In the near future, we could get our medication or vaccination with painless needle-free injections, or even smart tattoos on our skin. Researcher and entrepreneur David Fernandez Rivas is working on his (realistic) dream in Twente. “I call it: applicable research. It’s a crossover of fundamental and applied science.”
When Fernandez Rivas came to Twente he already knew that he was not a traditional researcher. “I’m not only passionate about curiosity-driven knowledge or academic relevant questions. I also get my energy from solving problems that have an impact on society. The more a scientist can walk with solutions closer to the market, the better it is. When a company takes over the idea or concept from academic research, a lot of know-how can be lost. Participating in a company or being an entrepreneur myself, I’m able to bridge the gap between idea and implementation.”
Therefore, co-founding the spin-off BuBclean in 2013 was a logical step for Fernandez Rivas. “My co-founder and I had a cool idea and decided: let’s give it a try. If we hadn’t done it ourselves, there would be no product today.” BuBclean was founded to develop innovative products and technology for ultrasonic cleaning. One of the first products was the Bubble Bag, a small container for improving ultrasonic baths performance.
Four years later Fernandez Rivas won the StartUpLaunch Competition in Twente with another start-up idea (InkBeams), based upon needle-free injection technology, that also has been patented. The InkBeams technology inspired the research project Bubble Gun, for which Fernandez Rivas has received a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. “That turned out a big boost for our project. It has really opened doors and has also given us more credibility and visibility in the market.”
The name of the project refers to a device that pushes liquid into the skin using laser-made bubbles. An important application of this method is needle-free injections of drugs or vaccines into the skin. Why needle-free? “Because 1 in every 5 persons is afraid of needles”, Fernandez Rivas says. “With the result that patients don’t complete their treatment. Besides that, we solve another problem by using fewer needles: environmental contamination. 44 million needles are used each day, worldwide, with a big risk of infection when not used properly.”
An advantage of the Bubble Gun technology is also that it does not damage the skin of the patient. “The treatment is both painless and more effective because it delivers drugs in the superficial part of the skin and with such small volumes that are imperceptible.” Fernandez Rivas thinks that within a few years, needle-free injections will be part of our lives. His dream is to use the same technology to apply medical and smart tattoos on the skin, which can help read biomedical signals from our bodies.
Being in contact with undergrad and grad students is crucial for Fernandez Rivas. “For many professors in academia, research seems to be the most important thing. For me teaching is not only happening in the classroom; I consider education as knowledge exchange. Interaction with younger scientists or students with different backgrounds is very helpful for me. Listening to them, helps me to understand how to solve the problems of the future. I pitch my ideas in an early stage to the classroom, so that I can find weak points in my concept. I like to be challenged by critical and motivated students. Education is my most direct connection to society.”
David has shared his vision on education and the synergy between engineering and entrepreneurship in a book: Empathic Entrepreneurial Engineering, De Gruyter, 2022, with prefaces written by two prominent academics: Jarka Glassey (Newcastle University) and Robert Langer (MIT).
David Fernandez Rivas (1981) came from Cuba to the Netherlands in 2007, to do his PhD in the research group Mesoscale Chemical Systems of the TNW faculty. After his post-doc, he became an assistant professor (tenure track) and since 2021 he has been an adjunct professor in Twente. He is also a research affiliate of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Visiting professor at the Dermatology Department, Erasmus MC Academic Hospital, Rotterdam. Fernandez Rivas is a member of both the Young Academy of Europe and the Global Young Academy, two international network organizations for outstanding young scientists. “It gives me the opportunity to discuss with motivated colleagues all over the world and contribute to solutions to problems affecting society on a global scale.”
In 2021, Rivas incorporated the start-up company FlowBeams, as the vehicle to continue the knowledge transfer from his research on needle-free drug delivery methods into society initiated with InkBeams. In 2023, the Dutch Research Council awarded him a VIDI personal grant to take his research into needle-free injection a step further.
Rivas’ efforts have been recognised through the Stairways to Impact Award 2021 from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and several other prizes, including 1) Prince Friso Engineer of 2021 Prize by the Royal Dutch Institute of Engineers (KIVI), and 2) Pieter Langerhuizen Fonds from the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHMW).
Moreover, his work received media attention on a significant number of occasions, including international (World Economic Forum, Reuters, DailyMail, Yahoo News, MegaTV, El Nuevo Herald, Sputnik, SkyNews) and Dutch national outlets for adults and children (NPO, RTL, Volkskrant, Trouw, NRC, Atlas, Het Klokhuis). For this outreach, Rivas received the UT in the Media Prize 2021.
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