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Lithium-Ion Batteries Are Poised for an Energy Boost

This secondary electron microscopy image shows the surface of silicon-carbon nanocomposite spheres with silicon nanoparticles on the carbon surface.

Lithium-ion batteries are as ubiquitous as the electronic devices they power, such as cells phones, laptops, and even some medical products. To create the current that powers these devices, lithium ions are transferred through a liquid electrolyte between two electrodes: a cathode and an anode. Traditionally based on graphite anodes, lithium-ion batteries could have much greater capacity if their anodes were made from silicon and carbon. Until now, however, silicon-carbon-based anodes have been too unstable for real-world electronic applications. But that may be changing.

"A major shortcoming of traditional graphite-based lithium-ion batteries is their limited capacity: 320 to 360 mAh/g," remarks Gleb Yushin, an assistant professor in the school of materials science and engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta). "Anodes based on silicon have ten times more capacity than graphite--4200 mAh/g--which results in major improvements in the battery capacity."

With most silicon-based anodes, the silicon particles typically expand and contract as lithium ions enter and leave the silicon. "Silicon expands nearly fourfold in volume when lithium is inserted, and contracts fourfold when it is extracted," Yushin explains. "These huge volume changes eventually fracture the polymeric material that binds the silicon particles, breaking the electrical connection between them and causing them to separate." This fracture prevents the generation of an electrical current.

To overcome the silicon anode's instability, the new silicon-carbon anode is based on a bottom-up, self-assembly technique. It is fabricated by creating highly conductive branching structures made from carbon black nanoparticles annealed in a tube furnace. Using a chemical vapor deposition process, silicon nanospheres are formed within the carbon. With the aid of graphitic carbon as an electrically conductive binder, the silicon-carbon nanoparticles then self-assemble into rigid spheres ranging in size from 10 to 30 µm, forming the battery anodes. The spheres have open, interconnected internal pore channels that admit liquid electrolyte containing lithium ions, enabling quick battery charging and accommodating expansion and contraction of the silicon.

The rate of electrochemical reaction--and thus battery power--depends on the rate at which lithium ions diffuse into the active material, Yushin explains. Since the pore channels enable the lithium ions to diffuse rapidly into the center of the large, rigid spheres, the overall lithium diffusion rate is limited only by the silicon nanoparticles. But since the silicon particles are small, the time required to insert or extract lithium is short. Thus, the overall electrochemical reaction is fast, enabling the battery to be charged and discharged quickly at a high current.

"The silicon-carbon nanocomposite anodes will improve anode capacity over six times compared with today's state-of-the art graphite-based anodes," Yushin comments. "This means batteries that will last longer and cost less. It also means that portable electronic devices will last longer, cost less, and have lower weight and volume." He foresees that any portable medical device using rechargeable lithium-ion batteries could benefit from this silicon-carbon self-assembling technique.
 

Microdynamical Sensor Detects Six Degrees of Motion

A particle trap containing a tiny gold microsphere (center) enables six-degree-of-freedom inertial sensing

Motion sensing has traditionally relied on accelerometers to measure linear acceleration along three axes and gyroscopes to capture an object's rate of rotation about three axes. Researchers at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT (CBA; Cambridge, MA), however, are pushing the technology forward by fabricating a low-cost motion sensor that combines the functionality of an accelerometer with that of a gyroscope to provide six-degree-of-freedom inertial sensing.

Inertial sensing has experienced a great deal of progress in recent years thanks to microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based technologies. But MEMS aren't the sole enabling technology, according to Rehmi Post, a post-doc researcher and visiting scientist at the CBA. "We decided to forego the expensive MEMS process that involves a billion-dollar semiconductor fab. [We] tried to do something based more on simple physics, using electrostatic fields to guide the motion of a particle and to use that particle as the proof mass of an accelerometer and a gyroscope," he states.

Drawing from experimental physics, the researchers pursued this idea of using a 'particle trap' to detect motion. The resulting sensor consists of a printed circuit board with a hole drilled into it, around which are electrodes. Using a specific pattern of electrical signals for precise control, the electrodes suspend a particle in a tight orbit in an electric field-generated particle trap. As the sensor experiences acceleration and rotation, the particle's orbit changes, according to the researchers.

