Scanadu Aims to Empower Patients with DIY Vital Signs Device

An accident changed Walter de Brouwer’s life.

Over the past few decades, the Scanadu CEO had his hands in everything from semiotics and academia to publishing computer and cyberpunk magazines to founding an early Internet company acquired by Qwest Communications International to working with the MIT Media Lab and Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child project.

But his entry into the world of consumer medical devices and self-monitoring came from out of the blue.

One day in 2005, his son fell from a window 30 feet above the ground. De Brouwer spent a year by his side in the hospital.

“My son was in the ICU, and there I was in this new environment I knew nothing about—all these machines with these readings,” he says. “When they moved him to a normal room I got scared the numbers were away.”

He learned everything he could about the machines around him to understand more about his son’s health. A few years later, when de Brouwer discovered the Quantified Self movement , he realized “this was completely into everything I was into.”

In 2010, he founded Scanadu, a company focused on creating tools to help average people track their own health. He moved to the West Coast and set up his company at NASA’s Ames Research Center, later bringing on chief medical officer Alan Greene, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University. “I finally decided to make a device for consumers, but a really powerful medical device that would replace diagnostic experience of a medical clinic,” he says. “So people could see what the readings meant and be more a part of the conversation with their doctors—like I had done.”

Walter de Brouwer, founder and CEO of Scanadu

Walter de Brouwer, founder and CEO of Scanadu

Last year, the company prototyped the Scanadu Scout , a device that can measure vital signs like blood pressure, temperature and pulse oximetry in just 10 seconds. The device communicates the results to an iPhone app, which allows users to track their health indicators over time, and share the results with their doctors. “Not only will you have a picture of your health in readings, but you can also understand them,” de Brouwer says. “You will understand the relationship between heart rate and your blood pressure. Whenever you go to your doctor it will be a completely new person going to the doctor.”

The 10-second time frame was key. Scanadu turned to design consulting firm Ideo to study consumer behavior and found that “people weren’t willing to spend a lot of time getting readings on themselves,” de Brouwer says. “The breaking point is 10 seconds.” Users also weren’t willing to measure at more than one point on the body, so the Scout only has to be held to the temple.

The device also has two accessories, Project ScanaFlu and Project ScanaFlo. ScanaFlo is a disposable cartridge that can turn a smartphone into a urinalysis reader. It will be aimed at pregnant women who could test their urine for complications like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. ScanaFlu is an accessory to the Scout that will turn the smartphone into a reader that allows consumers to analyze saliva for the presence of ailments like Strep A, Influenza A, Influenza B, and RSV. “I think this is really how healthcare is going to be,” De Brouwer says. “Healthcare systems break down all over the world. This is a way to get out of this mess and empower the people.”

It’s also a way for caretakers like parents and doctors to monitor their kids and patients from afar. “We’re living in an age where pills are smart and can talk when they are not taken,” he says. “If we can check our garage door from the other side of the world, we can also check our grandmother.”

De Brouwer points out that there are a lot devices on the market that claim to be health-focused, but often they’re just lifestyle devices—-glorified digital pedometers that measure steps and estimated calories burned.

The Scout is more than that, and as a true health device, needs to be cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The product will go through the same evaluation process as devices like blood glucose readers. That will reassure users ensure that Scanadu conforms to the necessary standards, and reduce liability.

The three products will not be released until they make it through FDA testing, but de Brouwer expects them to hit the market before the end of 2013. “We prepared our case well so the FDA will have less work,” he says. “We think there is a clean road ahead.” The company believes the Scout will sell for around $150

The idea behind Scout isn’t to bypass traditional treatments so much as to supplement them, so that patients can track themselves at home and have a better understanding of their health, as well as share that data with medical professionals. De Brouwer himself has been playing with the device to monitor what happens to his own vital signs when he takes his medication or a sleeping pill, or what activities or habits might trigger a spike in his blood pressure.

So far the company has raised more than $4 million in private funding, but declines to divulge exactly how much or where it came from.

In the future, de Brouwer expects Scanadu to put out more innovative, consumer-focused health devices. But for now the company is focused on getting the Scout on the market and ensuring both consumers and professionals will trust it.

“In the medical world, it’s different,” he says. “You need a Goldilocks device respected by doctors and patients so you can sit together and talk about the same things.”

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