Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images
show image

Barbara Ghinelli

Director of Harwell Campus Cluster Development

How space tech paves the way for healthcare breakthroughs

In many parts of the world, technology that was designed for use in space is now leading to breakthroughs in other fields. The European Space Agency (ESA), for example, has developed suits with embedded biomedical sensors to study how the human body responds to living in space, technology that led to the creation of a baby monitoring system to protect against cot deaths. Similarly, microbiological sensors for space applications can be used to detect contamination for water treatment, and NASA’s handling of hydrogen has paved the way for developing light-weight hydrogen-tanks for environmentally friendly cars.

The space industry is currently experiencing rapid growth in terms of investment and commercial interest as the possibilities and opportunities it wields become more widely known. Healthcare is one of the industries taking full advantage of the opportunities for collaboration that it presents.

The health sector’s adoption of space technology is nothing new, with applications in ultra-light robots for surgery and the production of artificial organs and prostheses. Previous uses also include a “pill camera” developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute, dementia-tracking slippers which use GPS, and technology developed for space travel being used for breast-screening vans.

Developments in the space sector are already improving our daily lives and we’re beginning to see more cases that demonstrate its influence. In fact, most space innovation is no longer about tackling issues and unveiling patterns in outer space – it’s very much becoming a tool to improve life here on Earth.

For example, earlier this year the UK Space Agency granted Adaptix £1m in funding to develop a pioneering portable 3D medical X-ray machine, based on technology used to study stars in distant galaxies. Working on Harwell Campus, the scientists realised that, as well as providing scientists access to previously unreachable parts of our universe, the technology will allow doctors to get a more comprehensive view of areas where they suspect tumours are growing, aiding more effective treatment and earlier diagnosis.

The value of cross-collaboration of space technology in other industries beyond just healthcare is also growing. For example, there are applications currently being realised in clean energy and for environmental purposes.

One instance is the case of startup Mirico, based within Harwell Campus’ cluster of 92 organisations. In developing its laser gas-sensing technology, originally designed to measure atmospheric constituents in space, Mirico found that the technology could be perfectly deployed to accurately measure atmospheric pollutants for energy companies, helping them to determine where to focus their efforts in improving the efficiency and safety of operations.

It’s evident, therefore, that taking an innovative, cross-industry approach to problem solving in energy and environmental issues is essential. The worlds of science and technology already intersect with almost every industry. In the case of healthcare, a report by Aruba predicts the next five to 10 years will see massive disruptions in this arena, with artificial intelligence set to play an increasing role in diagnosis and treatment.

Technologies or applications being used in this sector are testament to the powerful advantage of working in close proximity with organisations outside a sector’s usual market – through shared learning and collaboration, new business opportunities are identified and innovative solutions to long standing problems are created. As with the healthcare sector, this is a huge advantage more generally and one that will continue to grow and develop.

To truly thrive, it’s important for collaboration to be more diverse and to unite the public sector with fast growth SMEs and multinationals. This way, we can better collaborate, co-fund, and problem solve; ultimately developing innovative technologies that create new markets, paving the way for job creation and economic growth.

Dr Barbara Ghinelli is the director of Harwell Campus Cluster Development