"The interesting thing is that for a single device, we should be able to gain all six degrees of freedom from monitoring the motions of a suspended particle," Post says. Each of the six degrees of motion affects the particle differently, he adds.  

Essentially performing the work of six micromechanical sensors, the product is referred to by the group as a microdynamical sensor because its motion is determined by fields rather than a mechanical system. Instead of a complex mechanical linkage such as that found in a MEMS sensor, for example, the microdynamical sensor relies primarily on the electrical field that keeps the particle in position, Post notes.

Further distinguishing itself from conventional MEMS technology, the microdynamical sensor is not limited by a fixed range of sensitivity. "The stiffness of the trap can be tuned to change the response and sensitivity of the sensor dynamically," Post observes. "So, at one moment, it may be sensitive to very small motions on the order of 1 G, but if it senses that there's a trend toward a larger acceleration, the trap can be stiffened, giving it a wider dynamic range. The benefit of that shows up when you're trying to monitor complex motions."

The ability to monitor complex motions could prove to be a valuable asset in medical products. Although the microdynamical sensor could replace existing inertial sensors in medical devices, it also has the potential to advance diagnostics and monitoring applications. It could be used, for example, in the field of gait analysis as well as in a multitude of other specialty areas. Post adds that, because of the possibilities across various industries, the group does not want to pigeonhole the sensor as suitable for one area or specific end use.

In the meantime, the group is exploring a variety of avenues. "We're taking a couple of different approaches to make sensors that are appealing to a variety of commercial processes," Post states. "We aim to make this technology commercially viable and are interested in licensing to parties that have the skills and inclination to bring it to market."

Sending Body Signals

In the not-too-distant future, doctors may be keeping their distance from patients. But treatment won't necessarily suffer--in fact, it may just improve. And as is the case with any good relationship, communication is the key.

Pegged as one of the most promising growth markets, remote patient monitoring offers the potential for around-the-clock observation and preventive care despite fewer face-to-face doctor-patient interactions. In order for these complex remote-monitoring applications to enter into widespread use, however, they require the support of efficient emerging communication technologies such as wireless body-area networks (BANs).

An evolving technology, BANs consist of implanted or body-worn sensing technologies that wirelessly transmit patient data to a base station, which, in turn, shares the information with the physician via the Internet. The expectation is that a physician can be alerted to abnormalities and then respond to the data, if necessary, by initiating treatment without being in the same building or even the same town as the patient.

"A wireless communication network around the body allows real-time information access and localization with emerging implant and body-mounted sensors collecting health-related parameters," says Kaveh Pahlavan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Center for Wireless Information Network Studies (CWINS) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "This enables the possibility of instant diagnosis, drug delivery, and mechanical operation of nanorobots inside the body."

Supported by a $1.2 million grant from NIST, CWINS aims to apply knowledge gleaned from its work on such large-scale networks as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to the optimization of high-speed wireless BANs. One of the only U.S.-based teams researching this area, CWINS is specifically exploring the propagation of radio waves through and around body surfaces as a means of exchanging information. But measurement and modeling of radio propagation has proven difficult for wireless applications, according to the researchers, because the channels experience temporal, spatial, and direction-of-arrival fading. Addressing this particular challenge is the group's primary focus.

Measurement and modeling approaches aren't the only barriers to commercialization, though. The buzz-worthy issue of security applies to BANs, which communicate confidential patient information. Furthermore, the industrywide challenge of power management is also at play since wireless sensor networks are typically battery powered.

Yet despite these challenges, there has been progress: The FCC recently dedicated frequency bands for medical device radiocommunications (MedRadio), and IEEE 802.15.6 was established to promote international standardization. Forward-thinking OEMs are even paving the way for use of BANs. "Certain companies are designing wireless communication chip sets operating on the existing regulated bands for integration into medical devices such as wireless endoscopy capsules with camera or pacemakers implanted in the body," Pahlavan notes. "This trend is expected to continue while researchers are working on how to use these chip sets to route the messages with minimum power consumption, maximum privacy, and precise localization."

In light of such progress, it will be interesting to see whether wireless BANs can go the distance as healthcare shifts from the hospital to the home.

Wireless Platform Designed to Push Remote Monitoring Forward

Product development firm Cambridge Consultants (Cambridge, MA) teamed up with mobile technology specialist Qualcomm (San Diego) to produce a platform designed to enable wireless connectivity from a medical device to an online health service. The companies believe that the low-cost platform will contribute to progress in remote patient monitoring capabilities and devices, thanks to a predicted future reliance on cellular technology for transmitting patient data.

