This Star Trek-Inspired Device Could Disrupt Modern Health Care
BY Eric Markowitz
Scanadu, a Silicon Valley start-up, is developing a device that turns your smartphone into a mobile hospital.
Perhaps few entrepreneurs in the world today revel in the impossible as much as Walter De Brouwer, the 55-year-old Belgian self-described anarchist with a Ph.D. in semiotics who believes he can disrupt the entire health care industry with a tiny device inspired by Star Trek.
De Brouwer began his career in the 1970s as an academic, teaching linguistics at the University of Antwerp. In 1989, De Brouwer left academia and started publishing personal-computer magazines--including Wave, a magazine for cyberpunks--throughout Europe. In 1994, he sold his magazine business to VNU, the Dutch publishing house.
Then, in 1996, things really started getting interesting. De Brouwer founded Starlab NV/SA, a multidisciplinary laboratory in Brussels where about 130 scientists worked on various projects, encompassing bits of everything from time travel to neuroscience. The lab was once described as a place where scientists "think thoughts that have never been thought before."
In 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst, Starlab shut down, but his experience there--which he describes as "deep future research"--inspired him to continue to think outside the box.
Eleven years later, he's in Inc.'s offices, sitting on our café couch, with a small, rectangular device called the Scout angled to point directly at his forehead--his temple, to be precise. This prototype--designed by Yves Behar--is currently scanning his heart rate, his temperature, and other vital signs. The device is tethered to his iPhone and is designed to, in about 10 seconds, populate the screen with a series of readings that will determine his overall health. (It does, and he's fine.)
The technology packed into the device is complex, but De Brouwer's goal is simple: "We want to disrupt health care," he says.
Back in 2005, De Brouwer's son fell out of a window 36 feet above ground. He suffered serious brain trauma and spent three months in an intensive care unit. At the time, De Brouwer was enjoying a relatively quiet retirement--after having sold two Web start-ups, he could afford to finally relax. But his son's accident changed him.
"My wife said to me, 'I want you to do one thing: Fix him,'" he says. "I was well-educated, but I didn't know anything about health care."
While his son was in the hospital, De Brouwer began writing down the names of all the medical equipment in the room. He'd call the manufacturers of the company and ask them to explain how the machines work. To speak to the right people, sometimes he claimed to work for a hospital. Eventually, he says, "I started to understand how it all worked together and how it created reports about the patients."
After several years of research, in 2011 De Brouwer launched Scanadu, a start-up he believes can be instrumental in solving one of modern health care's major flaws: that humans rely too heavily on the expertise of doctors and not nearly enough on data.
"The consumer is completely powerless," he says. "Nobody understands what's going on."
The Scanadu Scout is connected to the Internet and can access a vast database of medical conditions. According to the company, it scans at 99% accuracy and reads more than five vital signs, including pulse-transit time, heart rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, blood oxygenation, and more. The device will cost about $150 and be available by the end of 2013. The team has raised $2 million from a series of angel investors, and the company is based in NASA Research Park in Mountain View, California, not far from Google's headquarters.
Scanadu will also have anonymized access to all of its users' health data, which can be used for epidemiology--the study of the patterns of health and disease in defined geographic areas. Asked whether that might concern some users, De Brouwer is straightforward: "People have a duty to donate their data to epidemiology."
With a team of 20 full-time employees, some of whom are Ph.D.s and medical doctors, Scanadu is also co-developing two other products.
The first is Project ScanaFlo, an early diagnostic tool that uses the smartphone as a urine-analysis reader to check for pregnancy complications, gestational diabetes, and kidney failure. The other is Scanaflu, an upper respiratory infection tool that uses the smartphone as a reader to determine if you have Strep A, Influenza A, Influenza B, adenovirus, or RSV--a common, cold-like virus.
If this idea sounds familiar--OK, even vaguely familiar--that's because De Brouwer was inspired by the Star Trek Tricorder, a handheld device that could examine living things and offer data on activity imperceptible to the human eye.
De Brouwer fully recognizes that many in health care--doctors, especially--would be skeptical of the accuracy of such a device.
"They're intrigued," he tells me. "And they would like to try a device."
Ultimately, De Brouwer knows that for the scanner to achieve wide-scale adoption, consumers must be convinced it can accurately diagnose their conditions. To do so, Scanadu will be working closely with doctors and hospitals to explain the device's functionality.
"The doctors must be on our side," he says. "The only way to win is be the referee."