BioMEMS by any other name

November 11, 2009

In researching microfluidics companies to add to the list, I’ve realized that outside of academia almost no one uses the term BioMEMS when discussing microelectromechanical systems applied to biology. Instead it’s “microfluidics” or “lab on a chip.” The term BioMEMS is a spin-off of the acronym MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems), itself a term that has not penetrated the general public, although MEMS devices have gained wide use–there’s a MEMS accelerometer in the iPhone (that’s how your phone knows whether to display in landscape or portrait mode) and in your car’s airbag deployment sensor. Even academia couldn’t agree on what to name the field; while US engineers designed MEMS, their European counterparts designed microsystems, and in Japan they called them micromachines.  Maybe the term MEMS never took off because it is too broad conceptually, too confusing because it can mean too many different things. And if you don’t already know what MEMS stands for, there’s no way to figure out what it means from the name, as opposed to a term like nanotechnology.

 

When researchers started building MEMS for biological applications, they (being logical people) naturally called this sub-field BioMEMS, which is even less popular than the term MEMS, as evidenced by the number of Google hits:

  • BioMEMS: 130,000

  • Bio MEMS: 230,000

  • Bio microsystems: 1,330,6000

  • MEMS: 4,470,000

  • Microfluidics: 505,000

  • Microfluidic: 711,000

  • Lab on a chip: 15,900,000

  • Biological microtechnology: 1,990,000

  • Micro total analysis systems: 1,730,000

To be fair, microfluidics technically encompasses a wider range of devices than just bio applications. The same is true for lab-on-a-chip technologies. And MEMS have been around longer than BioMEMS, partially explaining the higher hit number. But in this SEO-driven, Google-centric era, if people can’t search for you, that’s a problem. Seems like BioMEMS is the one term to avoid, but which one should be used? The best strategy for now may be to use all of them.

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