Combining Qualcomm's wearable mobile device cellular module with Cambridge Consultants's Vena software stack, the platform design came to fruition as a result of the 2009 publication of the Continua Health Alliance Version One Design Guidelines, according to the companies. The wireless platform can collect data from Continua-certified devices over the Continua PAN interface and send this information via the Continua WAN interface to online health service receivers.

"Remote health data collection is an important part of future health services," says Nick Vassilakis, business development consultant, Cambridge Consultants. "Our Vena software stack has been built to use emerging industry standards and enable the rapid development of compact and low-cost wireless health devices. By combining the Vena stack with Qualcomm's cellular modules, we can demonstrate how next-generation healthcare services have the potential to evolve by using cellular networks."

Preparing for the Device Tax

However, companies that the IndyStar spoke with don't plan on cutting jobs as the future tax looms ahead. The orthopedics sector accounts for nearly 20% of private sector jobs in Kosciusko County (home to orthopedic capital Warsaw). Companies in Indiana employ more than 19,900 workers and pay $1.1 billion in wages each year. The average pay of a medtech worker in the state is $60,739. 

The MX Q&A: Larry Siebert, Chembio Diagnostic Systems

Larry Siebert says he was simply trying to protect his investment in the company when, as a consultant and business broker, he became chairman of Chembio Diagnostic Systems back in 1992. Since then, the business adage “doing well by doing good” may well apply to both Siebert and the company, which was founded in 1985. After Siebert came on board as CEO of the Medford, NY–based company in mid-2002, the manufacturer of POC diagnostic devices began making and selling rapid HIV tests. In 2009 Chembio reported revenues of nearly $14 million, a 25% increase over the previous year. More than $5 million in revenues that year came from the sale of the assays to Inverness Medical Innovations, Chembio’s exclusive marketing partner in the United States for the FDA-approved tests. That figure is an increase over revenues of around $3 million for sales of the tests in 2008.

After entering the POC testing device segment in the late 1990s, Chembio seized the market opening for rapid HIV test kits in 2002. The device company received a patent in 2007 for the kits’ Dual Path Platform (DPP) POC technology, which offers features such as multiplexing and control over oral fluids and other difficult types of samples. Chembio is using the technology to develop other assays, including rapid STD tests. The company’s R&D expenses grew in the first quarter of 2010 over the same period in 2009.

According to the National Association of People with AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 25% of the 1 million persons with HIV/AIDS in the United States don’t realize their status. With a statistic like that in mind, the organization established National HIV Testing Day in 1995. The event is scheduled for June 27 this year.

With Siebert at the helm, Chembio has been active in expanding its business and has become a visible presence in the world of AIDS-related public events. Siebert has taken part in news programs on Fox and Sirius XM Radio. In December 2009 the company donated more than 4500 HIV test kits to the Los Angeles–based AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Testing Millions Global Campaign to commemorate World AIDS Day 2009. And in May 2010 the company was a sponsor for the 25th anniversary of AIDS Walk New York. In March 2010 the U.S. Agency for International Development approved Chembio’s DPP Oral HIV 1&2 Screen Assay for use with oral fluid or blood samples on the list of rapid HIV tests. The assay performed well in evaluations conducted recently by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Global AIDS Program in Mozambique. In addition, three devices are awaiting regulatory approval in Brazil, and Chembio expects to meet CE mark requirements for the two FDA-approved tests based on information from the Notified Body.

A lawyer by training, Siebert graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Law with a JD in 1981. He received a BA with Distinction in Economics from the University of Connecticut in 1978. In this interview with MX, Siebert takes up a variety of topics, including the role of the CEO as the public face of a company, changes in the industry affecting POC devices, and the regulatory environment surrounding the assays.

MX: Given the nature of AIDS as a modern scourge, as CEO are you concerned that expectations are too high for your product?
Larry Siebert: No. Our product performance in the market has well exceeded our performance claims. We pay a lot of attention, of course, to the quality of our product in our manufacturing process. Also, anyone that is tested with these products is given the appropriate information concerning the meaning of a reactive result and that the result is not necessarily conclusive.

