Biosensing pushes the envelope of system engineering

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Maarten Buijs is the CEO of Surfix Diagnostics.

As biosensors gain traction, they’re driving the need for system engineers and architects who are knowledgeable in chemistry and biology in addition to physics and the well-known engineering disciplines.

Although these days I’m more involved with the medical diagnostics market, biomarkers and surface coatings than with the hardware and software world of Bits&Chips, it won’t come as a surprise that I still very much enjoy reading the magazine. Issue 5 offers a perfect illustration of how deep tech in our region is driving the worldwide state of the art across a wide spectrum in ICs, software, instrumentation and equipment, from the implications of ASML’s market domination to the revolutionary promise of Nearfield Instruments. It’s also good to see that integrated photonics is increasingly getting attention.

Bits&Chips puts much emphasis on the topics of system integration and system architecture. For instance, issue 5 has articles on optomechatronics and the TUE High Tech Systems Center and on heterogeneous integration of the different integrated-photonics technologies.

The importance of system engineering and architecting has always resonated with me. In every R&D organization I worked with, I established the dual-ladder career path (if it didn’t exist already) and created the function of chief system architect at the top of that ladder (again, if it didn’t exist already – and usually, it didn’t). Not being very good at it myself, I always pointed the new chief system architect to the work of Gerrit Muller and his CAFCR framework and Gaudi website.

At Surfix Diagnostics, where I work now, things are a bit more complex and difficult. Surfix aims to bring ultrasensitive, fast and affordable biosensors based on integrated photonics to the market. So this concerns a system on a chip, in which peripheral functions like data processing and transmission need to be integrated with sensing, optics, micro and nanofluidics, nanobiology and surface chemistry.

Of course, certain system aspects are more key and central to Surfix than others, especially nanofluidics, nanobiology and surface chemistry. In-depth knowledge of other functions rests with key partners. Lionix in Enschede provides the integrated photonic chips, which they know through and through. Yet, for an optimal design within the eternal trade-off game between a broad platform design, suitable for the whole world, and the focused design for the killer application, sufficient knowledge of all these areas needs to be brought together by a system architect.

Actually, it would be good if the system architect also had a good view of the manufacturability requirements of the chips. The article on heterogeneous integration for integrated photonics in issue 5 nicely illustrates the obstacles that need to be overcome in manufacturing for present-day integrated photonics. But this doesn’t cover the situation of biological coatings in microfluidic systems. How do you dice a wafer that has a coating of DNA molecules on it without damaging that coating and/or its functionality?

I haven’t found this jack of all trades yet and I’m not convinced that I will anytime soon. But I do believe that multidisciplinarity will continue to expand. The integrated application of physics and electronic, mechanical and software engineering is firmly established. Going forward, chemical and biological engineering will join these fields. Biosensors will be an important driver for this, but other exciting topics are gaining momentum as well: organs on a chip followed by artificial tissues and organs. Already the extended Dutch ecosystem is working to make this happen within the confines of the Dutch growth ambitions.