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My God, Man! XPRIZE Unveils Medical Tricorder Teams

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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"Jim, I'm a doctor, not an entrepreneur." Image of iPhone and Tricorder courtesy of JD Hancock, via Flickr

In the Star Trek universe, handheld medical tricorders became standard issue for Starfleet vessels as early as the mid-22nd century. Here in a little place we like to call “reality,” a competition seeks to help deliver such all-in-one health analyzers at least 100 years ahead of schedule. After more than 300 prospective entrants for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE expressed interest in the competition, organizers on Tuesday will unveil the 34 teams competing for the $10 million prize.

The vast majority—21 teams—hail from the U.S. The U.K. and Canada are represented by three teams apiece, with the rest coming from Greece, India, Poland, Slovenia, South Korea, Taiwan and The Netherlands.

Perhaps the best-known entry is Scanadu, a startup based at NASA-Ames Research Park. The company introduced its Scout monitor a year ago and plans to deliver it to the market by early 2014 for about $150. Scanadu is designing Scout to measure temperature, heart rate, breathing rate and other vital signs after being placed on a patient’s temple for 10 seconds. Most of the other entrants aren’t nearly as far along in terms of development or even making information about their ideas available to the public.

Each group is developing a mobile device weighing five pounds or less that can diagnose and interpret 15 different medical condition—including diabetes, atrial fibrillation, stroke and tuberculosis—as well as capture a range of vital health metrics, including blood pressure, respiratory rate and temperature. The Foundation expects to whittle down the field to 10 teams during the April 2014 qualifying round after reviewing detailed documentation and a status update of each team’s proposed technology. The finalists will then build their proposed gadgets and test them on people throughout the winter and spring of 2015.

A group of judges and a consumer-testing panel will choose the first, second and third-place winners based on how well the devices function and how easy they are to use. The grand prize is worth $7 million, with the runner up taking home $2 million and the second runner up getting $1 million.

Teams must meet baseline standards of accuracy and functionality, but the winning entries will be the ones that score the highest in the diagnostic contest, according to competition organizers. To emphasize the importance of consumer use and adoption, only the five highest scoring teams from the consumer experience evaluation will be eligible to win. Organizers say they will re-evaluate the competition if no one makes the grade in the final round.

In an effort to push the most promising technologies to market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will offer regulatory input to teams, also helping them prepare for potential FDA review post-competition. The XPRIZE winner could be eligible for the FDA Innovation Pathway program, which the agency set up in February 2011 to serve as a priority review program for breakthrough medical devices.

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 7:35 pm 11/4/2013

    Isn’t there an app for that already?
    Seriously, glancing through – it specifies diagnoses criterion that require blood, sputum and urine samples, and analyses of chest x-ray images, Brain MRI with Contrast and/or CT Scan with contrast.
    - These diagnostic tests cannot be performed with a "Star Trek" proximity scan or a temple monitor…

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  2. 2. edprochak 9:10 am 11/5/2013

    while the current methods of diagnosis for some of those conditions require the methods you mention, that does not mean they cannot be detected some other way.

    Many diabetes testers take very small samples of blood. Perhaps such a sample could provide information on a variety of factors, including infections in distant parts of the body.

    just because you cannot imagine possible solutions does not mean ‘These diagnostic tests cannot be performed with a “Star Trek” ‘ styled scanner.

    yes these measurements will be challenging, maybe impossible with today’s technology. but we won’t know until we try. Even if they only reach a portion of the capabilities, these could be a real boon to healthcare. At least 34 teams think they can do it. Lets wait and see what happens.

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 6:08 pm 11/5/2013

    If any entrant revolutionizes not just medical diagnostic analysis processing but the diagnostic protocols of so many diseases, they should not just win this paltry prize but the Nobel prize in Medicine! Good luck with all that…

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