, an incubator that opened in 2014. Other attendees include Steve and Judy Pagliuca as well as Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust. The new lab will be operated by Cambridge-based Lab Central.

The first 17 of those were revealed by the university a couple weeks ago, and they include drug and vaccine developers as well as DNA sequencing companies.

Akous – College, HBS, Blavatnik Fellow

Akouos is developing novel therapies and delivery systems to prevent hearing loss and restore hearing in genetically defined patient populations.

Aldatu Biosciences – GSAS, HSPH

Aldatu’s lead product is a low-cost HIV drug resistance genotyping test designed to guide clinical decision-making in resource-limited healthcare settings.

Beacon Genomics – HMS

Beacon Genomics is an early-stage startup company focused on enabling safe and effective therapeutic applications of genome editing nucleases by defining and optimizing genome-wide specificity.

BiomaRx – HMS

An oncology-focused startup, BiomaRX is focused on developing the first non-invasive early stage pancreatic cancer diagnostic.

change:WATER Labs, Inc. – College

change:WATER Labs is developing solutions to drastically minimize the increasing volumes of off-grid residential, commercial and industrial wastewater, leveraging a super-hydrophilic polymer that passively eliminates 85-99% of waste volumes onsite. Our first product will be a portable, evaporative toilet for homes with no power or plumbing, specifically in refugee camps and low-income communities in developing countries.

DayZero Diagnostics – GSAS

DayZero is developing a rapid diagnostic for identifying drug-resistant pathogens in clinical samples. It uses next-generation genome sequencing and data-driven algorithms to rapidly identify pathogen species and predict drug resistance, in hours rather than in days (the current culture-based standard), so physicians can quickly prescribe the most effective antibiotic.

Gel4Med – SEAS

Gel4Med is focused on improving the outcomes in regenerative medicine through the design and engineering of smart biomaterials that instruct and harness the innate capacity of the body to heal.

GRO Biosciences (GRObio) – Wyss Institute/HMS

Using our microbes with an expanded genetic code, GRO Biosciences makes therapeutic proteins with new stabilizing bonds to enable inexpensive microbial fermentation, fast production times, and long serum half-life.

Nix – HBS, SEAS, Blavatnik Fellow

Nix is developing a single-use consumer diagnostic platform that ad¬dresses the white space between the biosensor market and activity trackers, with an initial focus on hydration for athletes, soldiers, and laborers.

PathoVax – HMS

PathoVax is transforming the multi-billion HPV vaccine market with RGVax to target all cancer-causing HPVs neglected by current offerings.

Piper Therapeutics – College, HBS

Piper Therapeutics is focused on using small molecules to modify immune system signaling, preventing tumors from acquiring macrophages.

Riparian Pharmaceuticals – College, SEAS

Riparian is discovering therapeutics to promote vascular health and treat the leading causes of human mortality. Its unique approach of modulating biology within the blood vessel wall aims to add a new therapeutic dimension to cardiovascular, diabetic, and kidney diseases.

Suono Bio – HMS

Suono Bio is developing technology that enables ultra-rapid delivery of therapeutics across biologic tissues, such as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

UnNamed – HMS

UnNamed’s technologies enable living cells to sense and respond to chemicals. This is done by engineering proteins to become dependent on binding to a target molecule, allowing for the generation of novel biosensors that can be used for optimizing bioproduction of useful chemicals, environmental toxin detection, or drug discovery.

UrSure Inc. – HKS

An HIV prevention company, UrSure Inc. boosts boost adherence to the HIV preventive medication, PrEP, by making patient and physician friendly urine tests that allow doctors to monitor patient compliance to the medication.

Vaxess Technologies, Inc.  HBS, SEAS, HKS, HLS

Vaxess is using silk to create the next generation of vaccines that combine high temperature stability with novel delivery formats such as oral films and sustained release microneedles.

