HP's inkjet tech seeks to replace hypodermic needles

Technology adapted from inkjet printers could deliver medicine or vaccines much like a nicotine patch.

What else can inkjet technology be used for? Injecting drugs into humans, according to Hewlett-Packard.

is licensing a medical patch it has developed to Ireland's Crospon that potentially can replace hypodermic needles or pills for delivering vaccines or other types of medication to patients. The patch contains up to 90,000 microneedles per square inch, microprocessors and a thermal unit.

Medications contained in the patch are heated and then injected through the needles. Processors can monitor drug delivery, deliver doses over extended periods of time or deliver drugs in response to a patient's vital signs (e.g., blood pressure or heart rate), depending on how it is programmed.

"You can have combinations of different drugs delivered at different times," said Joe Beyers, vice president of HP's intellectual property licensing group.

Nicotine patches work by letting the skin absorb chemicals. By penetrating the skin with microscopic needles, the patch can, ideally, deliver dosages in a more controlled fashion.

The technology and equipment used to make the array of needles was adopted from HP's inkjet manufacturing, said Beyers. The heating element is also the same one used inside inkjet heads.

Like IBM, Microsoft and others, HP is combing its patent portfolio for inventions it can license for royalties. So far, the effort is paying off. Although HP has to fend off more licensing claims than ever before, licensing revenue is up tenfold since the technology licensing group was started four and a half years ago, Beyers said.

Back in 2005, Beyers said that HP garnered about $50 million a year in revenue from its technology portfolio when it started the group. That means that HP is around the $500 million a year mark for royalties. In late 2005-2006, the company was pulling in about $200 million a year on an annualized basis. (IBM makes more than a billion dollars a year in royalties.)

Among other deals, HP has licensed technology for improving cell phone cameras to Flextronics. It is also trying to license a "crossbar latch" technology that it says could replace transistors in processors or memory chips.

Crospon was created around the idea of the patch. HP contacted Enterprise Ireland, an arm of the Irish government that seeks to help start-ups and incubate companies. Enterprise Ireland then put the company in contact with some investors.

A relatively low corporate tax rate and a young population made Ireland a haven for multinational companies like HP and Intel wanting to set up factories over the past two decades. The government, however, has begun to encourage more locals to form their own companies to export technology, said David Smith, senior vice president of Enterprise Ireland.

"We've got loads of college grads," he said.

HP has tested out a prototype of the patch, but has not performed animal or medical testing. Crospon will accomplish that.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are also trying to commercialize new types of injection systems.

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