Do you consider your product a breakthrough or an advance in AIDS detection?
We consider our DPP technology a breakthrough and an advance in the detection of many conditions, including, but not limited to, HIV/AIDS. Standard lateral-flow technology has some limitations when it comes to the use of oral fluid samples, or in multiplexing, to features that we believe our DPP technology enables more effectively.

What main technological or scientific aspects needed to go right in order for your assay to work?
Of course, there are many aspects that go into the development of a robust assay with strong sensitivity, specificity, ease of use, and convenience. These aspects include selection of reagents, conjugation, buffers, membrane, sample delivery, and flow rate, which is one aspect that can be better controlled in DPP. Reaction time and shelf life [are important as well], just to name just a few.

Chembio sponsored the AIDS Walk’s 25th anniversary on May 16 this year.
Yes. We are a New York company and felt it was important to begin to develop awareness of Chembio in New York.

How important is it for a CEO to be the face of the company? Last December you appeared on Fox News and Sirius XM Radio. What advice do you have for other chief executives on media appearances, especially dealing with a public health issue such as AIDS?
As we begin to develop our own branded line of products in the coming years, it is essential to create more awareness of the individuals that are responsible for executing the business plan

What are some of the pitfalls and benefits of being the public face of the company?
If you are forthcoming and balanced in what you say, then it should be beneficial. Having technologies that can provide enormous benefits to an individual’s well-being and toward bringing down healthcare costs is, of course, a pleasure to be able to talk about.

Chembio’s most recent financial results are somewhat better than the previous period last year.
We have continued a good trend is our product volume, and the [product] mix has been positive.

You’ve increased R&D investment slightly as well.
We have been able to obtain development contracts and grants that have enabled us to increase our investment in our technology platform, and this is very beneficial. Our R&D and grants income nearly doubled in 2009 versus 2008 and is on pace in 2010 to substantially exceed the 2009 results.

What do you expect for the market in 2011 after receiving PMA approval?
We will most likely bring this and our other public health-related products for syphilis, for example, into the market with our own marketing staff under Chembio’s DPP brand.

Chembio’s stock price spiked in October/November 2009 and has held its own pretty well since then. To what do you attribute that financial performance?
I believe our stock is significantly undervalued, though I also believe that the recent fall-off is based on delays we have had in our initial DPP product approvals in Brazil. I am confident that our investors and other stakeholders will be rewarded for their patience.

Since you joined the company and particularly since becoming chief executive officer and president in 2002 what changes have you seen in the device industry and your market segment that have stood out either positively or negatively?
In our market segment of point-of-care simple tests there of course has been a lot of consolidation, particularly in the lateral flow area where Inverness Medical has acquired a global footprint. Yet, pricing in the global market has continued to erode.

Our decision to focus on value-added products that incorporate proprietary features and allow us to leverage our regulatory organization and patented technology is being validated. We could not compete against Asian producers that do not have to worry about intellectual property and FDA.

How will the passage of U.S. healthcare reform affect Chembio Diagnostics?
To the extent POC tests can demonstrate—and I believe many do or will—a significant impact in reducing healthcare costs to individuals or the public, then we will be positively impacted. Shorter term, we hope to benefit from grants for small businesses that have qualifying projects that we’re eligible to apply for.

Your background is in private equity and investment. How did you decide to focus your career in the medical device industry and then arrive at your position with Chembio Diagnostics?
I didn’t exactly wake up one day and decide that this would be my dream industry to be in. I was already an outside investor in Chembio, and the business had been going sideways for some time, and I needed to protect the investment that I and other investors that I brought in had made. We have made good progress toward that objective, finally. Pre-2002 we were not even in the rapid HIV test business, or hardly. I was simply trying to recover my investment. What has turned out is that I am both recovering my investment and I am involved in a business that is providing essential tools to better the health of individuals around the world, especially those who are most at risk.

Does a chief executive benefit from having a background in the science of the company’s he or she is running?
That can work both ways, and certainly I have invested time to learn some of the basics to be conversant and have a basic understanding of immunodiagnostics. However, it is well established that there are many non-scientists running biotech companies, many of who are lawyers by training, as I am.

How would you describe the regulatory environment in the U.S. and other countries?
My knowledge is much greater in the U.S., because this is where we are focused with our existing and planned products. It is increasingly complex and expensive, and you need to have a strong regulatory affairs team in house in order to properly comply and sleep at night.