XGenomes – HMS

XGenomes is developing groundbreaking DNA sequencing technologies, with the goal of accelerating the path towards personalized medicine

Trio wins Nobel chemistry prize for ‘world’s smallest machines’

Picture Credit:
A trio of European scientists has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing molecular machines that could one day be injected to fight cancer or used to make new types of materials and energy storage devices. These machines are molecules with tiny movable parts that move in controlled ways and are a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair. Scientists have dreamed of creating machines at such a small scale for decades. Notably, physicist Richard Feynman, himself a Nobel laureate, imagined the possibility of these creations in a key lecture back in 1959.  The Nobel announcement is posted here.

Such molecular machines can be developed in smart medicines that seek out disease or damage and deliver drugs to fight or fix it, and in smart materials that can adapt in response to external triggers such as changes in light or temperature. “There are endless opportunities,” Feringa, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, told reporters when asked to predict what his work could eventually be used for. “Think of a tiny micro-robot that a doctor in the future will inject into your blood and that goes to search for a cancer cell or goes to deliver a drug, for instance.”

First, in 1983 Dr. Sauvage and colleagues managed to forge two rings of carbon atoms into an interlocked pair, like a links in a chain, called a catenane. Then, in 1991, while at the University of Birmingham, Dr. Stoddard revealed how to make rotaxane, a structure that involved a ring of atoms that can rotate freely around an axle. Finally, in 1999, Dr. Feringa developed the first molecular motor. The Verge has a great article on the mechanism for these interactions including the template for nano-computer chips that are activated by heat.

Dr. Feringa said that the science of molecular machines is still in its infancy but would ultimately lead to many applications in health, materials and energy systems. “They have really mastered motion control at the molecular scale,” said Olof Ramström, a member of the selection committee, during Wednesday’s prize announcement at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.


A Look at Nanotechnology Innovations – Nanobots in Your Future?


Picture Credit:

The nanotechnology industry is fairly young in the post 60s computer age – many trace the foundation to the seminal work of Richard Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which contemplated min1aturized machines, advanced encoding and other incorporated disruptive technologies. Feynman’s talk at the 1959 American Physical Society in 1959 stunned engineers who were just beginning to see processing speed advances in electronics- there was a lot of work to do as he detailed here. On the 50th anniversary of his lecture, Nature Nanotechnology (Vol 4, 781) called it “a manifesto for physicists to take control of both the physical and biological sciences.”

Chris Toumey has probably done more than anyone to analyse the true impact of ‘Plenty of room’ on the development of nanotechnology by revealing, among other things, that it was only cited seven times in the first two decades after it was first published in the Caltech magazine Engineering and Science in 1960 (ref. 5). However, as nanotechnology emerged as a major area of research following the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope in 1981, and culminating in the famous IBM paper of 1991, “it needed an authoritative account of its origin,” writes Toumey on page 783. “Pointing back to Feynman’s lecture would give nanotechnology an early date of birth and it would connect nanotechnology to the genius, the personality and the eloquence of Richard P. Feynman.” Feynman devoted a significant part of ‘Plenty of room’ to electron microscopy, stressing the breakthroughs that would be possible in many areas of science if it were possible to “just look at the thing!” As Michael Segal reports on page 786, the latest generation of electron microscopes are capable of resolutions of 0.5 Å.

Tourney notes that Feynman’s lecture preceded numerous crucial events that made nanotechnology possible, including the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, the atomic force microscope, and the Eigler-Schweizer experiment of precisely manipulating thirty-five xenon atoms. Those inventions and other events led to nanolithography, computers with nanoscale components, the precise control of individual atoms, and other developments Feynman called for. Tourney points out that it was K. Eric Drexler [Molecular Engineering, Drexler 1981] who “popularized” nanotechnology in 1980s to get scientists from multiple disciplines to collaborate; “Drexler insists that the core of Feynman‟s vision is large-scale precision manipulation and combination of atoms and molecules (now called molecular manufacturing), and he says that he himself continues the rightful essence of Feynman‟s vision” (Techne, 12:3, Fall 2008). Drexler’s 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (available on Amazon) led to the big advances as it posited a future of self-replicating nano-machines. So thirty years on, what is the state of the nanotechnology industry?


