Microfluidics: a stealth technology?

Recently I’ve been wondering if microfluidics is a “stealth” technology that will be adopted quietly, with most people never realizing that a device they use has a microfluidic component, and without recognizing terms like “microfluidic,” “lab on a chip,” or “bioMEMS.” By comparison, some other technologies have been talked about more:

I threw in cloud computing just for comparison (it’s definitely a different animal — software, fast adoption, unregulated industry, different markets). But why are there so many more Google hits on “nanotechnology,” and does it matter?  I ran a similar search a couple years ago, and the number of hits for “microfluidic” has more than doubled since then (seems like a good sign!), although microfluidics is still mostly unknown outside of the field.

One argument that microfluidics will stay under the radar is that people care about how technology changes lives, not about the technology itself. People talk about miniaturized, point-of-care diagnostics, but not about the microfluidic aspect. In many devices, microfluidics is an enabling technology, but akin to something like interconnect on a computer chip. Users don’t talk about the microprocessor, let alone the interconnect. So as microfluidic devices enter the market, they’ll be tucked into discussions on lab automation, point-of-care diagnostics and other fields, often without being acknowledged as microfluidic.

This isn’t especially surprising. In practical terms, does external awareness and perception of the term “microfluidic” matter?  Maybe not, although more exposure would probably be a good thing.  One area I wonder about is fundraising for startups. Because of the initial hype (and subsequent disappointment) around early commercialization efforts, are investors turned off by the mention of microfluidics?  There are plenty of new microfluidics-based startups around, and we’ve learned a lot over the past decade that should help increase the chance of success. And diagnostics startups have picked up steam recently. But I wonder if/how the pitches are different now than they were ten years ago?

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