In 2002 when I became CEO, we had nobody except a QC person and an outside regulatory consultant. This has been one of the biggest changes in the company over the last number of years as we decided to focus on HIV, which is a Class III product and for which we needed to obtain premarket approvals from FDA. Now we have a good size staff that handles our regulatory affairs, quality assurance, and quality control.
 

Micronor Claims Complete Operational Transparency for MRI Rotary Encoder

The MR318 from Micronor is an MRI-compatible fiber-optic rotary encoder that can function both as an incremental and absolute position encoder.

A new encoder is the world's first and only commercially available nonmetallic rotary position sensor that can operate with complete "transparency" in extreme electromagnetic fields, according to its manufacturer, Micronor Inc. (Newbury Park, CA). The MR318 MRI-compatible fiber-optic rotary encoder can function both as an incremental and absolute position encoder, enabling motion control apparatuses used in functional-MRI (fMRI) R&D of advanced MRI phantoms.

Enabling medical personnel to monitor the brain activity of impaired patients while they are engaged in various locomotor activities such as pedaling, lifting, and limb movement, the device allows medical researchers and radiologists to develop an MRI-compatible test and diagnostic apparatus in which measuring position, angle, or speed is required. For example, monitoring brain activity at discrete pedal positions allows researchers to observe how the brain and body adjust to therapy and evaluate new rehabilitation techniques. The encoder also enables the development of more-sophisticated MRI phantoms for machine calibration, teaching, and training purposes.

Prior to the MR318, engineers had no commercial solution for measuring continuous position within an MRI chamber. Motors or actuators could be hydraulic or pneumatic, but no commercial, nonmetallic position sensor existed. A homemade fiber-optic proximity/limit switch was the best solution, but this awkward-to-design package could only provide position information at discrete points. The advent of the MR318 enables a fully functional motion control apparatus with closed-loop feedback, says Dennis Horwitz, Micronor's vice president of sales and marketing.

The encoder combines Micronor's passive fiber-optic encoder technology with material engineering that flows down to the smallest component. For interchangeability and compatibility with existing products, the encoder uses the industry-standard 58-mm form factor and pairs with the MR310 interface module.

The product concept grew out of requests for a nonmetallic version of the company's existing fiber-optic encoder products. The first application for the prototype MRI encoder, a pedaling device, was provided by Jay Mehta, a graduate student in the biomedical engineering department at Marquette University (Milwaukee), and his advisor, Sheila Schindler-Ivens. The results of their research project were published in the Journal of Neuroscience Methods in May 2009 under the title, "A Novel Technique for Examining Human Brain Activity Associated with Pedaling Using fMRI."

Noncontact Sensors Primed to Transform Home Healthcare

Electrical Potential Sensors (EPS), developed at the University of Sussex (UK), are the first electrical sensors able to precisely monitor cardiac activity without requiring direct contact with the body, according to their inventors. Because it enables noncontact monitoring, EPS technology could play a role in advancing home-healthcare applications as well as improving other medical products.

The ability to detect spatial potential, electric field, or charge establishes the wideband ultrahigh-impedance sensors as a potentially viable technology for a range of next-generation applications. In addition to sensing cardiovascular activity, the sensors can detect muscle signals and eye movements. Furthermore, they could someday detect brain and nerve-fiber signals as well, according to the researchers.

Monitoring ECG and EEG signals is one promising use of EPS; however, the scientists foresee a bevy of additional applications that could benefit from the technology. The sensors could play a part in providing real-time imaging of electrical circuits, assisting in the nondestructive testing of composites, and enhancing MRI sensing probes, for example.

Currently, however, the research group is collaborating with "smart-home technology" company PassivSystems to explore the possible use of the EP sensors to monitor heartbeat abnormalities and the ability to monitor room occupancy in the quest to develop advanced devices for the elderly.

Holding Customers Accountable

When a customer pays its invoices late, company executives spend little time debating who’s to blame: it’s the customer’s fault, right? Possibly, but things are rarely so simple. Most problems have hidden solutions that are revealed only when assumptions are pushed aside to offer a new perspective. Consider some of today’s most innovative medical technology and you’ll probably find that researchers questioned the obvious, allowing them to uncover a novel solution others overlooked. Fortunately, finding new ways to deal with late payments won’t take a major scientific breakthrough, but it will require a similar fresh outlook. Many device companies and other small business owners fall into the trap of thinking that ensuring on-time payments is only the customer’s responsibility, but a more productive perspective is to look at what a device company can do on its end to accelerate payment.

