Mimicking Success

The establishment of the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Biomimetic Microelectronic Systems [see article, p1], is a great success for the field of neurotechnology. The significance of the new center extends well beyond the $17 million initial award from the NSF.

To begin with, the effort represents a strong endorsement of biomimetic approaches to understanding, treating, and eventually re-engineering the nervous system. To neural engineers and research scientists who have spent much of their careers building mathematical models of nervous system behavior at the cellular, network, and systems levels, this must come as good news. At a time when the bulk of government funding for neurobiology research seems to be directed at bio/pharma approaches, this award demonstrates to the outside world that there is at least one alternative way of looking at the nervous system.

The BMES center is also noteworthy because of its goal of integrating research and researchers from several different institutions and several different application areas. While there are a large number of potential neurotechnology applications that deserve attention, the three selected by the BMES center, building devices to treat blindness, paralysis, and cognitive impairments, represent a good cross section of current neurotechnology efforts. And they reflect a good balance between readily achievable goals and those with a more distant horizon.

But most promising about the new biomimetics endeavor is the extent to which it is attracting interest from commercial partners who are eager to have access to research in this field. The large number of firms who have demonstrated an interest in participating as industrial partners points up the commercial promise of biomimetic microelectronic devices. And the fact that this includes several major manufacturers in the semiconductor and information processing industries confirms one of the guiding principles of this publication: Advances in neurotechnology device design will lead to a spinoff from healthcare to industrial ­applications.

If there is one challenge confronting the BMES center, it is its closeness with the Alfred Mann family of companies and research organizations—both in geographical and organizational terms. As the center continues its efforts to recruit industrial partners, it will need to demonstrate that potential competitors of these firms have a motive to participate. During our recent visit to the USC campus, BMES center director Mark Humayun confirmed that this is indeed an important goal.

The effort to build a new generation of neurotechnology devices based on the design and function of biological systems stands to alter our understanding of both neural and microelectronic systems. We congratulate the BMES center’s personnel and wish them much success.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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