Consumer Physics' Kickstarter campaign shows that not all crowd funding has to be a dishonest mystery

By James Robinson , written on April 30, 2014

From The News Desk

As soon as the Kickstarter-campaign for the handheld SCiO molecular sensor went live yesterday – launched by Tel Aviv-based Consumer Physics – I started receiving messages calling scam. The SCiO is a small infrared spectrometer that scans foods and supplies a breakdown to an app of their nutritional information. It's identical to what Tellspec set out to do on Indiegogo, raising $386,392 in dishonest fashion with little idea about how to put the technology into action.

The technology's potential is obvious. It's why TellSpec did so well. Consumer Physics flew past its $200,000 funding goal in 20 hours. But people have a sensitivity toward crowdfunded, groundbreaking technology right now. After over a month of reporting on companies like Healbe and Tellspec, I get it.

What made me smile here, was that a week before the Consumer Physics Kickstarter campaign had gone live, they’d invited me to see, touch and try the device out with my own hands. Straightforwardness and transparency are pretty easy goals. The SCiO campaign is a small lesson in crowdfunding done well, whatever may come of the product.

Unlike a conceptual device, it’s really simple to demonstrate a working thing. Consumer Physics CEO Dror Sharon shows me how to use it, holding the laser up to a piece of cheese, pressing a button that emits a blue light for a few seconds and then transmits results to an app on his phone. Then it is my turn to play with it, unimpeded. I use it on various cheeses, an apple and a cherry tomato. The results are mostly accurate. It works on pharmaceuticals too and can tell me the difference between Pfizer Liquid Gels and Advil. I had been encouraged to bring my own foods in, but I was too disorganized.

After a month of trying to find someone outside of Healbe who could vouch for having seen their miracle calorie counting wristband work, I chuckle at how easy it is to prove something works. People with working products don’t have anything to hide.

Sharon sees the SCiO as functioning as a “Google for the physical environment.” The spectrometer in the small device serves as a scanner, measuring particle vibrations and relaying a physical fingerprint to the cloud, where it is matched against a library of data to calculate nutritional information. The SCiO could help me with my diet, assist me in finding ripe fruit, or discern the origin of medications in third world countries.

“When we started making this we were thinking about how the smartphone was smart, but it can’t tell you anything about your physical environment,” Sharon says.

The SCiO device could be huge. But unlike some of its miracle crowdfunding contemporaries, Consumer Physics founders have been steeped for years in this technology. Sharon has an MBA from Harvard Business School and has a degree in electrical engineering from The Technion in Israel. He has run two optics startups. His co-founder, Damian Goldring has a PhD in silicon photonics. One of the company’s original seed investors, Dov Moran, has a long history in biotechnology.

Sharon and Goldring have been developing the SCiO for three years, Sharon says. Rather than miniaturize a much larger spectrometer, they’ve built one from the ground up. To do this, they’ve taken in $1.9 million in seed and series A financing, led by Khosla Ventures.

A product that can be easily demonstrated, from founders who have the qualifications and expertise to make such a thing. Honesty can sometimes seem boring.

Not that there aren't problems. Sharon shows me what the finished SCiO will look like, a mock up of a small silver device that looks like a big flash drive. The device I’m using is different, fractionally bigger than the one he promises to deliver to Kickstarter supporters by December. Sharon has on hand the smaller spectrometer that will be used in the final device, but he says the rest of the design must still be miniaturized around it.

“I’m very comfortable with the technology,” Sharon says. “Manufacturing can always be an issue, though.”

The readings from the SCiO are approximates, there’s still a small margin of error. Most of the readings I get come in within five or ten percent of the actual nutritional information on the label. For fruit and vegetables, which differ infinitely from piece to piece, it works mostly to gauge sweetness. Its pharmaceutical analysis is exact, Sharon says, but there it is working with a standardized product and a set library of data.

You could take small issue with the fact that, as venture a backed technology, Consumer Physics doesn’t really need the money. Kickstarter or not, this is getting to market, eventually. Sharon says that the campaign’s major function is to try and engage with developers and early adopters to create their own add ons.

There are no sure bets in crowdfunding, but there are common courtesies. After spending a month fighting with Healbe to get them to open up about its product's stage of development – before raising a million dollars toward the project without ever demonstrating a working prototype – SCiO’s launch reminded me that while crowdfunding is always a risk, it isn’t that much of a puzzle to work out.

As SCiO’s campaign demonstrates, if you can check off a few key boxes before throwing some money in, risk can be minimized markedly: is there a product we can see working? A founder with a professional history that makes sense given what they’re claiming to have made? A transparent timeline of development and delivery? It's a bit like paint by numbers, but for trust.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]