Source & Picture Credit: QMED  –

Published in MPMN, March/April 2014, Volume 30, No. 2

MPMN has a great survey from a couple of years back and, again, it points to some really interesting areas for IAI to investigate going forward.

  1. Nanotech Meets Contact Lenses and Virtual Reality

    Nanotech could end up providing a solution to the need for bulky headsets in virtual reality environments, and the answer involves contact lenses.

    nanotechnology based contact lensesBellevue, WA–based Innovega with its iOptik platform embedded a center filter and display lens at the center of a contact lens. The optical elements are smaller than the eye’s pupil and therefore do not interfere with vision. A projector can hit those tiny optical elements, which guide images to the retina. But the retina is still getting the overall normal vision provided through the entire pupil, so the brain ends up viewing the projected images and the overall normal field of vision as one. The company says their “iOptik platform provides wearers a ‘virtual canvas’ on which any media can be viewed or application run. The prototypes will feature up to six times the number of pixels and 46 times the screen size of mobile products that rely on designs limited by conventional optics.” Those optics are said to deliver games, simulator environments, and movies that are truly “immersive” and “mimic IMAX performance.” The iOptik will be regulated in the United States as a Class II medical device, as normal contact lenses are. Google is rumored to be developing a medical device. Could it be a next generation of Google Glass that uses nanotech in contact lenses?

  2. A Nanotech Detector for Heart Attacks

    Nanosensors that detect heart attacks before they happen could save both lives and money. That is exactly what Eric Topol, MD, at San Diego–based Scripps Health has been working on with Axel Scherer, PhD, of Caltech. Their technology involves tiny blood stream nanosensor chips that might sense the precursor of a heart attack. A person with such a tiny chip might get a warning on their smartphone or other wireless device that they should immediately see their cardiologist. The latest versions of the chip measure 90 microns—much smaller than a grain of sand. A doctor or nurse might inject the nanosensor into a patient’s arm, where it would flow down to the distal tip of the finger and embed itself, screening the blood for endothelial cells that are sloughed off an artery wall in a precursory period preceding a heart attack. The sensors are now being used for glucose detection in animal studies. Human trials should follow thereafter. The combination of a nanosensor and coupled smartphone could be used be used to track autoimmune disease and cancer. It could also be used to screen for rejection in patients with organ transplants. In this application, the nanosensor could be calibrated to detect the donor organ DNA in the blood, which would begin showing up in the blood as an early sign of rejection.

  3. Dragonfly-Inspired Black Silicon Fights Off Bacteria

    Wandering Percher dragonflyAn array of antibiotic surfaces can be found in the natural world, inspiring scientists to develop man-made versions of them. A recent example of this trend can be found in research from Australian and Spanish scientists who have developed a nanomaterial out of black silicon with tiny spikes on its surface. The surface geometry of the material is similar to that of the wings of an Australian dragonfly known as the “wandering percher,” whose wings have tiny spikes that inhibit bacterial growth. In the lab, the scientists confirmed that the black silicon material proved to be effective against an array of Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria as well as endospores. The researchers report that the breakthrough is the first “physical bactericidal activity of [black silicon] or indeed for any hydrophilic surface.”

