“We're not in court to prove we're innocent.” I finally sit down with Indiegogo scampaigners, Healbe

By James Robinson , written on June 30, 2014

From The News Desk

"Proof, yeah… that is a tough piece for us."

Stanislav Povolotsky, co-founder of Healbe, is explaining the central problem with their “GoBe” miracle calorie counting wrist band, which I covered throughout its successful million dollar Indiegogo campaign. Namely, there’s no evidence that the device is anything other than an elaborate, if convincing, scam.

As the campaign ran through March and April, I spoke to countless medical, engineering and scientific experts who all but laughed the device out of the room “That’s some straight Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman bullshit,” Zubin Damania, a Stanford-educated doctor told me.

The company constantly failed to deliver promised proof of their device’s effectiveness, they constantly changed their origin story, their proposed delivery dates and their US PR company (Healbe claimed to be SF-based, but it turned out they were based in Moscow) did everything they could to thwart our attempts to get hold of a test device. In a bizarre twist, Indiegogo, faced with compelling evidence that their anti-fraud guarantee had failed in the case of Healbe, simply deleted the anti-fraud guarantee from their website.

Honestly, after all of that, I thought nothing Healbe might do next could possibly surprise me. But then they did something truly unexpected: founders Povolotsky and Artem Shipitsin contacted me through a new PR agency and said they were ready to talk.

And so it is I’m sitting in a Cupertino restaurant with Povolotsky, Shipitsin and Healbe’s retail distributor, Levin Consulting’s Bob Marcantonio.

Shipitsin is hunched in his chair and seems nervous. Marcantonio is clearly unimpressed with me. That’s okay though. I wouldn’t like me either if I were him.

Honestly, I’m nervous too. What other reason could they have to invite me to meet? They must finally have a working prototype to show off. This is their big “fuck you” moment to me: the moment when they slide a working GoBe across the table and force me to eat a calorifically-precise slice of humble pie.

But, no, what happens next is the biggest surprise of all: Not only is there no device to show me -- no evidence, really, that they have made much progress in getting a device out to the thousands of people who backed their campaign that will look anything like the scientific miracle they promised -- but they don’t even have any new explanations.

Shipitsin has arrived from China two days ago and will be heading back in another couple of days, he says. He has a GoBe on his wrist, a very old prototype that he still wears and offers to let me try on, but not actually test. I decline. I tell them that until I have one to test independently, I’m not much interested in seeing how it feels on my body.

The device, Shipitsin tells me, is currently scheduled to ship in August -- two months late. But, he admits, it could get pushed past that again. He shows me photos of the Healbe manufacturing line in Beijing. The new product has come on a long way from the crude photos of ripped open prototypes that emerged online in April. A polished circuit board is held in place with actual moulding now, not the crude, glue-like substance we saw two months ago.

Since opening up pre-sales on June 5th, Healbe has sold 1,000-extra units of the GoBe, mostly in Russia where Indiegogo isn’t popular, they say, adding $300,000 onto its $1.1 million Indiegogo haul.

Although Indiegogo refused to step in to protect its users, PayPal has decided to hold 30 percent of Healbe’s money, Shipitsin says, until the device ships.

Which brings us back to the question of proof. External tests are coming, they swear, although their original etimate of May and June for those results has come and gone. It takes longer to test things in the US than it does in Russia, Povolotsky says. He tells me that Sloan Kettering’s cancer center want to test the device, as does InterTech. Later, Sloan Kettering spokeswoman Andrea Baird tells me that “institutionally” there’s no record of any such conversation with Healbe and that it “usually doesn’t deal with that type of product.” InterTech didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Why didn’t they do independent testing of the device months ago, at prototype stage? Povolotsky explains that they only had four prototypes, each which cost around $7,000 to make, so they simply couldn’t spare them for testing. Shipitsin adds that they still had some problems with the device and didn’t want to be judged harshly on such an early version.

Marcontonio jumps in. He advocates a harsher line, that Healbe shouldn’t even have to publish any external tests to try and prove the magical calorie counting powers of the GoBe. “It's pretty common for these products to not have that early on external testing. And some may never. I would say that if you looked at 99 percent of the products that are on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, there's no validation to any of it,” he says.

And here’s where the conversation starts to get really interesting. Because, despite the entire sales pitch of the device being that it can monitor blood sugar to count calories, the company is now completely rolling back that claim.

“We don't measure blood sugar,” says Shipitsin, “We measure water balance between cells and outside cells.” In the Healbe literature, they always played up the two figures as one and the same.

Even taking them at their word, I put to them that working out caloric intake from this one reading -- supposing water balance can be a guide for glucose, which no scientist considers credible --  is like knowing only one factor in a very long algebra equation that is different for every single person who uses the GoBe.

Shipitsin accepts this. “Show me someone who does differently. I give you a prize,” he says.

GoBe is a “wellness” product, the company now says, not a medical device. It tracks your sleep, heart rate, hydration, also. Calories are just a small piece of its appeal, Shipitsin says.

Which is easy for them to say now, when they’ve banked a million dollars off the miracle claim of being the world’s first device to count your calories for you. The first line of Healbe’s Indiegogo page read as follows: “GoBe is the first and only wearable device that automatically measures the calories you consume and burn, through your skin.”

