Everyone wants to know what the next big thing will be. Donald Sebastian, senior vice president of research and development at the New Jersey Institution of Technology, has a ringside seat to the technology development pipeline. Naturally, he has his own ideas as to what might soon sweep into homes and businesses across the country.
Sebastian’s first technological candidate is new thin-film photovoltaic technology that some believe will eventually surpass conventional solar panels. This new generation of solar cell technology can be conformed and coated to surfaces, overcoming the unwieldy nature of today’s big solar panels.
“You might not even know a roof’s shingles contain PV plastic substrate,” Sebastian says. “You will no longer need to install large, stiff solar panels.”
Obama’s federal stimulus package includes subsidies for conventional solar panels only. Once the funding is exhausted, in the next year or so, the new PV technology will quickly become increasingly attractive, he predicts. “It will become dominant in the solar market within 10 years.”
The technology is developed, inexpensive, and easy to use and is already being introduced into the market. It will also affect architecture so the structure surfaces are designed for most efficient use and visually appealing. The material could even be put on the windows.
“There is a version of sustainable energy that is 5 billion years old,” Sebastian says. “It’s called plants. They extract energy from sunlight and are able to store it. Mother Nature is one of the most efficient users of solar energy.”
By contrast, a car’s combustion engine is a highly inefficient user of energy because of its continuous heat loss that flows both into the radiator and out the exhaust pipe.
Sebastian will be one of the panelists at the New Jersey Technology Council’s fifth annual “Top 12 Technology Trends” conference on Tuesday, November 9, from 4 to 7 p.m., at New York Internet in Bridgewater. Cost: $50. Visit www.njtc.org.
Sebastian grew up in the “space age,” which he credits for sparking his interest in technology. He remembers sitting in class in grade school in the early 1960s watching in awe on live television as the nation’s first astronauts were rocketed into space, and then, in high school, following the moon landing.
His family moved from New York City to the quiet suburb of Wilton, Connecticut, when he was 5. Sebastian’s father was a market researcher, his mother a homemaker who took a job at the local high school after he left for college. Now in her 80s, she continues to work there.
Sebastian’s guidance counselor recognized his aptitude in math, science, and chemistry, and encouraged him to study engineering. “I thought he made sense,” Sebastian recalls. “I went off to college without a clue as to what engineers do.”
He found he liked it and earned a bachelor’s in engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in 1974. He received a master’s of engineering in 1975 and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1977, also at Stevens. Sebastian taught chemical engineering at Stevens, where he also was co-founder of the Design and Manufacturing Institute and the Polymer Processing Institute, the latter an academic-based industrial contract research center. He continues to serve on the institute’s board of directors.
Sebastian joined NJIT in 1995 and was later appointed executive director of the Center for Manufacturing Systems. He is a professor in the department of chemical, biological and pharmaceutical engineering.
Beyond the sun. The other big technological change about to sweep the nation, Sebastian says, will thrust healthcare information storage from the 19th to the 21st century. “There are about 20,000 primary care physicians in New Jersey and about 85 percent of them use paper-based patient records,” Sebastian says. “They spend about one day a week just managing paperwork. The most modern equipment in their office is probably a fax machine.”
Medical offices have walls of paper-packed files. Patients must fill out new forms every time they visit a new physician or change their healthcare plan. Collaboration between doctors about a patient’s condition takes time because paper documents must be copied and faxed.
All that is about to change, largely due to the federal government. President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package has committed $1 billion to help physicians shift their medical records from paper to digital. The plan uses Medicaid and Medicare, for example, to provide incentives to physicians who transition to heathcare technology by next year. Physicians and hospitals that treat Medicare (but not Medicaid) patients will be penalized if they haven’t made the transition by electronic health records by 2015. The stimulus package will also provide training for healthcare professionals and employees over the next two years.
The result will be a system that integrates primary care physicians, specialists, insurers, hospitals and ratepayers, who will all spend far less time on record keeping. “This is what I mean by disruptive technology,” Sebastian says. “It will break the logjam, it will disrupt the way things have always been done.”
Sebastian sees great opportunity. “We will see a more comprehensive role for the patient, who will be more engaged in the joint management, with his primary care physician, of his own heathcare,” he says. “Patient records will be more accurate and will be instantly accessible to other healthcare providers. Security control will also be an important part of the process to protect patients’ privacy.”
A doctor will able to see at once a new patient’s complete medical history, including symptoms, concurrent treatment and prescriptions, genetic profile and more, allowing for a far more confident diagnosis and prognosis. The doctor could also immediately consult with other doctors and specialists, even those across the state or nation.
“In the short term, patients can expect to see little difference in their healthcare experiences,” Sebastian says. “They might no longer fill out those long forms every time they see a new doctor. And during a doctor’s visit, the doctor or nurse might use an electronic pad to record patient information.”
Worldwide web. In the long term, however, interconnectivity will lead to more active patient involvement. Patients might expect to see automated reminders on their computer or smartphone for regular check-ups or follow-up visits, or when prescriptions need to be refilled. Preventive medicine alerts may go out to patients for flu shots and other immunizations. Home monitoring will also likely advance.
“Someone with a pacemaker might not notice an arrhythmia,” Sebastian says. “But a technologically advanced pacemaker would detect that something is wrong. It would first call for an EMT, followed by a message to you to expect an ambulance to take you to the hospital.”
Sebastian is optimistic about the promise of new technology – and that it’s not far off. “The future is just around the corner,” he says.
However, he adds that it won’t happen by itself.
“I hope New Jersey recognizes how important it is to make things again,” he says. “We should be receptive to restoring the pre-eminence of New Jersey as a design-and-build state. That is our heritage.”