Can you imagine a world where cells and tissues could directly interface with electronic devices? This is a future we are inching towards thanks to the field of organic bioelectronics, pioneered by Professor Magnus Berggren at Linköping University, Sweden. Organic electronic materials are making their way into life sciences and this exciting field investigates the possibility of engineering organic conducting devices, based on conducting polymers that hold carbon, to bridge the biotic-abiotic interface. This advancement opens up doors for the application of electronics in neural interfaces and targeted functions with cells and tissues.
Professor Berggren is Director of the Strategic Center for Organic Bioelectronics (OBOE) and Deputy Director of the Advanced Functional Materials Center of Linköping University, and since 2012 an elected member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.
OBR had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Berggren about this groundbreaking field and his journey as one of its earliest pioneers:
“Organic bioelectronics in 20 years? They will have mastered genetically modifying plants so that we can grow solar panels!”
For those who have not heard the term before, what is organic bioelectronics?
The field of organic bioelectronics uses electronic materials to communicate technologically and electronically with the human body. We use plastics to regulate physiological functions and to create an interface between technology and biology.
Together with Agneta Richter-Dahlfors you co-authored the first article that summarises the area, Organic bioelectronics, and in it you actually coined the name of this field! Could you tell us more about this?
Agneta and I wrote the article in 2007 to round up the field, and unofficially it became a kind of a dating site for people in the field that were not aware of each other’s work! People working in this newly established field were scattered all over and by reviewing the work done people found numerous collaborations. Since the first conference on solely bioelectronics organized in 2008, the number of participants and collaborations has only grown, and nowadays many of the larger material science meetings also include a bioelectronics symposium.
You started your PhD studies in Sweden researching organic light emitting diodes after completing a degree in physics. After this you went on to a postdoc in the US. Was it largely different from doing research in Sweden?
Yes, I joined the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill for a year, and no, I believe it is what you make of it and you should not take the tales on how you have to work until you drop when you’re the new guy in the US too seriously. It is what you make of it, and everything has its own time, both working a lot and enjoying yourself in a new, interesting environment too. I am a comfortable person, and I like to have fun at work so I did! I had a great time, and still think I keep having fun at work.
After a postdoc in the US you returned to Sweden and in 1997 you co-founded the company Thin Film Electronics AB. What inspired you to do this?
Actually, I was approached by two Norwegian entrepreneurs before I left for a postdoc, and they had the idea of developing electronic plastic memory devices. This was new and new to me, and very exciting so the thought stayed with me while being away. When I got back to Sweden we started working together with Opticom ASA and I stayed on as Managing Director for one and a half years at Thin Film Electronics. We then went on to explore the possibility of print-electronics with Acreo (Swedish ICT), and together with Mårten Armgarth we toured different paper works and paper laboratories to find out what could be done then and how we could develop this. The ideas of printing displays and sensors directly on paper were well received by the industry, but this was before the dip in the wood-processing industry that has taken place in recent years. We launched the Paella Project, short for Paper Electronics low-cost applications, which was ongoing from 1999 to 2002, where electrochrome papers were investigated and developed. There are around 20 people working only with printable electronics at Acreo today and three or four spin-off companies have come out of this.
Since then you have moved over to academia: what do you take with you from the industry?
Listen to the actual needs. This really works in all directions, in both academia and industry. What is the actual problem that needs solving? Invest time in finding and formulating the right question. It might not be the fastest way to do things, but suddenly when you have an exact question, you can and will provide the exact answer! Things are allowed to take their time. Trust the people surrounding you, share your thoughts and ideas; ideas really are worth more when shared! Just give them away, inspire other people and you will get something back. Those who do not share their ideas do not do very much in the end anyway.
Would this be your advice for the young scientist?
Yes, and to not become prisoner of the lab. Meet more people, make sure that you get to go to conferences, visit other labs and go places. It is the network you form when you are young that will later grow. So grab your PhD buddies and go travel! When you stand there by your poster you will have one on one interaction with other people, talk about your work, share your ideas and get contacts, e-mail afterwards to say how great it was talking to that person! We can sum it up to: be open and flexible!
Lastly, what does the future hold for organic bioelectronics?
Organic bioelectronics in 20 years? By then they will have mastered genetically modifying plants so that we can grow solar panels! On a serious note, we should continue to explore electronics and different ways to solve the energy question. However, we should not worry too much, as I believe science is the answer and we should trust this.
More on organic bioelectronics: The Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University works towards making use of ions and electrons as signal carriers for applications in printed electronics, organic solid-state and electrochemical devices, and organic bioelectronics. Professor Berggren’s research interest lies especially in utilising organic electronics in novel applications for printed electronics and for biological applications. His recent publications within the field of organic bioelectronics include reports on an organic electronic device capable of delivering neurotransmitters in vitro and in vivo, electronic control of cell detachment and DNA detection with a water-gated organic field-effect transistor.