Wearables for a World without disease: Interview with IMEC’s Chris Van Hoof

Medgadget was recently invited to attend the imecTechnology Forum conference in Antwerp, Belgium. Imec is a non-profit R&D innovation organization specializing in nanoelectronics and digital technologies. Like many digital hardware companies, imec saw a lot of potential in healthcare technologies and started researching them about 12 years ago.

Chris Van Hoof has been there since the beginning. As the Director of Connected Health activities at imec, he oversees all the research that goes into wearables, smart sensors, and more. In the midst of a busy first ITF conference day, Chris was kind enough to sit down with us and chat about his work at imec and his thoughts on the connected health devices industry.

Scott Jung, Medgadget: Can you tell us about yourself and your role at imec?

Chris Van Hoof: My background is in electrical engineering, and I’ve been with imec for 31 years. Imec has evolved incredibly over these years; we were 120 employees when I started, and now we are over 3000 worldwide. About 14-15 years ago, I moved from a more technical position directly involving components into wireless sensors for health. This was before the iPhone, and it was actually a pretty hard sell. We started with physiological monitoring, but no one knew how to get and work with the data. With the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, business changed dramatically, and we’ve had exponential growth since then. In a nutshell, I’m interested in making things that will make it on the market, so I oversee projects that I think customers will use, which is my sign of success. 80% of our business is driven by customers with specific needs, and 20% are independently developed in-house for a couple years, then marketed to potential customers. In some occasions, we’ll spin the tech off as a new venture if we think that it’s a potentially-disruptive product with no customers interested yet.

Medgadget: Given that imec has historically focused on semiconductors and chips, what motivated the organization to get into the healthcare space?

Chris Van Hoof: When looking at healthcare, we saw electronics was everywhere for diagnostics already, but it was all very big and not portable, and we saw that our technology could potentially shrink them. It was a bit of a technology push at first, but we wanted to see what was possible, and gradually, it became a pull.