Five years ago, Dr. Sonny Kohli found himself in the dust of post-earthquake Haiti with a couple of engineers cobbling together a 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) machine with guitar strings when he thought: "I could really use a tricorder right about now." A fan of the original Star Trek series, he'd always been a great admirer of Dr. Leonard McCoy's frontier medicine approach, unafraid to step into what the Canadian-born Dr. Kohli calls "a dog's breakfast of problems" and roll up his sleeves. "I was working in what was their most modern hospital at the time by default since the rest of them had been destroyed. There was a lady who came in who was a smoker, [she’d] had angina previously, and was having chest pains. The first thing you think is, ‘Are they having a heart attack?’ And the first tool a physician utilizes is a 12-lead ECG: we capture the electrical activity of the heart using 12 different stickers that go on the chest and arms—and while that's something considered standard-issue in the Western world, we didn't have one available. Fortunately, I met two engineers there who happened to be volunteering who said 'Hey, we'll help you MacGyver this broken ECG machine with guitar string.' We were able to diagnose her not with a heart attack, but a related condition that we could treat in Haiti. Afterward, over very cheap Haitian beer, we were sitting around saying, 'The world needs a tricorder; let's start with a 12-lead ECG.'"
"There are so many use cases for a tricorder," says Dr. Kohli. "If, for instance, I were to take off my doctor hat and just be a father: checking on my children, or on my parents who live 4,000 miles away, being able to do things remotely and throw up flags if their vital signs are off or a disease ends up being positive—that would be very cool to me. Or just as a person: here in Canada, we have public health care, and sometimes there are long waits at the clinic or the ER, and we don't want to burden the system unnecessarily; there's a rationale for wanting to be able to check yourself out at home. And then when I put on my doctor hat, I've got a million and one use cases: in disaster zones, in remote areas, even in space." As a flight surgeon and one-time finalist candidate for the Canadian Space Agency's astronaut program, Dr. Kohli is delighted to see interest in Cloud DX's technology from companies in the suborbital and space tourism fields.
"I would love to let hospital patients be mobile instead of sticking them to a hospital bed with wires all over them that tether them to a monitor," says Dr. Kohli. "They'd come to the hospital and we'd be able to say, 'You know what, you may have an issue, so we're going to connect you to this device and you can go about your day. You can leave the hospital wearing this device, and we'll get the data we need in real time and run it through analytics in the cloud that can pick up disease; we'll alert you whenever there's a problem and tell you to come back for your treatment.' The next thing you know, we've made hospitals virtual; we've offloaded the system and saved it lots of money—and we've also improved people's lives because they're not stuck in a bed." Cloud-based tricorder technology would be useful in hospitals, too, he points out, especially for anyone like him, who runs an intensive care unit. "They're the sickest of the sick patients, and when they get transferred to radiology for a test or the OR for surgery, often there's times where I don't know what's going on with them. Giving them a wearable device that knows their vitals no matter where they are in the hospital could turn my desk into something like an airport terminal monitor: I'd know the status of every one of my patients, where they are, where they're going, and what their vital signs are doing, so I could stamp out diseases and detect problems early."
The biggest challenge, Dr. Kohli thinks, is "helping the world embrace the concept that this is actually possible. When you walk into a hospital and ask the average physician: is this possible? Can a handheld device do all this? A lot of them will still say 'Are you crazy? No way, I wouldn't trust it.'" He compares it to doing your banking by smartphone: "Ten years ago it wasn't even heard of; we were all still going to the bank for these transactions. And now, I can't remember the last time I went to a bank—I do everything from home! Once trust was built and there was mass adoption, it just became a part of the fabric of life, and we have to go through the same transition."
He's proud of what his team's accomplished so far. "When we started out we had no money, no team; our tricorder was purely conceptual. But we just kept plugging away, and six months later, we submitted our application. We had a very preliminary prototype that was basically a bag of wires and electronic bones. We put together a really amazing team, all the more amazing since none of us were in the same building at the same time: we all had day jobs because we couldn't afford to do this full-time."
One example of Cloud DX's tenacity, says Dr. Kohli, is his sister-in-law, Sara. "How were we going to find an advanced programmer who could take these concepts, create the code, put it in an app, test it, and have it log to the cloud? We were asking people to do something that had never been done before — especially at a high sampling rate. A month before the deadline, Sara found herself out of work, and she's such a workhorse that instead of taking the time off, she worked 100 hours a week on this project for free: she took over and didn't sleep, she lived and breathed it and got it all coded and tested out, and to this day she's working pro bono, it's amazing. Those are the types of things that are happening with us. We've persevered, and if things go as we expect, we'll create the world's first tricorder. Even if it doesn't win the competition, it'll definitely go to market and save lives."
Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.
XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.
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