Channelling Star Trek, Scanadu CEO Explains His Vision for Bringing the Tricorder to Life

Posted by Brian Buntz on March 7, 2012

In 2006, Walter De Brouwer’s youngest son had suffered a severe brain accident. His son was rushed to a local intensive care unit and was kept there for ten weeks. “I got to know [hospital] institutions intimately well,” De Brouwer told Leslie Saxon, MD, in a recent interview that is part of USC’s Center for Body Computing seminar series. “And I saw what worked and what didn’t work. When you are sitting [in the ICU] 24/7, your mind wonders creatively how things could be made better—not only for you and your family but for everyone.”

ScanaduDe Brouwer saw the need to drive for technologies that help patients diagnose themselves—that is, he saw the need for do-it-yourself healthcare because patients have enormous potential to proactively improve their own health. The most underutilized resource in medicine is the patient, De Brouwer said in the interview.

As a Baby Boomer, De Brouwer was familiar with the concept of the tricorder: the autodiagnosing device from Star Trek fame. He decided to pursue the goal of developing a working tricorder and, as a result, moved with his family from Paris to Silicon Valley.

The Vision for the Device

To help develop the technology, De Brouwer formed a company called Scanadu and spent about a year doing market research, which led him to the conclusion that the device must “adhere to the rules of Hollywood in the sense that: it must be non-contact, non-invasive, non-sampling, and must not even expect any cooperation from the patient.”

“People don’t want to watch this device,” de Brouwer said. “They want the device to watch them.”

“People don’t want to watch this device,” de Brouwer said. “They want the device to watch them.”

With these goals in mind, De Brouwer set about assembling a team of employees. The Silicon Valley gave De Brouwer access to a talented employee basis who had “poetic faith” needed to carry this project forward. “[Silicon Valley] is a place where people choose to live because they are romantic and larger than life,” he said. And they invite you into their homes and into their offices to listen to your passion, he added. “They give you the willing suspension of disbelief.”

The company also has partnered with design firm IDEO, answer-engine maker WolframAlpha, branding firm the Fuseproject, the Singularity University, as well as USC’s Center for Body Computing.

A Race to Benefit Humankind

In the interview, Dr. Saxon explained how she viewed the Tricorder X Prize, which was launched this January, as an important part of the wireless landscape moving forward and its ability to foster friendly competition. At present, there are approximately 143 firms that are preregistered worldwide competing for the $10-million prize. According to the X Prize website, the winner of the award "will be the team that most accurately diagnoses a set of diseases independent of a healthcare professional or facility and that provides the best consumer user experience." The prize will be awarded in July 2015. 

The amount of human progress over the course of the last 100 years that has been inspired by competition is remarkable. To name but a few examples, there is the moonlanding, Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic, the voyages to the North and South Poles, and the sequencing of the human genome.

The X Prize is helping working in a similar manner to accelerate the rate of technological progress. “[The X Prize Foundation] were the first movers, the first responders to an unmet need,” De Brouwer said. “For me, the Tricorder X Prize was very important [...]. But now people that are 20, 25, and 30, now suddenly know what the tricorder is,” he explained. “This concept, which was a part of fiction, has become a reality. And people now know and they are waiting because they know it is in the making.”

De Brouwer has no doubts that the tricorder will become a real device in the relatively near future. “The stakes are so high, if this object of desire is created, everyone will buy it.” Developing it, however, will come with at a steep price. He expects the costs to be at least in the order of $100 million.

Last year, De Brouwer gave the above talk at TEDx, in which he describes his prescription for the healthcare system. In the talk, he says: “Our doctors have become drug dealers." They ask patients questions like: "What did I give you last time?" And "did you like it?"


The need for such a device is so high because of the high degree of frustration among patients. Traditionally, there has been a chasm between doctors and patients. “The world is divided into people who have white coats who have all of the knowledge and can also make mistakes, and people who don’t have white coats and don’t have any instruments or [nearly as much] knowledge.”

The disruption ifwill be powered by the “three D’s,” De Brouwer said: disintermediation, decentralization, and de-skilling. The disruption of healthcare will likely follow the precedent established by Google. Information has lost its power thanks to Google, De Brouwer said in the interview. “And I think that disruption can also benefit healthcare.” In the future, patients will have unprecedented information about themselves and to have the instruments needed to track their health. They will increasingly network with fellow patients, who become experts on their particular medical conditions.

The tricorder device Scanadu is working to develop is something like a Swiss Army knife of medical instruments. Such a device is vital because, at present, the only instrument most of us have in our homes is the thermometer. “Our children and grandchildren will think that this [situation] is unbelievable. That there was this generation who knew so much but knew so little about the most important factor of their life—their health,” De Brouwer said.

“The Future of Medical Devices Is Optics”

In doing their research, Scanadu realized the importance of optics in medtech. Humans are only able to see three colors: red, green, blue. But in order see beyond the spectrum people are familiar with, devices need to be developed that pick up vastly more optical data, which, by definition, must be numeric because it is not visible.

De Brouwer explained that it soon became apparent that it would be helpful to partner with “a number cruncher,” which he found in Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram. Scanadu is working to use Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha to integrate data generated from sensors and convert it into a “meaningful message to the consumer in real time.”

This video displays the concept behind Scanadu's vision of a tricorder-esque device.


Of Convergence, Regulatory Matters, and Big Data

As wireless technologies continue to advance at a rapid clip, the convergence of disparate increasingly specialized fields will grow ever more important, although it is admittedly no easy feat. “Only teams that celebrate convergence will succeed,” De Brouwer said. People with varied backgrounds such as doctors, engineers, physicists, economists, and designers will need to collaborate—as do people from different generations and genders.  

De Brouwer explained that he is unsure whether the tricorder device will be monitored by the FDA. The device, as it is now envisioned is a consumer product for recreational use, but that the agency might deem it worthy of regulation. He also said that personal meetings with representatives from the agency have been encouraging and that he holds the Innovation Pathway in high regard. “I have big hopes for FDA. They are organism that wants to evolve and they are particularly interested in this tricorder,” he said. 

As for "Big Data," one of Scanadu's central objectives will be to harness the power of data analytics to translate data into a meaningful diagnostic message for patients. Doctors accomplish this by listening to a patient, watching their body language, observing the symptom. A physician endeavors to "surround that symptom in order to [diagnose] a disease," De Brouwer said. "In Game Theory, this is called a surround strategy." 

It is still unclear at the moment just how effective machines could potentially be in diagnosis. "I think a machine can be as good as a carbon-based unit, as good as a human," De Brouwer said. "But can it do better? That we don’t know."

Brian Buntz is the editor-at-large at UBM Canon's medical group. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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