In 1895, to fuel his zeal for conquest, Napoleon offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a method to preserve food to sustain his army on the long march to Russia. Inspired by the challenge, as well as the prize money, an unknown confectioner named Nicolas Appert invented the canning methods that are still largely in use today.
Throughout history, prizes have been used to create important breakthroughs. The British Longitude prize revolutionized navigation at sea and the Orteig prize led to Lindbergh's famous crossing of the Atlantic. Today, we have the XPRIZE foundation, which offers rewards for everything from space flight to oil cleanup.
The most recent award, for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, based on the famous Star Trek device, challenged teams to create a mobile device that can "diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians." The winners were a team of middle-aged brothers and sisters, which got their start as kids watching science fiction and tinkering together.
Growing Up Harris
Growing up in a quiet suburb outside Philadelphia, the Harris family was much like any other, except for their unusual hobbies. Their father, a engineering professor at Drexel University, encouraged the kids to take on projects and the rambunctious brood of three boys and two girls didn't need much prodding.
"We basically built anything that could move really fast or blow up," Basil Harris, an emergency physician with a PhD in engineering, told me. Even as adults, some of their fondest memories were working on projects together as kids. So when he saw the announcement about the Qualcomm Tricorder challenge, he knew exactly what to do -- email his brothers.
"I basically said, 'We can do this. It shouldn't take too long. I do this kind of diagnostic stuff in the ER everyday. We just need to code it,'" Basil remembers. His older brother George, a software engineer, signed on immediately and before long, he was making the long trip from North Jersey to Basil's suburban Philadelphia home to work on the project.
That was back in early 2013. As it turned out, it wasn't quite as easy as Basil first imagined, but with incredible ingenuity, no small amount of persistence and, of course, his family, he was about to have the adventure of a lifetime.
Building A Model
The initial task was to build a vision of how a real world tricorder would work. "At first it was kind of a thought experiment," Basil says. "We had spreadsheets taped together that we would unroll on the floor trying to designate every minute detail of what a doctor would need to know to make a diagnosis and how we could teach the software to do that."
This, incidentally was the opposite of the approach that most teams took. Most started with a vision of what the hardware would look like and figure out how to interpret the results later. For the Harrises though, the method best matched what Basil did at the hospital, figuring out the tests that are needed and then going from there.
It was tough, painstaking work, but they were having fun. Every once in awhile Basil's daughter would walk by and remark that she hadn't seen her uncle George move for hours and wonder if he was okay. But they felt they were making progress, so they kept at it.
Iterating A Prototype
Designing how the software should work was one thing, but getting to a device that could process signals to feed that software was another matter altogether. Luckily, their brother Gus got his Masters degree in electrical engineering before he went to medical school to become a urologist, so they started calling him up and peppering with questions.
"I started making some simple circuits and things and kept asking Gus questions," Basil says. Finally I wore him down and he decided he wanted in."
So now that the three brothers were working together on the project, their little sister Julia, a health policy expert, decided that she would join in the fun. Eventually, two boyhood friends, Phil Charron and Andy Singer as well as, Ed Hepler, an electrical engineer, rounded out the team.
What they came up with was a kit of five devices that could all connect to an iPad or iPhone:
- A wrist strap with a finger sensor to monitor pulse, blood pressure and body temperature, as well as do non-invasive blood analysis to evaluate, glucose, hemoglobin, white cell counts, oxygen saturation.
- A urine kit with a small strip that could be analyzed using the camera on the mobile device.
- A chest patch that could perform continuous EKG readings and also monitor heart rate and respiratory rate.
- A digital stethoscope to analyze for wheezing or fluid in the lungs.
- A spirometer to measure how well the lungs are functioning and detect for diseases like COPD and asthma.
By the end of 2016, after they had spent more than two years in development and had sent all of their documentation and data to the XPRIZE committee, the Harrises and their friends were announced as finalists. In April of 2017, it was announced that they had won first prize.
A Vision For The Future
What started out as a fun project, much like the go-carts, swings and other contraptions the Harris family built together as kids, now has the makings of a serious business. A company, called Basil Leaf Technologies, has been formed to commercialize the work of the XPRIZE winning team."We started this mainly for fun, but now the real work begins, Basil says."
The first step is to enter clinical trials for the wrist sensor that can act as a non-invasive blood monitor, which the team hopes to get pre-market approvals for in 2018. They will also pursue clinical trials for the urine kit, but may partner with other companies for the digital stethoscope and the chest sensor. They think the spirometer can be augmented to detect illness by analyzing particles in patients' breath.
"My goal is for this technology is to extend doctors, not replace them," Basil Harris told me. "Even The Enterprise had Dr. McCoy. So we're working very hard to do the clinical trials and other things we need to get it accepted by the medical community and by patients, so that it can make medical professionals more productive, bring down costs and keep people healthy."
For most people, this would seem like a quixotic dream. For the Harrises though, it's just family fun.