Ina Fried

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Scanadu Hopes It Has Its Finger on the Pulse of Something Big

Dr. Alan Greene holds a small device to his head and in just a few seconds his iPhone shows his heart rate, breathing rate, temperature and other medical data.

Collecting such data over time allows people to track changes in their health and notice when things are abnormal for them as an individual, rather than as compared to the medical averages that have historically determined what are considered normal vital signs.

That’s the idea behind the first device from Scanadu, a Silicon Valley-based start-up, which will show off a prototype of the product later on Tuesday at the Wired Health Conference in New York.

Until now, health data collection has largely focused on check-ups, where data is measured and then forgotten about until being re-checked six months or a year later. A device like the one from Scanadu allows people to see how their health varies over time and in response to various life events and patterns.

Being able to collect the data in under 10 seconds is key, says Walter De Brouwer, the 55-year-old entrepreneur who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in June 2011 to start Scanadu, hiring Greene as the company’s chief medical officer.

“This is what the consumer wants,” De Brouwer said. “He cannot wait a minute. It’s too long.”

After a year of work, Scanadu has a device that meets this ambitious goal. Getting to this place, though, wasn’t easy.

Scanadu has spent months tweaking and testing its device to get something that works the way it wants. The hardest part, De Brouwer said, was making do with the inexact sensors needed to keep the device affordable.

Scanadu doesn’t want to create a device that costs several hundred dollars that is seen as a major purchase or needs approval from an insurance company. De Brouwer said he is looking to create something so cheap that customers don’t think twice before buying a couple.

The start-up also had to try a bunch of different shapes and several parts on the body — and not always for technical or medical reasons. Putting the sensor in certain areas meant getting good readings for one vital sign but poor data for another. Ultimately, the company decided on holding the device with two fingers at the same time it is held to one’s temple — a position that offered the most amount of data without being so invasive that it would be off-putting to newbies.

Even the color had to be changed. It turns out the color black, while helping to keep out light, scares kids more than other shades.

“We went through quite a bit of things that didn’t work,” De Brouwer said. “We generated a lot of white noise in order to find our own signal.”

Nor is Scanadu at the finish line. It has a working prototype — an alpha — but the commercial product won’t be out till late next year. It is partnering with designer Yves Behar to craft the final product — a design it is keeping under wraps.

Scanadu has assembled a team of about 25 people working in Building 20 at Mountain View’s Moffett Field, just upstairs from Airship Ventures, a start-up that offers tours of the Bay Area in a helium-filled zeppelin.

Ultimately, Scanadu has a five-year plan that goes well beyond the capabilities of this first device.

De Brouwer really wants to create the medical equivalent of Star Trek’s futuristic Tricorder, a small device that records all kinds of data and allows people to view things over time.

For now, Greene says he will settle for a device that can just put an end to the fallacy that the “normal” temperature is 98.6 degrees. For some, that number is too low, he says, while for others that could be a sign of a life-threatening infection.

Body temperature, Greene said, varies not only by person but also by time of day, time of the year and other factors. What’s really useful is to be able to know how one’s current temperature compares to what is standard for them at that time of day and year. That means having a whole lot of personal data and that’s where Scanadu’s product comes in.

“We’re declaring the end of 98.6 (degrees) as our ‘normal’ body temperature,” said Greene, who is an advocate for so-called participatory medicine in which doctors and patients collaborate to make better decisions about health care.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work