Technology Review investigates the slow process of microfluidics commercialization

Today Technology Review came out with a great article speculating why the commercialization of microfluidics has been so slow. In “Shoveling Water: Why does it take so long to commercialize new technologies?” David Rotman uses Fluidigm as a case study and adds a twist by applying ideas from W. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology, a new book on the theory of technology development.

Since working on microfluidic culture of embryonic stem cells during my doctoral research, I’ve come across many of these issues first-hand and have often wondered what it would take to make microfluidics commercially successful. The Rotman piece is well-researched and brings up several excellent points:

  • The need for a “domain” of microfluidic technology to be established:

Domains, as Arthur defines them, are groups of technologies that fit together because they harness a common phenomenon. Electronics is a domain; its devices–capacitors, inductors, transistors–all work with electrons and thus naturally fit together. . . . A domain ’emerges piece by piece from its individual parts. . . . All this “normally takes decades,” Arthur says. “It is a very, very slow process.”

  • Microfluidics must overcome disillusionment that followed initially overhyped expectations:

. . . this evolution of a new body of technology is often matched by an even more familiar progression: enthusiasm about a new technology, investor and user disillusionment as the technology fails to live up to the hyperbole, and a slow reëmergence as the technology matures and begins to meet the market’s needs.

  • Microfluidics must transition from being a solution in search of a problem to being a technology that meets the needs of a hungry market:

. . . many potential users remain skeptical. Once again, microfluidics finds itself in a familiar phase of technology development. As David Weitz, a physics professor at Harvard and cofounder of several microfluidics companies, explains: “It is a wonderful solution still looking for the best problems.”

To those within the microfluidics community many of these ideas may be familiar, but it is wonderful to see them articulated so clearly. If a microfluidics domain emerged with standardmethods of connecting devices, a layer of abstraction could enable more flexible, individualized use. And although “solutions in search of a problem,” are the bread and butter of academia, many microfluidics researchers would love to work toward addressing an established unmet need. For more on the commercialization of microfluidics:

  • Technology Review‘s Editor in Chief Jason Pontin gives his take on the Rotman article(2009)

  • Holger Becker’s assessment of microfluidics commercialization (2008)

  • In “Microfluidics: the great divide,” Nathan Blow of Nature Methods discusses efforts to bridge the gap between microfluidics research and commercial success (2009)