Innovative biophotonics research programs need a strong mix of private and public funding to create sustainable environments for R&D efforts. This is clear. In a few cases, such efforts have moved beyond answering fundamental questions or translating bench-top devices into commercial products.
At the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies, for instance, the focus is on bringing biooptics solutions to health care challenges in low-resource settings. Founded in 2007 by biomedical engineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum at Rice University, the institute has attracted funding support from federal sources as well as a number of private foundations, including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Komen Research Program.
Rice 360°’s point-of-care diagnostics projects include developing a malaria test kit that creates contrast using the light-scattering properties of the malaria parasite rather than reagents for detection at low magnification and sickle cell disease diagnostics that use paper microfluidics and micro-fabricated optics.
A similar organization, Engineering World Health (EWH), was started by Bob Malkin and Mohammad Kiani in 2001 to improve technology infrastructure in clinics and hospitals in developing countries. At the time, Malkin and Kiani were engineering professors at the University of Memphis. Malkin is now at Duke University and Kiani at Temple University.
EWH received a boost in 2008 with a multi-year grant from the Coulter Foundation and transitioned to nongovernment organization status. EWH also receives support from the GE Foundation, the Hamilton Roddis Foundation, and several industry partners. One of the technologies EWH supplies to health centers in developing countries is an LED phototherapy device to treat newborn jaundice.
While both of these programs create much-needed diagnostic tools and therapeutics and deliver them to regions with little or no access to health care, they also provide great training and education opportunities for U.S. students from high school to graduate school.
I think these kinds of efforts provide the greatest return on investment. Maybe a little riskier than some, but ones that can advance technology, improve quality of life, and prepare tomorrow’s innovators.