Now the company says its device doesn’t measure calories, and it’s certainly not doing so automatically. Marcantonio contends that the “automatic” piece is the “interaction with the user.” As in, the fact that it’s worn on the wrist.

It’s not clear that Shipitsin and Povolotsky realise that they’re admitting that their device doesn’t work, at least anywhere close to as-advertised.  “Maybe some experts look to our website and say this [doesn't] work. They base only on the website and they have a conclusion about our work,” Shipitsin says.

But no one had any other option in trying to assess your eye-popping claims, I contend.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Shipitsin says, seeming a little bored with my constantly badgering line of questioning.

So what’s next for Healbe? Marcantonio tells me that they’ve just come out of a meeting with a “high profile” retailer, and that I will likely be able to guess the name of the company given what town we’re currently in. It is obvious that they really want me to believe that they’ve just come from Apple. (Apple hasn’t responded to a request for comment to confirm the meeting.)

Povolotsky says that in this last meeting, their host tried on a Healbe and drank a can of Coke. A can has 140 calories. The Healbe read 120.

It is a strange boast, I say, that the Healbe can give me a rough, inaccurate estimate of something I could reach over and find out on a label. “But that’s the only thing. Unless you’re buying prepared meals, how would you know?” Shipitsin says.

Suddenly Shipitsin is back to his old self. Using figures that seem to be pulled from the top of his head, he says that the GoBe can estimate calories with 80 percent accuracy, but that manual calorie tracking has 50 percent accuracy. Ergo he thinks, I'm holding the Healbe to unjustly high standards.

“It will give you definitely more than if you do it manually. It will definitely be more trustful,” Povolotsky swears.

It seems we can all agree that, even if there’s any science at all inside the GoBe’s calorie counting, it’s at best a piece of barely educated guesswork. This is something Indiegogo funders should probably have been told from day one. Go back to the Healbe Indiegogo page, watch the initial video and read up to the point where later in the campaign they started adding in strangely worded FAQs and internal research, talking about Russian science fiction authors and posting a weakly worded letter of support from Russian doctors.

The first part is sexy. The sort of thing that raises $1 million dollars. The second part is uncertain and unsure. You'd feel weird paying $10 for that version.

To this Healbe pleads naievety. “We're just, really, start-uppers. And, we are not that experienced in videos and explaining and whatever,” Povolotsky says.

“We just studied it ourselves, studied it with real belief. Like, I sold my very, very expensive car… and put all the money into this project at the very beginning and others did the same. Probably not knowing how this or that step should be done with Indiegogo. Each step of the process...we have mistakes, that's probably true. I think part of that is there was naievity of what was going to be required in terms of information.”

The long awaited Healbe video, released a month into its campaign, just showed a single GoBe wristband, some food, and a couple of screenshots of an app. If you were trying to film a video to assuage doubt in a miracle technology that you knew you’d made that no one else believed in, this is the last thing on Earth any sane marketer would release.

It felt strange, comical and completely not transparent.

I think we need to shoot better video,” Shipitsin deadpans.

Given that Healbe, if its 7,000 strong allocation of pre-sales sells out, will have raised $3.2 million against the GoBe, Povolotsky concedes that the people who have put money in are owed proof.

“[Doubt] is normal because it's something which was never presented to the market, and especially that the technology is new, and none of the scientists could 100 percent say, ‘Yeah guys, we believe that works,” he says.

But, as the interview tips into its second hour, it’s clear no one around the table is able offer any convincing explanation as to why, coming up four months after the start of Healbe’s Indiegogo campaign, no proof has been able to be provided.

The answer changes throughout the first hour. Marcantonio contends that proof shouldn’t be an expectation. Shipitsin and Povolotsky say that proof just takes time. Shipitsin gets smug at one point, and claims commercial sensitivity. “There is features which we have in our device, which everybody want to have. And we [aren’t] interested to give information away, earlier than we have to,” he says.  And to contradict that, there’s also a weird, fearful acknowledgment that they don’t want to get validation of the product just yet, that they need to really make sure of it before such a test happens. “We just need to be 100 percent sure that it works,” Povolotsky says.

He adds that companies like Samsung, LG and Google write them a lot, asking for a more detailed explanation of its technology. “All of them ends their letter, ‘Could you please send us a more detailed explanation of your technology.’ We say, ‘Thank you, guys, later on please,’" he says.

Povolotsky, the talker at the table, ends our 75 minute interview with a long, rambling pontification on the nature of proof and truth.

“Should... our Indiegogo page should be like 100 pages, with charts, doctors, stuff, and interviews with different experts, and then we kind of satisfy the audience?”

“We could go into more detail. But then, there will be an expert in a different field. Like silicon. He would say, ‘It's a fake! This silicon couldn't be swum with in the swimming pool.’ And then we put up another research chart. And then the next expert will say, ‘This type of metal gives allergies.' Prove that and we should go there and take another expert to prove it is not allergenic at all.’”

Like everything else about Healbe, Povolotsky’s speech sounds important and convincing, but serves only to avoid him having to answer the question: Does the GoBe do what it claims, or did Healbe raise a million dollars from Indiegogo users on the basis of an elaborate scam?

Povolotsky has the final word on that.

“We are not in court to prove that we are innocent.”

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]