imec John Baekelmans

Inspiring innovator: John Baekelmans wants to enhance people's lives

The collaboration between global players imec, the Radboudumc, Radboud University and Wageningen University & Research was of interest to many in the area this past year. John Baekelmans — Managing Director of imec the Netherlands — relates how imec uses nanotechnology innovations, AI and big data to contribute to sustainable solutions to global issues. “Ultimately it’s all about behavioural change.”

“We can’t ignore the facts. The climate will have to become an important deciding factor over the next fifteen years. We owe that to our children, who are becoming increasingly more vocal about this subject. I think we have underestimated the severity of the problem. We are in the middle of a digital revolution and are only now seeing the impact on the climate of this and the three previous revolutions.”

John Baekelmans observes that people have not been able to change their behaviour sufficiently up to now. Too little is being done to combat overproduction and promote sustainability, which leads to global warming, but has also increased the prevalence of ‘Western diseases’ like cancer, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

No blue-sky research

imec wants to change all that and enhance people’s lives. That’s why they’ve come to Gelderland. With the OnePlanet initiative, the research centre joined into a partnership with the Radboudumc, Radboud University and Wageningen University & Research in 2019. “In this area we can work with the best universities. We use our technologies to test the discoveries they make. This results in clever inventions. An example: a small chip that only requires just one drop of blood to determine within 15 minutes whether someone has cancer.”

“Not all of the individual pieces have fallen into place yet”, Baekelmans continues, “but thanks to our shared feeling of urgency, we are moving fast with various developments. We will see breakthroughs in the next five to ten years. Not in the form of blue-sky research, but with actual solutions that we can bring to market.” The partners are joining forces to create long-term solutions that promote health and aid sustainable, balanced food production.

We step on the scales in the morning and if our weight is all right, we believe that we’re healthy. But there’s so much we don’t know.

World champion

A number of solutions might be created through application options that use just a few indicators to measure a person’s health and provide personalised dietary advice. “For a long time, people thought: if we tell everyone to work out a bit more and eat a bit healthier, they’ll be all right.  But by now, nearly half of the adult population of the Netherlands is overweight (source: RIVM). Every person is different, so we’ll have to apply a much more personalised approach. We step on the scales in the morning and if our weight is all right, we believe that we’re healthy. But there’s so much we don’t know”, explains Baekelmans.

imec is the world champion of miniaturising technology so that it can be used to measure people’s health. Think of external wearables like a smartwatch or a patch on your chest that allows you to measure your bodily health to a tee. This can lead to improved prevention policies in healthcare.

Digital copy of your body

The solutions above are all on the outside of your body. We haven’t gotten to the internal measurements yet. imec is currently focusing on those through the development of ingestibles, sensors that you can swallow to get a much clearer picture of what’s going on inside your body. “If we can register the outside and inside of your body, we can create a digital representation of it.”

“This is already standard practice with rockets and formula 1 racing cars, but not yet with human bodies”, says Baekelmans. He explains why it’s useful to create a digital copy of the human body: “That way, we can see how we can resolve or relieve certain health issues. We can experiment with this copy to see what the impact of a certain treatment might be, without having to expose the actual person’s body to this process.”

Do people really want to know?

imec john baekelmans smart toi

Imec smart toilet

In order to let these solutions, work properly, people do need to take an active interest in how their bodies are doing. “We are researching that subject too. Sometimes people will say they’d rather not know, which creates the risk that they could get an unexpected diagnosis one day and might — in some extreme cases — only have a few weeks left to live at that stage. People who don’t have a lot of time left often give a different answer: they would’ve liked to have known more about their physical health at an earlier stage, so that they could’ve made some different life choices. People who have lost a parent early in life usually also want to receive all the information they can get. We would like to convince others by providing constructive advice.”

A first experiment took place last summer at the Lowlands music festival. imec made smart toilets available on the festival grounds; these are toilets with integrated sensors that allow for the analysis of urine. The toilet visitors received the results of the analysis and accompanying dietary advice. They would see, for instance, that they were insufficiently hydrated. “Some might have found it confronting, but they did want to know. I think people should view it as someone watching over your shoulder and proactively saying: ‘get your blood checked, we’ve noticed a deviation’. Ultimately it’s all about behavioural change.”