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18th Dec 2018

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Belgian trades EU for US to build Star Trek medical device

  • Start Trek fans will know about the Tricorder, a handheld device used by Captain Kirk and company (Photo: Star Trek Mark X Medical Tricorder)

Start Trek fans will know about the Tricorder, a handheld device used by Captain Kirk and company to, among other things, scan the biological state of the living creatures they encountered on their interplanetary voyage.

Today, almost 50 years after the science-fiction series first aired on American television, the device is close to becoming a reality.

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“It really is very difficult to build, but not impossible,” says Walter De Brouwer, the founder and CEO of Scanadu, a start-up company based in Sillicon Valley working with the NASA space agency to build a 21st-century Tricorder, to be put on the market by 2014.

The Tricorder, he says, will be not much more than a smartphone extension and be able to monitor and diagnose your health conditions without needing blood, urine, saliva, physical contact or even cooperation from the patient.

Instead, the Tricorder works with light, says De Brouwer, without going into details. “Advanced optics. Everything is light.”

It is one of many new futuristic health devices that are making the rounds at future-of-healthcare conferences like TEDMED or FutureMed and, we are told, will be here rather sooner than later. “There is an explosion of new devices,” says De Brouwer.

Not made in Europe

But like the conferences, it seems most of the devices are either American-made or designed. And not European. De Brouwer himself, a Belgian national, recently moved to California in order to start work on the Tricorder.

“People who decide to live in Silicon Valley are larger than life,” he says. “They are romantics, not afraid to take risks or to fail.”

But most of all, he says, they are happy to listen to other people's ideas "with a willing suspension of disbelief,” citing English 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The advent of the Tricorder came a step closer in January when Qualcomm, an American telecommunications company, launched a $10 million prize for whoever builds the device first. De Brouwer is officially competing.

"In Europe," he says, "people are of the extreme cautionist school - they only do something if it has proven to work in the US.”

De Brouwer takes the example of the VScan handheld ultrasound device, recently presented by General Electric. “In Europe, people would say: It can’t be done. In the US they say: It will be done.”

And what about the Tricorder? Would it have been possible to build in Europe?

“No,” says De Brouwer. “First in the US, then in Europe.”

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Putting the 'e' in e-health

The 'e' has become a familiar sight before words like book or commerce, while health has long been spared the token affix of the digital age. But now e-health has arrived and seems set to revolutionise traditional healthcare.

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