Even if your knowledge of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE has been erased due to an unfortunate encounter with the Satarrans, chances are good you've heard of Scanadu. Covered extensively by Fortune magazine, The New York Times, Wired and the Wall Street Journal, Scanadu first made headlines a couple years ago for its record-breaking Indiegogo campaign to fund the Scout, one of the main components to be delivered as part of its entry for the XPRIZE competition.
Scanadu happens to be based at NASA Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley, not far from where I live, so I decided it was time I pay an in-person visit to one of the competition’s finalists. After a brief tour of sunlit rooms crammed with computers and equipment of all kinds, I sat down for a fascinating interview with Scanadu co-founder and CEO Walter De Brouwer.
Every competition needs its first competitor, and Scanadu might've broken another record for speed. "For people who fall into the health care system," De Brouwer explained, "there's a parallel world in which they mean nothing. They have no information, no tools, and their importance is effaced; they're treated like babies. I thought: There's so much we've achieved as a species — why are we not weaponized against this world? The only thing I could think of, the most important, magical device, was the tricorder. I came to Silicon Valley because I wanted to follow a course at Singularity University called FutureMed, which was a total immersion in the future of medicine. [XPRIZE founder and chairman] Peter Diamandis was there, and I got to introduce myself. I said, 'I'm a card-carrying member of the Baby Boom generation, and I think it's my duty to come to Silicon Valley and make the tricorder.' Peter didn't say anything, and I thought: Well, apparently nobody thinks it's a big deal. That same evening, there was a big surprise party where they launched the [Qualcomm] Tricorder XPRIZE. I said, 'This is a sign from heaven! I have to do this now!' So my first investors were the people who I sat in that course with, and that's how it started."
Baby Boomers, De Brouwer said, are Scanadu's target market, at least in the U.S. "My metaphor is always the bacon and egg sandwich: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed." He elaborated: "The people who run around with fitness trackers aren't committed, they're just involved; it's a hobby. If you're committed, you're monitoring or taking care of at least one syndrome. In the United States, that mostly means cardiovascular conditions: blood pressure, atherosclerosis. It's an aging population, a committed and captive audience."
Asked what he thought the world would be like 10 years from now when everyone has a medical tricorder, De Brouwer smiled: "Ten years from now when you fall down, the doctors will rush to you and take your phone, not ask you what's wrong. We'll all have total information in our own mobile device that will connect to our own cloud; we'll have the raw data. A new market will emerge for the interpretation of that data: doctors, data scientists, advisors — a bit like private banking." After a pause, he went on: "I also think something more will happen that may be hard to understand now. Our systems have homeostasis; when there's a disease, our body tries to get in balance again, and after a couple of days we recover. But when we create a device to see how our body performs, we also create a neural feedback loop: we do little things, make little plans and decisions. Not only do we actually live longer, but it has the implication that data cures. There's a medical box in our body; there can also be one in our phones. I believe in that neuronal feedback loop where data can be a curative agent."
Scanadu made the news more recently when it announced it joined forces with Intelesens, a fellow prize entrant from Ireland. "We considered them a real competitor," De Brouwer mused, "and they us. In the last meeting we had in Chicago a year ago, we just said, 'Why don't we do this together?'" An exemplar of its Silicon Valley roots, Scanadu placed a lot of emphasis on user experience and design along with wet labs and biochemistry. "We're a full-stack company here," De Brouwer chuckled. Intelesens brought expertise in continuous monitoring, vital for hospitals and outpatient services. The collaboration has been challenging , but immensely rewarding. "This is going to be a wakeup call for the world," said De Brouwer expansively. "With the existing technology, people who are not rich or big corporations came together with academics from Ireland and made something — and it works."
One of the highlights of the last few years, De Brouwer confided, was that his work gave him the chance to meet one of his childhood heroes: Leonard Nimoy. "His imagination was uninterrupted by reality," he recalled: one day, after a long lunch that became a dinner, replete with fine wines, "I asked, 'Leonard, do you think we're perhaps too optimistic?' He was always a very serious man: 'Never,' he said, and smiled."
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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