  4. Tiny 3-D Printed Batteries

    Nano batteriesResearchers at Harvard University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced last year that they have figured out how to 3-D print miniature batteries about 1 mm across. The researchers, led by Jennifer A. Lewis, PhD, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, created and tested materials, or “inks,” able to function as electrochemically active materials. The materials also had to harden into layers in just the right way so they could be stacked up in layers during the 3-D printing—creating working anodes and cathodes. The recipe includes ink for the anode with nanoparticles of one lithium metal oxide compound, and an ink for the cathode from “nanoparticles of another.” The printer lays the ink onto the teeth of two gold combs to create a tightly interlaced stack of anodes and cathodes. The whole setup gets packaged into a tiny container and filled it with an electrolyte solution to complete the battery. Tiny batteries could be game-changing for the medical device industry, finding use in applications such as biomedical sensors and skin-based monitoring devices. In addition, they could be embedded into plastic housing of devices such as hearing aids. Narayan says that he and his team are exploring the limits of 3-D printing. “Using a 3-D printing technique known as two-photon polymerization, we have created small-scale medical devices such as drug delivery devices and biosensors.” They have also developed a biocompatible riboflavin-containing photoinitiator for two-photon polymerization of tissue engineering scaffolds. Two-photon polymerization uses lasers shining two different-wavelength beams on a sensitive material. Where the beams intersect, the material is polymerized. Then residual material can be washed out. Narayan continues, “I think that more biocompatible materials for 3-D printing, particularly for processes like stereolithography, microstereolithography, and two-photon polymerization, will facilitate wider use of these technologies for commercial production of medical devices.”

  5. Revolutionizing Eye Surgery

    Scientists at the Multi-Scale Robotics Lab at ETH Zürich have developed a tiny magnetically-guided microbot designed to be embedded in the eye to perform precision surgery or to deploy precise amounts of drugs. The researchers demonstrated the viability of the technology in tests on rabbits. The robots used in the procedure has a diameter of 285 µm. The magnetic microbots are powered using external magnetic fields. Known as the OctoMag, the robots can produce magnetic forces and torques in three dimensions. The robot is so small that it could be used to help dissolve clots in the vessels of the eye. The size of autonomous microrobots has been historically limited by motors and propulsion devices. The OctoMag gets around this requirement by using an external magnetic control system that can guide a needle-injected device into the eye, eliminating the need to slice the eye open. On a closer horizon, Folk says, “There’s a great company called Replenish Inc. [Pasadena, CA] that has an implantable micropump. You place it right behind the eye, and it releases this drug over time. And what’s incredible about their technology is they’ve integrated sensor, pump, and wireless technology, all in something about the size of 2 quarters stacked up. They’ve already done their first in man – they placed it behind the eye, and they released the drugs over time.”

  6. Superflexible Chips that Can Encircle a Strand of Hair

    Electronics wrapped around hair strandsSwiss scientists have created nanotech-based electronic chips that are so flexible they can be wrapped around a hair strand. Based at ETH Zürich, the researchers were able to accomplish this feat by creating thin layers of stacked polyvinyl that is topped with an electronic circuit. When submerged in water, two of the polyvinyl layers dissolve, leaving a tiny circuit embedded on a sheet of parylene that is one micrometer thick. The researchers found that the transistors still function when wrapped around a human hair. The flexible electronics can adhere to a range of materials. Potentially suited for wearables and a whole range of medical applications, the chip has already been used in an artificial eye and in a glaucoma monitor. Folk says, “The whole wearables space, you know, FDA’s offered some good and clear guidance on phone apps. Where we are right now, wearables are generally a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes and compasses. This is current technology; a lot of it is determined by the price point. There’s actually a lot more that you can do, in terms of measuring things in a lot more sensitive fashion, but we’re waiting for the price point to come down.”
    Creating Biodegradable Electrodes

    Carnegie Mellon University’s Chris Bettinger and Jay Whitacre found that cuttlefish ink provides just the right chemistry and nanostructure to power tiny, ingested electronic devices.

    nano cuttlefishBettinger, an assistant professor of materials science and biomedical engineering, and Whitacre, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, have been pioneers when it comes to finding battery substances that could be digested, allowing for the powering of medical devices that might also be eaten. They reported some success creating edible power sources using materials found in a daily diet, but still needed to find the optimal pigment-based anodes to include in their edible sodium-ion batteries. They ended up finding out that naturally occurring melanins derived from cuttlefish ink exhibit higher charge storage capacity compared to other synthetic melanin derivatives when used as anode materials. But not everything swallowed by a patient needs to be digestible. “You know, anybody who’s ever taken a drug in their life probably hasn’t adhered exactly to what the prescription says, or what the doctor says, so adherence is a very big issue in the industry,” Folk says. “Proteus Digital Health [Redwood City, CA] is a very interesting company. They’ve got a pill with a power supply, a sensor, and a transmitter. And when you swallow the pill, your stomach acid kicks off the battery and initiates a signal. That indicates that you’ve actually taken the drug.”

