Somewhere in Philadelphia, there's a house full of tricorders. Literally. The living room, the dining room, even the kitchen is stuffed with computers, tools, testing equipment and 3D printed casings. The people working inside don't have a big lab or a fancy office space. They're Final Frontier Medical Devices, and they're a finalist team in the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition — all seven of them. Impressed? "My sister likes to say we're small, but mighty," the team’s founder chuckles. "Everyone has full-time jobs elsewhere, so this is a part-time gig for us, cobbling this together in our free hours."

Things get even more impressive when you find out exactly who this team’s founder is: he's Dr. Basil Harris, MD, PhD, FACEP.  Those last five letters means he's an ER doctor, and a damn good one. "It's just like you'd imagine any busy ER," Dr. Harris says of his work at Lankenau Medical Center in West Philly, "overrun, undersized, always busy. There's no downtime. You're lucky if you get to pause to go to the bathroom in a 12-hour stretch." So in his “free” time, this guy heads up a group building a working medical tricorder? "I'm the nut who had that idea," he grins.

Nuttiness of this type may run in the family. Dad is a retired engineer, but Dr. Harris credits much of his life's path to his brother Constantine "Gus" Harris, who was working on a PhD in electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before ditching it for the relaxing world of medical school; Gus is now a urologist and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Dr. Harris himself got his PhD in civil engineering before making a similar leap. "I gravitated towards emergency medicine because I didn't want to be completely focused on just one item; I loved the variety and the pace and the chaos of the emergency department. You take care of everything, and you have no clue what's coming through the door next; that's where I've been now for 10 years." Dr. Harris is joined on Final Frontier by another brother, George, and aforementioned sister, Julia, who holds a Masters of Public Health degree (clearly a family of lazy underachievers).

The members of Team Final Frontier Medical Devices, with Dr. Basil Harris in the center (photo credit: Russell Karten)

A few years ago, Dr. Harris found himself missing engineering and looking for a project that would get him back into the field. He ran across an article about the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE only six months into the competition, and went to his family excitedly. "I told them, 'Guys, you gotta check this out, it's completely doable, it's easy — we'll bang it out in a weekend!'" The competition has inspired not just his family, but also his entire team — some of whom aren't related to him. "I think we all share not just a passion for making stuff, but the vision itself," Dr. Harris muses. "This tricorder we're making is way ahead of the one that was in the series in a way: it's taking Dr. McCoy out of the equation. That's the hard part, that's the vision I have. This tricorder is something that's really going to help a lot of people. When I'm in the ER and people are coming in, it's not all trauma and gore and bleeding: most people that are coming in have some symptoms and they want some answers, they want to know what's going on with them. Mostly it's the kinds of diagnoses you see right on the competition list. This is the stuff people need help with, and they can't get help in a timely fashion — maybe it's the middle of the night, or they don't have a family doctor. When it's out there, this technology is going to really help people. Whether it's our device or someone else's, it doesn't matter. It's time! It's about time we had this."

Dr. Harris’ passion and that of his teammates has seen them through to the competition’s final round. "I'm really proud," he says. "I think we're ahead of most of the teams as far as the clinical aspects of this and how to assimilate all the data and know what to do with it. You've got to know what's important, how to put it into context with the clinical picture so you can achieve a real diagnosis; we're not just trying to amass huge amounts of data and trying to figure out what that means. It's not about big huge data, it's about smart data: data that's focused on what you need at the time, in context. That's how you make a diagnosis in the real world, and that's how the device does it." The team recently completed a validation study of the diagnostic engine powering DxtER™ ("Dexter"), their device, and presented the results at a meeting of Society of Academic Emergency Medicine a few months ago.
Tricorder prototypes ready for testing in the final phase of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE (photo credit: Ed Helper)

"This is a consumer product, not something that'd be in a doctor's office," Dr. Harris envisions. "What I get excited about is having this in someone's hands who's not medical and really be able to help them understand what their symptoms mean. It's more than just a diagnostic tool; it's really an educational tool that helps people know what's going on with their bodies and become healthier." What Dr. Harris wants, he says, is for DxtER and all of the competing devices to become trusted sources. "I want to be in the ER and have a patient come in saying 'I have a device, this DxtER at home, and it tells me I have pneumonia.' I want to be able to use that information and move forward with that patient. I want it to be trusted in the medical community, and that's a huge hurdle; that's why we started with this validation study and put it out into the medical literature. It's the first baby step towards that kind of trust."

And the team’s name? Dr. Harris is clearly a fan. "I was trying to imagine a company in the world of Star Trek that would be supplying and servicing tricorders for starships, space stations, and outposts. Who would you call to get some new tricorders for your ship? Just call Final Frontier Medical Devices and they’ll beam some new units over."

We're ready now: energize!


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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