The Race To Build A Star Trek-Worthy Medical Tricorder

In the future, you’ll be able to figure out what’s wrong with you (or your child) simply by scanning them with your cell phone. In the present, two companies are racing to make the first prototype.

The medical tricorder, a handheld device in the Star Trek universe used to diagnose diseases and keep track of vital signs, once seemed a sci-fi impossibility alongside teleportation and alien encounters. Not anymore. The $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, officially announced this week, challenges entrants to create mobile platform that can accurately diagnose 15 diseases across 30 patients in three days. We caught up with two startups—Senstore and Scanadu—that think they can pull it off.


Scanadu has been working on a non-invasive, non-contact, non-sampling (no saliva, urine, stool sample necessary) tricorder since before the X Prize challenge was announced. The startup, which raised $2 million in November, was only founded last January. But co-founder Walter De Brouwer set up a research lab in Belgium—Starlab—in the late 1990s, where he prototyped a tricorder-like device. It was too far ahead of its time. "It was the size of a backpack. It was an interesting idea but not really workable," explains Scanadu co-founder and COO Misha Chellam.

Then, in 2006, De Brouwer’s son suffered from a traumatic brain injury and was hospitalized for three months. The tricorder idea resurfaced. This time, De Brouwer, Chellam, and the rest of the nine-person Scanadu team (including two ex-NASA scientists and three bioengineers), are working on a sensor-filled medical tricorder that can be integrated into a smartphone.

The tricorder can be viewed broken into a few component pieces: a biological sensor input (i.e. exhaling your breath to allow the chemical components to be analyzed), vital signs, imaging components (used to identify a rash, for example), and the AI software that can make sense of all the inputs.

Chellam claims that a prototype will be ready by the end of 2012, and a commercial device will be ready in three years. How can Scanadu build such a futuristic concept so quickly? Much of the technology is already available or in the works—it’s mostly a matter of getting FDA approval, gaining consumer trust, and, of course, putting it all together without draining the smartphone’s battery,

Scanadu plans to first market the device to parents who want to manage their children’s health. The device—which Chellam speculates could cost around $199—could, for example, be used to detect whether an infection is bacterial or viral and monitor temperature while the user is asleep.

Despite its quick pace of development, Scanadu is still looking to collaborate. "There’s a lot of innovation in this space, and we certainly don’t think we can build this thing on our own," says Chellam.


That brings us to Senstore, another startup that’s working on a medical tricorder—but one that will be open source. Senstore got its start at Singularity University's 2011 summer graduate program, where the current Senstore team took on the challenge of using sensor technology to solve global health problems.

The team was inspired by a Singularity University talk from Chris Anderson of DIY Drones, a community of thousands of enthusiasts working on unmanned aerial vehicles. "It’s easy to see why people would want to build drones because playing with quadcopters is fun," notes Senstore co-founder Rachel Kamar. "We were less convinced that people would be interested in hacking our tools for health. We spent a lot of time trying to validate that."

Whereas Scanadu is building its tricorder in house, Senstore is creating a platform where people can collect sensor data and apply diagnostic algorithms. "The idea is that people closest to problems are going to have a set of tools that make it easy for them to prototype solutions," says Kalmar. It’s possible, then, that people will build multiple versions of the tricorder on top of Senstore’s platform—perhaps a malaria-specific tricorder or a tuberculosis tricorder.

Unlike Scanadu, Senstore probably won’t have a true tricorder prototype ready by the end of 2012. But the startup was recently accepted to the Rock Health accelerator, and in the spring, Senstore plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to build something "a little more consumer oriented, making it easy for people to get data from wearable sensors and stream it to the cloud," explains Kamar. Senstore hopes to have sensor kits available for people to experiment with by May.

It’s all a stepping stone along the path to creating a tricorder. When a polished version is finally built, don’t be surprised if it’s a mishmash of ideas from both Scanadu and Senstore. "We would like to collaborate," says Kalmar.

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