by: Perry W. Payne, Jr., MD/JD/MPP

In what appears to be the largest award offered to the world’s mobile health innovators, the X Prize Foundation and Qualcomm Foundation recently announced the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize.

The prize name is inspired by the fictional Star Trek device which was geological, meteorological and biological (hence the name) detection and analysis device.

On the TV show, the Tricorder helped doctors scan patients’ bodies, detect problems and generate diagnoses. The Tricorder X Prize will be awarded to the creator of the best mobile, wireless device that monitors and diagnoses health conditions and fits in the palm of the hand. The foundations are touting the X Prize as “a global competition to revolutionize healthcare.”

What they seek is to address the world’s health care access problem by creating a means for consumers to receive direct medical care without seeing a healthcare professional.

Why was X Prize created?

The idea from the competition springs from what the sponsors view as a “dire need” to increase healthcare access globally and allow customers to be more active participants in their own health. The sponsors see the X Prize accomplishing four goals, which can be rephrased as:

  • Incentivize the development of technology which draws on the knowledge of multiple disciplines to turn the “art” of medicine into a more “scientific” process that is accessible to consumers through a consumer focused, user-friendly device
  • Facilitate necessary collaborations and regulatory pathways required for this major transformation
  • Stimulate consumers to demand tools which assess and manage their health independent of a hospital or doctor’s office for years to come
  • Catalyze new markets and products that offer medical detection, prevention, and management, as well as more complete diagnostics

The sponsors state that this competition is not focused on therapy, only diagnosis.

What are the requirements for the device?

The most important aspect of this X Prize is developing a device that meets the specifications of the competition. The sponsors list six required functions of the device which are:

  • Diagnose diseases
  • Provide ongoing metrics of health (vitals)
  • Allow monitoring or continuous use of sensors to diagnose and measure health
  • Provide awareness of health state
  • Give confirmation that everything is ok with a consumer
  • Notify that something is not ok (a ‘check engine light’)

The structure of the device is only limited by the weight. All components have to weigh less than five pounds. There is no limit on the number of different components that the device can have, such as different sensors used to detect vital signs. Although, final guidelines have yet to be completed, the sponsors have stated that the device should be able to diagnose a set of 15 diseases.

The device should also be able to measure key health metrics such as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. The device must include a way for consumers to store and share their information and access this information via the Internet. The sponsors also envision the tool collecting large volumes of data from ongoing measurement of health states through a combination of wireless sensors, imaging technologies, and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements.

The device can use a large or small screen or even no screen. The sponsors have very few preconceived notions of what the device will look like and even indicate that the devices of different teams are likely to have a number of different forms. Finally, the device has to meet consumer safety guidelines and protocols including avoiding harm to consumers from “electrical energy, thermal energy, chemical exposures, needles, lancets, and infection.” Based on the requirements of the device, it will likely need FDA approval in order to be marketed in the US, so these standards will also guide inventors.

Who should enter?

The competition is open to any legal entity – individuals, small or large businesses, students, faculty, etc. The key feature of the teams is that they must be able to legally accept the prize. People from any country can apply. The sponsors are asking that people who are interested submit an intent to compete form in order to help them assess interests in the award and plan accordingly.

How will teams be judged?

The final competition guidelines are still being developed, but draft competition guidelines are available. The preliminary guidelines will be available for public review and comment on April 30, 2012. Currently, sponsors plan to release final guidelines by September 2012. iMedicalApps will continue to monitor the X Prize and future developments. The first step in the competition is a qualifying round which will last 27 – 28 months after the recent January launch of the prize. Ten teams will advance beyond this round.

In order to move forward, teams will need:

  • A controlled demonstration of sensor validity
  • An evaluation of supporting studies, multimedia, and prototypes

Currently, the sponsors think the final round will occur about 3.5 years after the January launch. This round will likely include:

  • A diagnostic contest on 15-30 consumers per team
  • A concurrent consumer experience evaluation
  • Proof of adequate high-frequency data logging

The top three winners of the final round will be awarded prizes. Sponsors state that in order to emphasize the importance of the consumer experience evaluation, only the five highest scoring teams from the consumer experience evaluation will be eligible to win. They also indicated that the winning team will have a device which “most accurately diagnoses a set of diseases independent of a healthcare professional or facility, and that provides the best consumer user experience with their device.”

Is the quest for a medical tricorder new?

The push to create a medical tricorder is not new. In the past, the iMedicalApps reported on Scanadu, which raised millions last year to build a medical tricorder. Also, in 2010 researchers at Georgia Tech announced that they developed a multi-spectral imaging device that was hailed as a medical tricorder. The device is a handheld machine which uses multi-spectral imaging to detect signs of pressure ulcers before they can be seen with visual screening techniques which the researchers’ state is especially for patients with darker skin.

Potential challenges

The X Prize raises a number of interesting issues for the field of medicine worldwide and for public health. One of the first concerns is conceptual. The prize is meant to increase access to health care, but health care is much more than detecting and diagnosing disease. In fact, millions of people die worldwide from lack of therapeutics (drugs, vaccines, etc.) for diseases (i.e. malaria) which are well diagnosed by consumers without a device. So, the underlying premise is a concern.

In addition, the sponsors don’t address the cost of the device. If the device is expensive and inaccessible based on price, the problems that sponsors seek to remedy will continue and perhaps become exacerbated by the device. Hopefully, these and other challenges will be hashed out during future public discussions of the guidelines for the X Prize.