It has been three-and-a-half years since I moved to Bogota as a faculty member at University of los Andes. I remember that when I first started here, almost everybody said my ideas about fabricating microsystems and electronics for biochemical applications were sci-fi, and that there was little hope about their feasibility. Nowadays, we are a successful research team at the microelectronics research center (CMUA) called biomicrosystems, and one of the pioneer groups focused on innovation and entrepreneurship in Colombia.
Our research centers on microsystems, especially those related with microfluidics, along with the development of sensors and biosensors for food monitoring and environmental control. In this field, researchers and students from different backgrounds and expertise work together. It’s common to see engineers from electronics, mechanics, mechatronics, environmental, civil, computing, and beyond working with artists, designers, biologists and microbiologists, physicists, chemists and even anthropologists on any of our projects. Due to the diversity of the group, our strategy is to train each member of our team in one of three paths: Research, development, and industry/market application. The first path is for students and researchers who want to follow a straight scientific career, understanding that about 70% of their results will not solve the problem they are targeting. This path has high risk and is long term, but a high remuneration if the research is successfully translated. The second path, development of equipment and technology, is for those interested in solving inner needs of the group, such as coming up with new and specialized equipment, or discovering methods that ease the work of the people involved in the first path. This path has a medium risk and a middle-term development, but moderate remuneration. The third path is for those eager to bring our new developments and technology to the real world, via the industry or start up. These people aim to transfer inventions or technologies into an attractive product for the industry. It requires an understanding of the industrial sector and the ability to transform our inventions into something solid, tangible and sellable.
This three-path strategy has worked for our group, making it possible to do research and still offer a brochure of products and developments. But behind the scenes, there is a more powerful strategy, one involving know-how transfer. In our research line we have identified those things we know how to do, and we have transferred that knowledge to everyone in the group. Thus, if someone needs to use a certain technique, that technique is then taught to everyone, independent of their background, age, and time in the group. The only commitment after receiving the training is that you will then train others. In that sense, even I, the “boss,” may have to be supervised on certain techniques if I am not fully trained. This model helps us train young students in a short time, and allows them to create a positive impact in our research.
Recently, Sara, a grad student in our development path, trained three 18-year-old undergrads in the use of her in-house microscope equipment and the fabrication of microfluidic channels. These students (guided by Sara), then produced artificial transparent muscle arteries for studying optimal mixing condition of blood and serum. The goal was to produce transparent artificial arteries, which medical researchers could use to explore properly injecting serum or a drug into the bloodstream and tracking the mixing pattern. Our three undergrads were trained in three months and were capable of fabricating and analyzing their results in about the same time. After six months of hard work, they submitted and presented their work at the Pan American Health Care Exchanges, an initiative originally initiated in cooperation with PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization). These three students now have a place in our industry/market application path.
These results could not be better: three of our youngest students and future researchers presented their first work at an international conference at the age of 18, our in-house equipment is being used each day by more people, and we are producing a generation of students and researchers who think innovation is a path that anyone can follow in any field.