Microfluidics and the hunt for the killer app

In microfluidics, the search for a killer app has been on since the early 90s. Although some microfluidic products have successfully appeared on the market (e.g. inkjet printheads), microfluidics hasn’t taken the world by storm as fast as people thought it might. Over the years, leaders in the field have speculated about a potential killer app:

Stephen Quake in 2004:

Quake regards structural genomics as a leading candidate for microfluidic technology’s elusive killer application. “People have got impatient because the vision ran way ahead of the technological capability,” he says. “Back in the early 1990s, people started getting excited and proclaiming that these devices were going to solve all lab automation problems, and that was way, way too early. Now, I think the technology has become incredibly impressive, and you’re going to start seeing a few of these killer applications jumping out.”

George Whitesides in 2006:

In the introduction of a new technology, the first commercial user of that technology pays a disproportionate share of the costs of its development, and accepts a disproportionate share of the risk for that development. If the application of such a development is a very appealing — if it is of potentially high value (the ‘killer application’, or ‘killer app’) — these costs and risks are more acceptable. The high-value killer app for microfluidics has not yet emerged, although markets in research biology are certainly developing.

Abe Lee in 2009:

Killer applications come from either a great need or a great ‘need to have’. They may also come from imposed needs or a disaster-triggered need to prevent future ones. The future is hard to predict but I will go with an application in the food industry either related to testing livestock (meat industry) or testing crops. This gigantic industry is largely untapped by LOC technologies. However, the need to have a ‘personal digital health assistant’ might also prompt a killer application in genetic testing for various disease susceptibilities or traits by home testing or at local surgeries or pharmacies.

Quake and others have implied that unrealistic expectations surrounding technology development have contributed to the lack of a killer app. What particular hurdles have been the bottlenecks? Design? Manufacturing? Cost? From the business side, I wonder how the size and needs of the market been assessed. Do the research biologists/chemists want new platform technologies, and if so, what kind?

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