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

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.”

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £Competitive: SThree: SThree Group and have be...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?