Walter de Brouwer: Check your emails – and your heart – with this 'emergency room in your hand'
A professor has made sci-fi medical technology real. It can change all our lives, he tells Margareta Pagano
Monday 26 August 2013
Holy Spock! Dr Walter de Brouwer is doing a Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy. He takes a small device like a tape measure from his jacket pocket, pinches it between his fingers and puts it to his left temple as though he’s firing a gun. Ten seconds later and the gadget – known as the Scanadu Scout – has measured his vital signs just as Bones does to his patients in the 1960s sci-fi series, Star Trek.
And the Scout is just that; a magical Tricorder which records heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, respiratory rate and oxygen levels in the blood and then sends the data to a smartphone, including any deviations from the norm. “It’s an emergency room in your hand. Doctors can stop being accountants and start doing their jobs again – evaluating health,” he says, laughing, something this Belgian professor of semiotics does a lot.
A self-described Chomsky boy, he’s dressed in black, has curly and unruly hair, is wearing a statement T-shirt and looks, well, just like a boffin who has come up with a magical sci-fi device which could jump-start healthcare into the next century – if not into Spock’s 23rd one.
“When we put these devices in the hands of the people, we will be rewriting medicine, just like Wikipedia has done by rewriting the Encyclopedia Britannica. This puts medicine and all the data into the hands of the individual; peer-to-peer medicine. You can use the device in many ways – either to monitor your own health or, say if you have a chronic problem, the information can be sent onto your doctor so he or she can keep track of what’s happening to you or those you care for.”
The founder and chief executive of Scanadu is zapping himself in the lobby of the Andaz Hotel where we meet for tea on his fleeting visit to London; next it’s home to Los Altos to get ready for the prototype’s pilot run with consumers. The professor has scored a landmark as remarkable as the device itself: “We launched a fund-raising campaign on Indiegogo, the crowdfunding platform, and raised the target $100,000 within two hours. It’s a record.”
What’s more, the record continues to be broken – the campaign doubled the goal within five hours and now, at the time of going to print, Scanadu has raised $1.4 m from more than 6,000 people in 90 countries. All those who signed up on Indiegogo will get the device for $149 instead of the $199 price it is likely to sell for. “But we don’t need the money,” he says. “It’s the people we need. We want our supporters to test the product so we can use their feedback to refine the consumer version.” He says the Scout, which is being submitted for Qualcomm’s £10m Tricorder X prize, should be ready early next year and will then go to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval.
Like so many unusual creations, Scanadu was born out tragedy. When his son, Nelson, was five, he jumped out of a window at home, landing on his head. “He was wearing his Spiderman outfit so we think maybe he was trying to fly.” De Brouwer, and his wife Sam, spent months at Nelson’s side at the hospital, surrounded by monitors, screens and all the paraphernalia of intensive care. “This meant we could see what was going on every minute. Then he improved enough to be moved on to a normal ward. Ironically, this meant we couldn’t see what was happening to him any more and we felt rather lost. That started me thinking how we could improve information. ”
The 56-year-old De Brouwer remembered the Star Trek Tricorder from his youth and wondered whether such a device could be designed: “I knew California was the place to do the research so we moved.” He raised $4m – including his own money – to get Scanadu, named after Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s mystery place, Xanadu, in his Kubla Khan poem, off the ground at Nasa’s Ames Research Center, just south of San Francisco.
“I brought together some of the best brains – physicists, mathematicians and biologists from around the world. Many are my age or older, and they are better thinkers. Young people don’t have such open minds. And we’ve done it – ex nihilo, out of nothing. You have to push the science to its limits. I tell the people working for me, ‘If it stops, you have to find another way. Look up, it’s out there.’” And Nelson, who is now 14? “He’s doing great. He is still partially paralysed and goes to a wonderful special school near where we live.”
The Scout is just the start. Dr Bones pulls another object from his other pocket. This looks like one of the spoons you get with ice-cream tubs at the cinema, but with lots of colour- graded stickers on it. It’s a ScanaFlo and used to check for urinary tract information, but also for pregnant women to track signs of pre-eclampsia. Another is ScanaFlu – which identifies types of influenza viruses.
Data from both can be read by a smartphone’s camera and can be thrown away after use as they are cheap. The devices use all the tricks of the trade: imaging and sound analysis, molecular diagnostics and data analytics. Next he wants to include blood work into Scanadu’s stable. “That one is tricky, because people do not like to have their fingers pricked,” he says, laughing again, but doesn’t think it will be long before tiny nano-needles are developed. A device to grade skin colours so that people can choose the most appropriate cosmetics is another project being worked on. “That’s a big market, isn’t it?” he muses.
But it’s not about the money: “I don’t need fancy yachts or private planes. It’s about the excitement of starting something new, of pushing yourself to the limit.” Actually, it’s his addiction. After a PhD in semiotics at Tilburg University, he lectured at Antwerp and Monaco universities. He went on to set up or become involved with 38 companies – from the cyberpunk cult Wave magazine, which he sold to VNU, to recruitment companies, Jobscape and Stepstone, both of which went public, and a bank.
Along the way he became a sponsor of the MIT Media Lab and then great friends with Nicholas Negroponte, “my mentor”, for whom he ran One Laptop Per Child in Europe. Inspired by Negroponte, he set up StarLabs in Belgium – a blue-sky haven for brilliant brains to work on topics such as time travel. “If Einstein were alive today, you would want to save him from working in a big corporation and give him his own space? That was our idea.” But StarLabs didn’t work, closing as the internet bubble bust.
His Jesuit background – school and university – and deep science go hand in glove and he has lectured on the immortality of God at the Vatican. Yet innovation needs a moral purpose: “When someone is dying, we realise we have invested in so many things except learning how to help ourselves in life: it’s almost like we’ve avoided inventing this before, because it makes us think of our mortality.” Then he pauses, looks skywards: “If we have data, maybe we can change the future? Maybe one day we will be able write our own bits, the atoms, the neurons and the genes.”
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