How commercializable is microfluidics research?

In grad school I often secretly wondered about the commercial potential of our microfluidics research. I’ve touched on this issue before, and Derek Lowe recently discussed what makes a technology useful in lab (many microfluidic devices are platform technologies designed for use in lab). In the June 21st issue of Lab on a Chip, Holger Becker raises related questions in the first of a series of articles on the commercialization of microfluidics:

In my opinion, one of the underlying reasons for a comparatively slow commercial uptake of many microfluidic technologies is that in discussions and publications, excessive user expectations about device cost and procedural money-saving are generated which cannot later (at least with respect to the key phrase ‘‘economy of scale’’) be fulfilled by the device or system manufacturers.

Becker wonders if we are teaching microfluidics students the right things before sending them off into the world:

… do academic institutions provide their microfluidics graduates with appropriate knowledge through the courses they teach?

What counts as “appropriate knowledge”? How much should early-stage researchers know or care about the late-stage practicalities of developing a commercial product? In academic research, the goal is to demonstrate proof-of-concept. It’s great if that concept also happens to save money, be easy to manufacture, and fill an unmet need. But in order for research to survive and thrive in academia, it doesn’t need to be commercially attractive. Most academics (with notable exceptions) have spent little-to-no time in industry; once you leave academia it can be difficult to return.

When presenting microfluidics work in academia, we did give nods to potential savings due to low reagent volumes and economies of scale. But we had little idea how realistic these arguments might be, since commercial attractiveness was not a priority. Toward the end of my graduate work, I was lucky to take a business school class where I helped analyze the commercial potential of a microfabricated stencil technology from Sangeeta Bhatia’s lab. I loved it, but not all of my colleagues from engineering would have.