The reality is that despite its desire to collect debts as soon as possible and boost cash flow, a company’s own invoicing practices and the way it deals with customers may be part of the problem. Ironic? Yes, and perhaps a little humbling. But if your own practices are standing in your way, the good news is that you can probably improve your company’s cash flow more easily than you ever thought possible. Running credit checks, having written payment agreements, and offering a choice of payment options are just a few simple practices that keep the Accounts Receivable department happily busy. The following suggestions can change how you deal with customers and help you to streamline invoicing to ensure fast payments.

Research Payment History

The best way to avoid chronic slow-payers is to make sure the company begins each business relationship, project, or order in a way that will protect it and make terms and expectations clear to the customer. That begins with knowing whom you’re dealing with from the outset. When establishing a relationship with a new customer, research the client’s payment history through professional references so that you’re aware of any past payment issues. Another key step is to conduct a credit check with a credit-reporting agency, such as Dun & Bradstreet or Experian, before accepting a large order. Obviously, there’s no fail-proof way to know who will pay on time. But if you’re aware that there’s an established history of late payments, you can decide whether to do business with a potential customer or determine what special terms you might require of the customer in order to limit the risk of late or nonpayment.

Assessing the risk of late payment before accepting a new customer is an essential step, but a device company can also limit its risks by keeping tabs on existing customers. Take a look at client track records with your own company over the past six months. If a customer’s payment time has continued to grow, take that as a warning. For your most important customers, it particularly pays to stay abreast of related industry news so you can see problems coming. Events such as losing a large account, increased market turbulence, lower stock prices, or rising costs can directly affect a customer. If monitoring this kind of information seems too overwhelming, keep in mind that it doesn’t require scouring specialized journals. A simple alert from a leading news site using relevant keywords and your customer’s name can go a long way towards keeping you informed.

When you’re ready to undertake new work with a client, start by spelling things out with a written agreement. Whether it’s a formal contract or a simple statement of work, you can head off any misunderstandings surrounding deliverables or payment with a clear description of goods or services and payment terms. This will help avoid delayed payments caused by a customer that questions charges or the scope of work at a later date. Clearly stated terms and obligations will also put you in a better position legally if collection becomes an issue.

In addition don’t hesitate to restate your terms of payment on invoices, even if you’ve already stipulated them in writing from the outset. Forego the hollow words “due upon receipt” and send invoices with a due date to get customers’ attention and keep them on schedule. While customers who pay in 30 or 45 days may simply follow their own schedule, a due date at least puts your terms in writing.

Facilitate On-Time Payments

One way to keep customers paying on time is to give them a choice of payment options. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an old-fashioned paper check, but when a customer’s cash is tight, requiring a check can mean waiting longer for payment. Consider other options such as credit and charge cards that will provide cash quickly, regardless of your customer’s cash-flow situation. Cards provide you with an easy way to reduce the risk of slow or nonpayment, and they give convenient options to customers facing a cash flow crunch. Beyond cash-strapped customers, many businesses also appreciate the opportunity to take advantage of credit and charge card rewards programs when paying invoices. Another payment option you might consider is an electronic funds transfer. Accepting automated clearinghouse (ACH) payments is convenient for many customers, and it also saves time, given that funds are deposited directly in your company’s account as soon as they are available. That not only cuts the time required to receive funds, but it also cuts out the time and effort required to deposit a paper check.

To help promote faster payments, some businesses offer customers a small discount for early payment. You might, for example, reward customers with a 1% or 2% discount if they pay within 10 days, which can significantly shorten your payment cycle. Be aware, however, that a discount is a benefit you may want to offer selectively, because some customers may simply take the discount and still pay late. Just as you may choose to reward early payment, you can also want to establish a disincentive for paying late, by setting a late fee or interest penalty on invoices that are not paid on time. Post the terms on your Web site—on every invoice—and also be sure to include the terms in any contractual agreement.

