It was less than a year ago that we first wrote about Scanadu's ambitions of building a Star Trek-worthy medical tricorder—a handheld device that can quickly record vital signs and diagnose diseases. At the time, co-founder Misha Chellam estimated that a prototype tricorder would be ready by the end of 2012. This week, the NASA-Ames Research Center-based startup, announced that it will have a prototype that meets that deadline.
The Scanadu SCOUT is incredibly easy to use—just raise the handheld device (connected by Bluetooth to a smartphone) to your temple, and wait 10 seconds for it to scan your vital signs, including temperature, ECG, SPO2, heart rate, breathing rate, and pulse transit time (that helps measure blood pressure). "It lets the consumer explore all the diagnostic possibilities of an emergency room," explains co-founder Walter De Brouwer, a Belgian futurist and entrepreneur who first prototyped a backpack-sized tricorder-like device in the late 1990s.
The device, which will retail for under $150, was surprisingly difficult to build. "It didn’t seem like a complex problem in the beginning," laughs De Brouwer. "I’ve done many scientific projects in my life, and this was the most difficult of them all. Basically you are up against a time budget and real estate which is very limited."
Think about it: When you take your blood pressure, it’s usually with a cuff on your arm. Temperature is often taken under the armpit or in the mouth. When was the last you measured either of these things at your temple? As De Brouwer explains, "If you take your heart rate on your heart, the signal is pretty clear. When you do it in another position of the body, you have to take that signal from far away." But Scanadu’s team pulled it off; the device gets all the information from one point on your temple, and only needs to scan the body for 10 seconds to get a 99% accuracy rate.
Perhaps even more important than the device itself is the way that users interact with it. A free smartphone app records all readings taken so you can see when something looks out of the ordinary. The app has a color rating system—if your breathing rate is out of control, for example, you’ll see red. Scanadu is also working on an "economical system" that lets users send data to their doctors (many of whom may not know what to do with so much data, but that’s another story).
"We really want to show people their health stream. You go to a doctor and you get data points. You probably forget about them," says De Brouwer. "But in this time of personalized readings we should have personalized parameters. What is a fever for me might not be a fever for you."
In addition to the SCOUT, Scanadu is working on two other products: ScanaFlo and ScanaFlu. The ScanaFlo is a urine analysis system for pregnant women that checks for complications (preeclampsia, diabetes) throughout the pregnancy. The device can also check for urinary tract infections. It consists of 20 cartridges that can be dipped in urine; all data is sent back to the Scanadu app. The ScanaFlu is a saliva test that checks for—you guessed it—the flu (and other upper respiratory infections).
Scanadu is in the running for the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, which asks entrants to create a device that can capture "key health metrics" and diagnose 15 diseases, including step throat, diabetes, and anemia. Another competitor, Senstore, recently launched a Virtual Nurse app.
De Brouwer, for his part, believes that Scanadu has created a primitive tricorder. "This is the smart thermometer which incorporates a complete emergency room," he says. "It’s connected to the Internet, interactive, it gives you personal analytics—it’s a superheroic thermometer."
The three products—SCOUT, ScanaFlo, and ScanaFlu—will all be released by the end of 2013.