Hardware spotlight: Scanadu, the real-life Star Trek Tricorder that’s being used by NASA

Star Trek Tricorder
Star Trek Tricorder

We live in a time where a Google search is a replacement for a trip to the doctor and apps are constantly launching to help people measure anything from their sleep rhythm to how many calories they’ve burned in a day.

Needless to say, consumer health tech is a lucrative field with huge market potential. That’s something Walter DeBrouwer discovered first-hand when he launched his Silicon Valley-based hardware startup Scanadu – it’s hit a massive €1.3m a month-and-a-half into its crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and is currently in the running for the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize, worth $10m. 


Inspired by Star Trek, DeBrouwer set out about making the show’s Tricorder – a fictional medical device that can diagnose diseases – a reality. The Scanadu Scout fits in the palm of your hand and, when you hold it to your temple for ten seconds, it measures your vital signs and analyses them via a smartphone app. Readings including temperature, respiratory rate, blood oxygen, heartrate, blood pressure, oximetry and stress. It can store infomation from multiple people and aims to act as a warning sign for illness or more serious problems.

We caught up with the Belgian founder to find out why they’ve decided to extend the crowdfunding campaign despite already receiving ten times as much as they initially aimed for and how a personal tragedy inspired Scanadu…

width="250"Hi Walter, what motivated you to launch Scanadu?

My son had an accident, which meant we spent a year in hospital, and I wanted normal people to have a medical tool in their hands to have more understanding of what is happening. That made me think of the Tricorder, the physical medical device from the 70s that was featured in Star Trek.

I didn’t have a medical background at all – in 2005, when I arrived in hospital I knew nothing about medicine. But when something happens to you or your kids or parents, you are deeply immersed in the hospital. Suddenly everything is real – it isn’t a layer, people are dying and everyone is stressed and in shock.

When you’re in that shock, you have to try and keep your wits together and try to understand what’s going on and what you can do to improve it. So first thing, when you are in an ICU or ER is the vital signs. They show you immediately where things are going wrong – the blood pressure is very low for example. And then you ask yourself “what is normal?” You look at other patients and try to piece it together like a puzzle. But you’re still dependant on the machines in that hospital room – when you leave, you have no idea.

So who is Scanadu aimed at? People who have been sick or have a long term illness?

No, the first people I thought of that could benefit from this are parents. Kids are chronically sick, there is always something wrong with them. Especially when they are little. So you go to the doctor, or the emergency room if it is a weekend, then you come back and you’ve lost a whole day because of this. The reduction of anxiety for parents would be enormous if we had something more than a thermometer to refer to. This is reflected in the demographics that have ordered the Scanadu Scout – 60 per cent are female, the mother is a key element in the family, she’s the healer of everyone.

width="200"Users hold the device to their temple for 10 seconds to measure their vital signs, why this time period?

We did a lot of surveys in the beginning and they revealed that the consumer is so devoid of any attention focus that he only gives you ten seconds of time to provide him with the information.

Congratulations on raising over $1m on Indiegogo – I see you’ve extended the funding until 20 July, why did you decide to do this?

For several reasons – firstly because in the beginning of the campaign it was focused on the US, mostly in New York and San Francisco. And suddenly, new countries started coming in – they are still coming in every day, we are still selling hundreds of units daily. By extending the crowdfunding campaign when get the chance to get more interest from more countries.

You initially aimed for $100,000 – has the funding exceeded your expectations?

Before we pushed the button it was really tense – we thought maybe we were crazy. Then suddenly everyone was ordering them, which was such a relief!

Why do an Indiegogo campaign and not go for the traditional VC route?

We didn’t know at first if we’d do it or not. We wanted to have more open conversations, we thought if we open it up to the crowds, new ideas might come out of it, plus we can get more feedback. It’s also a validation of the market – it shows how many people are out there who would buy this.

You’re originally from Belgium, why make the move to Silicon Valley for Scanadu?

Firstly, it was such a big idea. I’ve launched a lot of companies and businesses in Europe and it isn’t getting easier to do, because you don’t have big markets, you have smaller markets with different languages and no common law. Mainly, though, if an idea is really big it is more appreciated in Silicon Valley. In comparison, in Europe you get a lot of “oh, that cant be done”.  You come to Silicon Valley because you want to fight it out with the best. Competition is all around you. I change my mind every day because the competition changes every day. In Europe, people usually stick to a stable strategy for at least a year.

In the Valley, everything in healthcare is like frenemies – we are friends, but are competing for the same money, data, etc.

Next up is Scanaflo – run me through what that does?

So we sell disposable paddles in pack of five. People put one of the paddles in their urine and it immediately takes up all the values that you have in a professional lab. So you can see if your kidney or liver or urinary tract is healthy, it will also test for pregnancy. Using the camera on your smartphone, the Scanaflo app then automatically interprets the test results, stores them and explains them. 


You’ve gotten some big name partners on board – how did your collaboration with NASA happen?

I got to know NASA via the Singularity University. I went to a one-week FutureMed course in 2010 at NASA, it is sort of everything you need to know about high tech medicine condensed into one week, a total immersion course. While I was there I realised, for me,  the two sexiest worlds are space and medicine – and it would be great to combine them.

Medicine in space has a lot of things in common with consumer medicine, for example, you’re isolated in space like you are in ER – kind of like an astronaut, you realise you have to do it yourself because no one is going to save you. But an astronaut has one advantage, he has tools. He can figure things out himself and make his own decision. I thought, if the tools that an astronaut has could be put in a consumer device it would be incredibly useful. I talked to NASA and now we’re in a special programme they have for products that can benefit their space station.

Image credit Tricorder: Flickr user JD Hancock

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