  7. Nanotech Cancer AppsNanoparticles have proved useful for delivering cancer-killing therapies. Cornell University scientists, for example, were able to get tiny particles of gold alloy into the bloodstream and to cancer cells, where it can be heated up to kill them. The Cornell scientists chose gold — No. 79 on the Periodic Table — because of the ease in which it absorbs infrared heat. The researchers figured out how to attach the gold to colorectal-cancer-cell-seeking antibodies that delivered the gold to the cancer. Meanwhile, MIT chemical engineers have designed nanoparticles that carry the cancer drug doxorubicin, as well as short strands of RNA that can shut off one of the genes that cancer cells use to escape the drug. The MIT researchers were searching for ways to treat an especially aggressive form of breast cancer.
  8. Silver Germ-Killers

    Silver nanoparticles are increasingly being used in everything from self-sanitizing toothbrushes to clothes. It may eventually be used in toothpaste. The ability of tiny particles of silver to kill bacteria has been known for some time, though the research appears to be light on whether the silver also carries health risks. CBC/Radio-Canada reports that the Washington, D.C.–based Wilson Center counts around 400 products presently using silver nanoparticles.

  9. Nanotech-Enabled Breathalyzer for Diabetics

    Researchers at Western New England University have developed a nanotech-powered breathalyzer prototype that can detect acetone levels in the breath, which is theorized to correlate to blood glucose levels. The technology, if commercialized, could do away with need for finger-prick–based testing of blood sugar.

    nano-fueled breathalyzer for detecting blood glucoseThe ability to detect acetone in the breath is derived from acetone-sensitive nanometer-thick polymeric films. Exposure to acetone causes the two polymers in the films to crosslink, changing its physicochemical nature. The Western New England University researchers’ breathalyzer design is initially the size of a book.  Scientists from the Technische Universität Dresden (Germany) and Fraunhofer Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP are actually working on a breath-analyzing spectrometer that is so tiny it can fit into a mobile phone.

The Race to Establish a Cancer Detection “Liquid Biopsy” Market

illustration-of-cancer-cells   Picture Source: Medical News Today

Cancer is big business in the U.S. and globally, increasingly, as the food and water supply gets poisoned. It starts with a tumor, which is an abnormal mass of tissue or neoplasm which is solid or fluid-filled. Whereas benign tumors don’t spread, cancerous or malignant ones do – spreading rapidly by metastisis. cancer-diagnostics-laboratory-neogenomics-april-2014-company-overview-presentation-11-638

Medical News Today profiles different types of tumors, which are made up of specific types of cancer cells:

  • Carcinoma – these tumors are derived from the skin or tissues that line body organs (epithelial cells). Carcinomas can be, for example, of the stomach, prostate, pancreas, lung, liver, colon or breast. Many of the most common tumors are of this type, especially among older patients.
  • Sarcoma – these are tumors that start off in connective tissue, such as cartilage, bones, fat and nerves. They originate in the mesenchymal cells outside the bone marrow. The majority of sarcoma tumors are malignant. They are called after the cell, tissue or structure they arise from, for example fibrosarcoma, liposarcoma, angiosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, and osteosarcoma.
  • Lymphoma/Leukemia – cancer arises from the blood forming (hematopoietic) cells that originate in the marrow and generally mature in the blood or lymph nodes. Leukemia accounts for 30% of childhood cancers. Leukemia is thought to be the only cancer where tumors are not formed.
  • Germ cell tumor – these are tumors that arise from a germ cell, pluripotent cells (cells than can turn into any kind of cell). Germ cell tumors most commonly present in the ovary (dysgerminoma) or testicle (seminoma). The majority of testicular tumors are germ cell ones. Less commonly, germ cell tumors may also appear in the brain, abdomen or chest.
  • Blastoma – tumors derived from embryonic tissue or immature “precursor” cells. These types of tumors are more common in children than adults. Blastoma is often the root word used in longer ones that describe tumors, for example, medulloblastoma and glioblastoma are kinds of brain tumors, retinoblastoma is a tumor in the retina of the eye, osteoblastoma is a type of bone tumor, while a neuroblastoma is a tumor found in children of neural origin.

