Walter De Brouwer estimates he’s had seven different careers (and been involved in starting 38 companies) over the past 30 years. Hopping easily from telecommunications to publishing, deep future research and banking, it was an accident, literally, that led him to become founder and CEO of Scanadu.
De Brouwer had begun to develop a real-world prototype of Star Trek’s diagnostic device, the tricorder, back in the late ’90s, an idea that was ahead of then-available technology. Then in 2006, his son suffered a traumatic brain injury.
From Star Trek to Startup
De Brouwer’s story, recounted in dulcet, accented English, belies the harrowing three months the Belgian native spent at the bedside of his then-six-year-old son. “My wife and I were both in shock,” he recalls. “You start to realize that although you are well educated, in health care you don’t know anything.” To cope with waiting for his son to wake from a coma, De Brouwer began to painstakingly log every piece of equipment in the ICU. “Thank goodness we had the Internet. We would look them up to see if they were displaying dangerous information,” he explains. By compiling data and studying the fluctuations, De Brouwer pieced together a “calculus” of information that allowed him to better communicate with his son’s doctors.
“You can get a lot of information in a short time,” says De Brouwer. “Suddenly, the community starts to ask you questions and out of that empathy comes a new use for yourself.”
As his son began to slowly learn how to speak and eat again (he remains paralyzed on the right side of the body), De Brouwer embarked on his next entrepreneurial journey. “Everything is a lot more gradual than we think. You don’t just wake up from a coma and say ‘Give me a burger,’” De Brouwer quips. He believes the same goes for entrepreneurs when they are developing new ideas. “Especially one that comes out of being thrust into that situation,” De Brouwer says. “Luckily this happened at a late stage in my life.”
Taking Control Of Your Health
Scanadu’s version of a tricorder will be a personal device that anyone can use to scan, track, and even share (if they choose) their vitals such as temperature, blood pressure, and lung function without touching the body. Just as he became an “expert” on his son’s responses, De Brouwer says people with medical conditions will eventually be able to network and provide their firsthand experiences to their doctors or others dealing with the same illnesses.
His vision is that individuals will become so comfortable with tracking their health that they’ll be able to share without being squeamish about privacy (so long, HIPPA!). “I want to make it a social part of our own DIY kit,” he explains. This would eventually lead to what he calls “empathy networks” of both doctors and patients.
De Brouwer insists Scanadu’s device–which he expects to launch in late 2013–“will be everything the consumer wants,” even though he’s still scratching his head over the fact that people undervalue health care to the point of spending more on a birthday party than they do on maintaining good health.
From Learning Machines Come Smart Machines
Now 55 years old, De Brouwer has a CV as long as his arm. Among the hats he’s worn: academic, publisher of a personal computer magazine which he eventually sold to the Nielsen Company, founder of the commercial company of the European Unix Users Group, which was acquired by Qwest Communications; futurist in charge of Starlab, a research brain trust once dubbed “Nerd Heaven”; director of the Tau Zero Foundation, NASA’s propulsion physics project; and banker.
“It’s not that I chose these careers, it’s just that the world changed,” he contends, “Who wants to be a publisher now? It’s a hard job.” Taking stock of his transitions on a more philosophical note, De Brouwer says, “I think we are learning machines.”
Innovating From the Outside In
Although he believes there is a big misconception in Silicon Valley that you must be a college dropout to succeed with a startup, De Brouwer chose to relocate there when he was ready to take his concept beyond the idea stage.
“Young people are so great, you can start them with completely disruptive ideas,” he says. “When I started thinking about this tricorder, I told my team of young PhDs that we were going to put the complete diagnostic experience of a major clinic in a smartphone. They said ‘OK,’” he deadpans. After a beat he laughs, adding, “If I were to tell a group from Siemens the same thing they would tell me to go to a psychologist.”
De Brouwer draws a line from this fearless tendency to Vinod Khosla’s theory that major innovation in an industry can only come from outside. “They’ve been trying for years to change health care, but they are trying with doctors,” he argues, predicting that health care will become an information science, not a clinical science.
Without the hindrance of clinical medical training, De Brouwer’s aim is simple. He wants to put that information squarely in the hands of the ones he believes need it most: ordinary individuals. “There is a steep learning curve,” he admits. “But when you have background in other disciplines, it gets faster. In the beginning it feels so good.”
Money Doesn’t Matter
Price-sensitivity testing is underway, says De Brouwer, who has also has partnered with design firm IDEO, WolframAlpha, the Fuseproject, the Singularity University, and USC’s Center for Body Computing to develop the device and its branding.
Scanadu is in the running for an X Prize in life sciences. If it wins (in 2015), the company gets a $10 million award–a fraction of what De Brouwer estimates it will take to make his vision a reality. But it’s not about the cash or the prize or the business, he says. “In everything I did, I never thought I would make money. When my heart is there and passion, most of the time it works.”
He may be tilting at windmills, or on the brink of completely upending the entire way we handle our health. It doesn’t matter to De Brouwer, who says he’s all in, regardless of the outcome. His years of experience have taught him he’s just getting started with Scanadu and in fact has reached that exhilarating place where he’s “got his back against the wall investing everything I have and more,” a sweet spot he believes is part of the natural evolution of career change and a key ingredient for success.
If Scanadu doesn’t actually turn the health care industry upside down? Says De Brouwer: “There are no guarantees. If you want a guarantee, buy a vacuum cleaner.”
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