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Jul. 29, 2020

Developing ICs for a Leading-Edge Medical Technology: Cochlear Implants

Artificial organs support the lives of people with physical disabilities, and help improve their qualities of life (QOL). Cochlear implants—said to be the most advanced of all artificial organs—are electronic devices that are embedded and operate inside the body, and require highly accurate and reliable integrated circuits (ICs) *1. The following is a behind-the-scenes look at the development process at ICsense, a supplier specializing in application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) *2 for use in medical equipment as well as a variety of other electronic devices for consumer, automotive and industrial markets.

The Cochlear Implant and How It Supports the Lives of the Hearing-Impaired

Artificial organs incorporate advanced technologies to replicate functions of the human body. Their performance has improved dramatically, enabled by electronic components that keep shrinking in size and growing in sophistication. One such artificial organ, the cochlear implant, is a medical device that delivers ambient sound to the auditory nerve of those who are unable to hear with hearing aids alone. It is comprised of a sound processor worn outside the body, and an implant placed inside the head. For many of the hearing-impaired, it is an indispensable device for going about their daily lives.

How a cochlear implant works

How a cochlear implant works

Image courtesy of Cochlear Ltd.

1. The sound processor’s microphone picks up ambient sound and converts it into a digital signal.
2. The data is transmitted wirelessly to the implant inside the body.
3. Electrodes placed in the cochlea stimulate the auditory nerve.
4. The transmission of signals from the nerve to the brain is perceived as sound.
Cochlear’s cochlear implant (left) and sound processor

Image courtesy of Cochlear Ltd.

Cochlear’s cochlear implant (left) and sound processor (right)

Why Cochlear, a Leading Company in Cochlear Implants, Chose ICsense

Cochlear Ltd., headquartered in Australia, developed the world’s first cochlear implant, and has continued to improve its performance over many years. Since its founding in 1967, Cochlear has improved the hearing of over 550,000 people worldwide, and continues to lead in this field globally. Over a decade ago, Cochlear made the decision to work with ICsense, a TDK Group company specializing in custom ASIC development, as a key component supplier to design and develop ASICs for its cochlear implant products.

“We chose ICsense not only for their technical competence, but for their experience designing for implantable medical uses, and especially because we were able to collaborate in an open manner,” according to Carl Van Himbeeck, a General Manager at Cochlear. “This enabled us to work iteratively together towards optimal designs for our goals.”

Carl Van Himbeeck, General Manager of Cochlear Technology Centre, speaking about their collaborative development with ICsense

Cochlear’s implants incorporate ASICs designed by ICsense that include power management, circuitry that generates programmable analog signals delivered to electrodes connected to the auditory nerve, and circuits for detecting the body’s minute neural responses—called Neural Response Telemetry (NRT)—that are measured in microvolts.

Jeroen Van Ham, Senior Business Development Manager at ICsense, emphasizes the distinct advantage they have with mixed-signal *3 designs that bridge the analog and digitals worlds. “Low-noise, low-power, and small size are all paramount to high-performance, battery-powered devices. Developing circuits that link the analog and digital domains has been the focus of our expertise over the last 15 years. There are not many companies in the world with our size and capability that are able to design analog, digital, and high-voltage circuits—especially at such low risk.”

Designing and Developing ASICs Customized for Customer Needs

ICsense is certified under ISO 13485 *4, an international standard for quality management systems for the development of medical devices. Van Ham explains the cooperation model with Cochlear. “To make state-of-the-art medical development a success, you need to work truly in partnership with the customer. Given the additional design and verification, safety reviews, and reporting required for high-reliability medical devices, the overall development process takes longer. Our collaboration with Cochlear was far more than a typical vendor-customer relationship.”

ICsense refers to its process of maximizing product value by aligning to customer needs as “tailored” development. Just as it does for customers in the medical field like Cochlear, ICsense continues to develop custom ICs for each customer—whether they be in automotive, industrial, or consumer markets—like bespoke suits.

The ASIC development process

The ASIC development process
Developing custom ASICs differs from that of generic ICs in that they are tailored towards the specifications of one customer

Van Ham is enthusiastic about the future as well. “Over 50 years ago, we embarked on the journey of enabling hearing-impaired people to hear. In 10 to 20 years from now, I believe we will be able to help those who have lost their vision to see again. It’s vastly more technically complex compared to hearing, but I see it already beginning.”

ICsense will continue to develop highly sophisticated IC solutions to meet the many challenges in this world. One minuscule chip holds the potential to change our future in a gigantic way.

For more examples of ASIC development and details on their technologies, please visit the ICsense web site.

Terminology

  1. IC: Short for Integrated Circuit, a set of electronic circuits composed of elements such as transistors, diodes, resistors, and capacitors, formed on a single chip.
  2. ASIC: Short for Application Specific Integrated Circuit, an IC that combines functionalities for a specific use.
  3. Mixed-Signal IC: A semiconductor circuit that processes both analog and digital signals on a single chip.
  4. ISO 13485: An internationally-recognized standard for quality management systems for medical devices. Requirements for documentation, quality management practices, and risk management are far more thorough compared to ISO 9001. It is a foundation for ensuring the quality, reliability and safety of medical devices.
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