The evidence of a sharp rise in cancer incidence globally is staggering and documented by the World Health Organization (WHO) in their Global Cancer Observatory here:

fact-sheets-cancersIn 2012, worldwide, there were 14.1 million new cancer cases, 8.2 million cancer deaths, and 32.6 million people living with cancer within 5 years of diagnosis; 57% (8 million) of those new cancer cases, 65% (5.3 million) of the cancer deaths, and 48% (15.6 million) of the 5-year prevalent cancer cases occurred in the less developed regions. In 2014, the WHO’s Cancer Report predicted a 57% rise in cancer incidence over 20 years.



The National Cancer Institute defines a solid cancer tumor as:

An abnormal mass of tissue that usually does not contain cysts or liquid areas. Solid tumors may be benign (not cancer), or malignant (cancer). Different types of solid tumors are named for the type of cells that form them. Examples of solid tumors are sarcomas, carcinomas, and lymphomas. Leukemias (cancers of the blood) generally do not form solid tumors. Doctors and patients depend on accurate information derived from diagnostic tools, such as clinical laboratory tests, imaging studies, and genomic analysis, to make decisions at all stages of cancer care. Omics tests include those based on such disciplines as genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, which is the study of small-molecule metabolites in cells and tissues that are present in bodily fluids, such as blood and urine.

Scientists are aware that fragments of cancer cells that die are detectable in the blood as various cancers (especially breast and prostate) are rapid replicators and many spread from one organ to another in a process called metastasis. In addition, there is substantial research to suggest that cancers have their own stem cells. Another approach taken by Stanford has been to identify tumor DNA in the bloodstream led by Maximilian Diehn, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of radiation oncology and the CRK Faculty Scholar, and his team. The researchers termed their new, two-pronged approach “integrated digital error suppression,” or iDES which involves “bar coding” DNA strands before amplification. IDES builds upon a method called CAPP-Seq that Alizadeh, Diehn and Newman previously devised to capture very small amounts of tumor DNA from the blood by looking for a panel of mutations known to be associated with a particular cancer.

While there are a number of venture capital funded cancer detection firms, there is battle for an emerging cancer screening by bringing a “liquid biopsy” to market.  The promise here is to sharply cut the cost of tissue biopsy, promote earlier cancer detection, and take a less invasive approach to patient care. When the liquid biopsy tests identified key genes known to drive cancer growth, such as BRAF, KRAS, EGFR, ALK, RET and ROS1, those same mutations were also present in 94 percent to 100 percent of the tissue samples from these same patients. The leading horse in this battle is the genomics equipment supplier Illumina, which has decided to “spin out” Grail – a subsidiary it controls but has new investors including (Jeff) Bezos Expeditions, Bill Gates, Sutter Hill Ventures and Arch Capital Partners. GRAIL CEO Jay Flatley explained in GEN, “GRAIL’s promise is to revolutionize screening across all cancer types, using the sensitivity and specificity of next-generation sequencing to create a molecular stethoscope that measures the ultimate cancer biomarker. ”The more sensitive the test, Flatley said, the larger the potential market for it. That market, he said, could be as large as $20 billion to $40 billion if ctDNA could detect stage 2 across a broad range of cancers—but could grow to more than $100 billion if the tests can detect stage 1 as well as determine tissue of origin. Illumina is aiming to provide a $1000 genome sequencing for patients in 2017 when large scale ctDNA trials are expected to be launched. Three other dark horses to watch are ITUS, Guardant Health  and Pathway Genomics.