Give your customers the information they need to make decisions and stay on top of their work with you. Provide updates on any issues or relevant changes in service or product as work progresses. You should also consider putting changes in writing if you expect that they could lead to additional charges or if they vary significantly from your original agreement. Providing customers with this type of information up front can help avoid problems or delays when it comes time to pay. Likewise, once a project is complete or an order is fulfilled, you should collect some information of your own by following up with clients. If there are any unresolved issues, you can deal with them promptly and avoid slowing payment. In any case, following up is simply good customer service that won’t go unnoticed.

Improve Basic Invoicing Practices

Customers can’t pay invoices they haven’t received, so make sure to send invoices as soon as work is completed or goods are shipped. Otherwise, a delay of only a day or two can mean missing the customer’s payment cycle, leaving you waiting until the next one. Most small businesses—and particularly those relying on manual invoicing systems—can speed up invoicing and payment cycles simply by taking a closer look at invoicing basics to eliminate wasted time. Because manual systems leave more room for error, it’s important to make sure every step of the process is running smoothly. A device company may, for example, be sending invoices quickly, but are they really reaching their intended destination? Verify that all customer information is up to date, and determine that you’re sending invoices to the person who can actually pay them. If customers have to pass along invoices to the appropriate employee, that could add valuable days to the payment cycle.

Another common invoicing issue is missing information. Of course, information that’s crucial to one client is simply a distraction to another. Get to know customers’ preferences and avoid delays due to accounting technicalities simply by asking new customers what they require on invoices. Do they need a purchase order number, or will your invoice number suffice? Is a detailed breakdown necessary, or will a general description of services or goods do? Perhaps they require your Employer Identification Number (EIN) on the invoice. Asking the right questions up front is free, and failing to do so can really cost you in the long run.

Because speed is so critical, many companies find real advantages in online invoicing and payment solutions. Online invoicing automates manual processes and can eliminate mistakes such as incorrect invoice numbers or addition errors. Furthermore, it speeds up payment with e-mail invoices that offer a click-to-pay button and a choice of electronic payment options, such as credit and debit cards, ACH, and eChecks. Online solutions will also deposit payments directly into your account, bypassing the need to deposit checks or wait for funds to clear. If you’re interested in an online payment method, keep your specific needs in mind, because not all solutions are equal. Look for those, for example, that offer multiple online payment options, and don’t forget to ask about compatibility with any invoicing software you currently use. You may also want to look for a Web-based system that will be easy to use from the office or from the road.

Whatever invoicing system a device company uses, it must be overseen by someone who is actively and consistently minding the books to give the necessary focus to its accounting practices. Designate or hire a reliable bookkeeper, accountant, or even CFO who works on a contract basis to handle accounts receivable functions. This employee’s job will be to approve credit, if applicable, make collection calls, receive payments, and make deposits. By taking this active step towards strong accounts receivables, you’ll take a major step towards stronger cash flow.

Ready for Meaningful Changes

With a designated bookkeeper in place, it will be easier to tend to the kinds of details that can speed payment, such as establishing a proper document trail and timely collection calls. For future reference, the bookkeeper should document all communications with customers regarding invoices and record all requested changes in writing. If it’s necessary to follow up on late payments, these records will provide documentation. The bookkeeper should also be sure to have an organized system for tracking overdue invoices so that Accounts Receivable can follow up immediately on outstanding debts. When dealing with overdue payments, it’s wise to take a matter-of-fact approach and assume good intentions on the part of your customers, because it’s always possible that there may simply be a misunderstanding. In any case, all collection calls should end with an agreement on a payment date and a specific amount.

Once a device company is able to see beyond the illusion that the customer is in the position of power when it comes to payments, the company can make meaningful changes. Armed with solid strategies for accelerating payment, it’s now up to executive management to put this knowledge into practice with a consistent routine. Whether you or someone else on your staff deals with invoicing, make sure that you stick to a plan. Because knowledge and good intentions won’t help to prompt quicker payments—but a diligent routine of smart invoicing practices will.

Mary Ann Reilly is senior vice president at American Express OPEN, a leading issuer of card products for small business owners. She may be reached at [email protected]

AdvaMed Spends for Medtech Industry

The organization's efforts were spurred by several significant issues. The first is healthcare reform, which dominated headlines for months. Another is federal preemption—AdvaMed sought to keep federal law that protects device makers from being sued in personal injury lawsuits from being overturned by Congress. Finally, AdvaMed lobbied to protect the 510(k) clearance program, which if overhauled could make it harder to get new devices on the market in a cost-efficient manner, the group says.