Sunglasses that give some sight to the blind. Pacemaker-like devices that block intractable pain. These wonders are possible because chipmakers such as Texas Instruments (ITXN) have identified an important new growth area: high-tech medicine.
Beth McDonald's story shows how this development can change patients' lives. Almost 20 years ago she fell and damaged the nerves in her left leg. The injury left her with chronic pain so severe that she spent 17 years in a wheelchair, underwent 28 surgeries, and finally had her leg amputated. Then, in late 2005, her doctor told her about spinal cord stimulation, a new treatment for chronic pain. He implanted a tape-measure-size device called the Eon, from Advanced Neuromodulation Systems Inc., in her lower back. Designed around an ultra-low-power TI microprocessor, this pacemaker for the spinal cord emits mild electrical pulses that mask the nervous system's pain messages. McDonald, 41, now walks comfortably with a prosthetic leg, and recently climbed 219 steps to the summit of Florida's St. Augustine Lighthouse. "I've gotten to play with my daughter on the playground, which is something I've never done," she says. "It brings me to tears."
In the race to aid desperate patients like McDonald, TI has plenty of competition. While the Plano (Tex.) company is focusing on high-speed chips that use less power, like the processor in the Eon implant, rival Intel Corp. (INTC) is developing networks of sensors that will help doctors monitor elderly and disabled patients. IBM (IBM) and Dutch consumer products company Philips Electronics (PHG) are also expanding their medical offerings, all of which rely on advanced chips. As a result, the market for medical semiconductors is growing at a brisk 12% a year, says Reno (Nev.) market researcher Databeans Inc., and could hit $4.6 billion in 2012, up from $2.4 billion last year. In contrast, the overall chip market grew just 2.1% in the first half of 2007, according to the Semiconductor Industry Assn.
Decades of innovation have made TI a bellwether among chipmakers. Its signal-processing breakthroughs helped make music and images ubiquitous on the Net. It was also instrumental in shrinking bulky 1990s-era cell phones into today's slim handsets. And while TI's medical business made up a tiny $200 million slice of its $14.3 billion inrevenues last year, executives see enormous potential. "When you start talking about prolonging life, these [projects] are really high-value activities," says Ron Slaymaker, vice-president for investor relations.
ONE WAY TO EXPAND the business is to invest directly in startups. Recently, TI partnered with InCube Labs Inc., which developed a gastric pacemaker that uses faint electric shocks to dull hunger pangs, helping morbidly obese patients lose weight. TI built the power-sipping circuits that generate pulses at just the right frequency without draining the battery, so parts don't have to be replaced as often.
TI strategists are also following the time-tested route of miniaturization. The company markets chips to companies trying to shrink existing medical equipment--from blood glucose monitors to electrocardiograph machines--so they can be used by consumers to monitor their health at home. "The hospital is the most expensive hotel you can check into. Don't go there," says Doug Rasor, TI's vice-president for emerging medical technologies. With TI's assistance, General Electric Co. (GE) recently shrank its ultrasound machines to something resembling a laptop computer, so that expectant mothers can observe their babies at medical facilities in rural areas and small towns where they live.
On medicine's far frontier, TI is collaborating with scientists at the University of Southern California and a startup called Second Sight Inc. to mitigate disease-related blindness. They have created a retinal implant that translates camera images into neural impulses that a blind person perceives as dark and light patches. Over time, patients learn to interpret these patterns as objects, giving them some ability to navigate by sight, if not actually to see.
The team has tested its retinal system, the Argus 16, on six subjects. One of them is Terry Byland, who has been blind for 14 years. Since receiving the Argus in 2004, his vision has improved steadily as his brain progressively adapts to the digital images it receives via a TI microprocessor from a video camera that sits on his glasses. Byland has an 18-year-old son, whom he hasn't seen since the boy was 5. "Now I can see his shadow moving in front of me," he says.
By Brian Burnsed