My meeting with Scanadu’s Walter de Brouwer was preceded by tragedy. I was initially interested in Scanadu, a healthcare-related hardware and software maker, because of the problems I’ve encountered during my father’s hospital stay. de Brouwer founded his company after his son fell out of a window and left the hospital with vertical paralysis and global aphasia.
That was in 2010. This experience motivated de Brouwer, who previously acted as CEO of One Laptop Per Child Europe and founded numerous companies before abandoning the Valley after the dot-com bust, to re-enter the technology ecosystem. He uprooted his family from Brussels, where he had “taken over a small banking company and turned it into a big one” after the bubble burst, came back to the Valley, and went to work. Scanadu, which is based at the NASA-Ames Research Center, is the culmination of those efforts.
Backed by angel investors, the company is developing products that will make it easier for the average person to monitor and communicate their health with affordable, technologically-savvy devices. Scanadu’s first product, the Scanadu Scout, is a Yves Behar-designed sensor that measures the user’s temperature, heart rate, pulse transit time, electrical heart activity, blood oxygenation, and heart rate variability. The hope is that gathering all of this information with this ultra-glossy pebble will allow people to get a better idea of what is happening with their own bodies.
De Brouwer demonstrated Scout for me in the middle of a crowded SoHo Starbucks, offering a peek into his vital statistics right on his iPhone. His resting heart rate – 96 – was a little high, but that’s understandable given the noise level, the traffic that delayed our meeting, and perhaps the general excitement that comes from showing off a new toy to an interested stranger.
“This is basically what you have in an emergency room,” de Brouwer says. Instead of being poked, prodded, and asked to stick various tubes under your tongue, however, with Scout all you have to do is press it against your left temple. It’s supposed to quantify and transmit all of these measurements within 10 seconds, but our impromptu Starbucks demonstration took a bit longer, since, he explained, it was a prototype.
Scout has significantly changed since Scanadu’s inception. While it was always meant to gather and share information, Scout is much more capable than it was at the beginning of this year, when it resembled a sort-of smart thermometer.
Beyond its data-gathering capabilities, Scout is designed to make it easier for users to share their information with doctors and family members. By making this data shareable, Scout can make it easier for patients to know when they should see a doctor and allow them to better communicate their medical history once they’re in the office. Instead of measuring your heart rate (and all of the other things mentioned above) once every few months or years and attempting to get a holistic view of your heart’s health with such little data, doctors will be able to view patterns and gradual changes.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Scout is its ability to quickly and efficiently communicate general health to family members. Using my grandfather as an example: The man, who has diabetes, has had four heart attacks and two strokes in the last few years. Asking him how he’s doing is less of a casual question than a thinly-veiled attempt to figure out whether or not his heart is going to explode. Unfortunately, asking how he’s doing, whether he went to the doctor, and what the doctor said is a total crapshoot – often he doesn’t remember or he “fibs” a little to put everyone’s mind at ease.
Interestingly enough, the measurement that matters the most, his blood-glucose level, is the easiest for my grandfather to measure. All of those commercials promising a faster, painless experience are only half-lying: The amount of blood and levels of pain associated with checking “your sugar,” as my grandfather puts it, have dramatically fallen over the last decades. (Anyone who tells you that it doesn’t hurt at all is lying, by the way. Believe me.) Scout doesn’t measure blood-glucose levels – not yet, anyway – but it’s taking the “smaller, better, faster, stronger” attitude of
Daft Punk and Kanye West the industry and applying it to damned near any other measurable vital statistic.
If my grandfather were the smartphone-wielding type and remembered to use Scout – and by “remembered” I mean “was badgered by his children until he caved and held the damn thing against his temple” – he could easily share this info with the rest of the clan. There’s no guesswork, no fumbling with hearing aids; pertinent data is shared, and that’s it.
Scanadu is also working on two other devices, the Scanaflu and Scanaflo.The Scanaflu, tests the user’s saliva to check for Influenza A, Influenza B, Strep A, Adenovirus, RSV, and potentially two other upper-respiratory infections that the company is working to identify. Scanaflo checks for infections by testing the user’s urine. (Thankfully he didn’t have to demo this in our crowded Starbucks.)
Both products will be disposable (the company is still prototyping and getting the technology ready for primetime, so whether or not this means that the entire device will be thrown away remains to be seen) and work with an iPhone app to help users figure out what exactly is ailing them. The app scans the products – they use QR codes – and offers a binary “yes, this is the disease you are afflicted with,” or “you’re fine, quit whining,” albeit with slightly different language. Instead of coughing, hacking, or doing any of the gross things you do with infections that can be found in urine, these products offer immediate answers to a simple question – “what’s wrong with me?”
Scanaflu, Scanaflo, and Scout are all in the prototyping stages, and the company says that they should become available in late 2013. Scout is expected to retail for around $150, and both the Scanaflo and Scanaflu will be priced appropriately for their disposable nature. De Brouwer says that Scanadu has a “good relationship” with Walmart – which is often code for “we’re striking a deal, or have struck a deal, but we’ve been asked not to kiss and tell” – and that he expects Scanadu’s products will certainly get on retailers’ shelves.
It’s hard to not be excited by de Brouwer’s vision for Scanadu. He has taken a personal tragedy and combined it with his decades of experience to tackle some genuine problems plaguing healthcare. Whether it’s measuring many of the body’s mission-critical statistics, making that data easier to share, or offering a cheap way for people to find out what is ailing them, the company is clearly being overseen by someone who has dealt with all of healthcare’s pitfalls before.
The company is far from a guaranteed hit, though. Scanadu is facing the (un)holy trinity of fewer Series A deals; working in the healthcare industry, which can be difficult to traverse and break into; and building a hardware startup, which is much more difficult than building a software company.
If Scanadu does end up making it, it will likely be a result of de Brouwer’s prior experience, dumb luck, and how passionate he is about the company’s mission. De Brouwer wasn’t sure that his son would leave the hospital after his accident – now that he has, de Brouwer seems unlikely to abandon the lessons he learned in the waiting room.