Space technology working miracles in healthcare


A gas sensor that was designed to detect traces of life on Mars turned out to have just the right qualities for measuring blood gases in premature babies. Through Region Uppsala Innovation’s project with innovation hubs, researchers and entrepreneurs have been able to gain full insight into needs in healthcare and adapted their innovations to become useful solutions. 

Anders Persson, space researcher, together with Erik Normann and Anette Johansson at Uppsala University Hospital. Photo: Marie Kruse

What do space research and the neonatal unit at Uppsala University Hospital have in common? Anders Persson, space researcher at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Uppsala University and the CEO of the company Fourth State Systems, explains.

“I’m a space researcher fundamentally, and I had no prior experience of what healthcare does or with medical devices. But we were in the process of developing a gas sensor whose fundamental purpose was to detect signs of life on Mars by measuring carbon dioxide levels.”

However, the story was to take an unexpected turn, and rather than ending up on Mars, the sensor and its capabilities were just what was needed in the neonatal unit at Uppsala University Hospital.

“The sensor had a number of features that we realised might be useful for more ‘down-to-earth’ applications. We got wind of the fact that the neonatal unit were having problems measuring blood gases in premature babies, and that their existing method was sub-optimal. One major issue was the risk of injury to the baby because the measuring instrument that needed to be glued fast to the skin had to be heated to a temperature of 43 degrees Celsius before it could take measurements. So we took the time to engage in conversation and dialogue with healthcare professionals, and saw ourselves as a bit like students on internship to learn more. Then we designed our sensor so that it could instead measure blood gases – carbon dioxide and oxygen – in these premature babies. Now we had a solution that required no adhesive nor any other intervention that might harm the baby in order to work.”

Collaboration with healthcare

Collaboration with healthcare professionals has been facilitated by Region Uppsala Innovation which, through the innovation hubs project, connects people ‘at the coalface’ in healthcare with the right people in research and industry in order to solve medical technology challenges for example.

How important do you think that the interplay between healthcare, academia and businesses is in particular?

“If you look at our project with the blood gas sensor, we really improved our understanding of what we needed to do and develop in order to generate value for the healthcare sector. Although we had an idea beforehand of what healthcare needed and it was not entirely off the mark, the actual situation turned out to be somewhat different, and their key priorities were not what we thought they were. This gave us a picture of what was needed in order to create something that could really be beneficial and the hope is that more solutions of this kind will emerge if people in healthcare, academia and industry take that step and start discussing existing needs,” Anders concludes.

The research, which is a collaborative project between the spin-off company Fourth State Systems and the Division of Microsystems Technology at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering is funded by VINNOVA and the EU.

Robin Widing

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