What Will it Take for Implantable Tech to Go Mainstream?

Jenna Rodrigues
July 11, 2020

According to the World Economic Forum, implantable technology is expected to hit mass market commercialization by 2023. While the industry is still in the early stages of its evolution, implants are already being used to track the GPS location of pets, monitor heart arrhythmias, sense changes in blood chemistry, open doors, purchase candy bars from the cafeteria, prevent unwanted pregnancies, regenerate organs, and help colorblind individuals see the world through sound.

If innovations such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink are realized, implantables may eventually allow us to use our brains to control physical objects, like prosthetic limbs or drones, communicate with each other without words, or even treat every kind of brain injury and trauma. Yet, these benefits don’t come at a low cost — getting this implant would require drilling a hole into your head, after all.

As designers, engineers, and innovators, there is a significant opportunity to shape an industry that is ripe for innovation. Here are a few things that must be in place in order to commercialize implantable technologies.

  1. Low Risk of Infection: Implantables are predominantly used in the healthcare industry to date. Yet, approximately two million infections can be attributed to issues with devices that have been implanted in people’s bodies. This type of infection is incredibly difficult to detect. If infections associated with medical implants are very common when highly trained surgeons are the ones implanting the devices, the rate of infection is only likely to increase once individuals with less training (such as tattoo artists and nurses) are the individuals implanting the devices. In order for implantables to go mainstream, it will be crucial to demonstrate low rates of infection long-term in repeated trials.
  2. Small Size of Implant: Researchers are working to decrease the size of implants, especially the ones that are going to be planted in people’s brains. A neuroengineering Professor at Brown is working to get neurological implants so small that they are the size of a grain of sand. By reducing the size of implants, it may make consumers more willing to buy into implantables and will ease the implantation process.
  3. Seamless Implantation Process: In order to make implantation more accessible, it will be important for researchers to ensure devices can be seamlessly implanted. For many devices, the standard will be to implant the device through a needle similar to a routine vaccination. It will be crucial that the majority of implantation processes take place in the form of outpatient procedures to reduce costs. Given that neural implants will likely require more invasive procedures, it will be important that the benefits of these implants will significantly outweigh the costs.
  4. MRI Safe: Several implants have not yet been approved by the FDA for MRI use. While many individuals benefit greatly from their implants, it is also important that they are able to get MRI scans when necessary to monitor all aspects of their medical conditions. In order for implantable technology (both medical and otherwise) to go mainstream, innovators must find a workaround to ensure that implanting the device does not impede one’s capacity to get MRI scans.
  5. Extended Lifespan: Given both the costs and pain associated with the implantation of these devices, it will be important for researchers to work to extend the lifespan of implantable devices. Giving these devices an extensive lifespan will mean fewer replacement surgeries for patients. Fewer surgeries means lower costs for patients and a lower likelihood of postoperative complications.
  6. Easy Removal Processes: While it is important for providers to have processes in place for seamless implantation, it is just as important to have the capacity to quickly remove the implantable devices. Removal may be required if the device needs to be replaced after reaching its lifespan capacity, if the device has caused an infection, or if the individual has decided that they no longer want the device inside of them. If individuals can easily take the device out, they will be more willing to experiment with putting it in.
  7. Data Protection: One reason that individuals may be hesitant to buy into implantable technological devices is fear that the government, companies, or nefarious actors will be able to tap into their data and track their every move. Companies building implantable devices for distribution within the United States will need to meet HIPAA compliance regulations, given that the devices will be collecting protected health information. In order for people to feel safe putting technological devices in their bodies (with high costs of removal), they must trust both the manufacturer and the federal government with their data.
  8. Transparent Pricing: As in any market, prices of implantables will range depending on the extent to which the device contributes to the individual’s quality of life. However, in order to go mainstream, it will be important that the pricing of these devices is transparent and that the user is able to clearly relate the market price to the expected payoff and to understand upfront the extent to which the individual’s health insurance will cover the implant (in the case of medical implants).
  9. Security Screening Capabilities: In order for implantables to go mass market, it will be important that individuals will be able to pass through security screenings at the airport, at concert halls, etc. Screening machines will need to be capable of accurately recognizing devices for what they are to ensure that possessing an implantable device will not lead to unnecessary delays for traveling passengers.
  10. Low Cybersecurity Risk : There are severe security and privacy risks associated with storing data within someone’s body. Not only can individuals hack the device, but they can target specific people. If the release of medication is dependent on certain biological triggers from within the body, hacking the implant could not only compromise the integrity of the device, but also the life of the individual. In order for people to feel comfortable putting these devices into their bodies, they must feel confident that they will not be hacked.
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