OnQ Blog

Q&A: Qualcomm Chairman Paul Jacobs discusses the Tricorder XPRIZE and the winners

After a five-year mission, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE finalists are prepared to turn sci-fi into reality.

Apr 13, 2017

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

The invention revolution has always been inspired by technology from fiction — how do we pluck a device out of TV science fiction and make it real? Back in 2012, the Qualcomm Foundation and the XPRIZE Foundation worked together to develop the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, a Star Trek-inspired competition that set out to provide anyone with the ability to diagnose health conditions by using a real-world version of the Tricorder.

After five years (the same duration as Starship Enterprise’s original mission) of competition, we’re excited to announce that Final Frontier Medical Devices takes the top prize.

I sat down with one of the drivers behind the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, former Qualcomm Foundation Chair and current Qualcomm Chairman Paul Jacobs, to ask him a few questions…

How did the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE come about?

It was purely coincidental. Back in 2010, I was speaking at a panel up in Silicon Valley with Jon Rubinstein and Kara Swisher. We were making predictions about which Star Trek device will be developed next. Because Qualcomm had been working in mobile health for quite some time, my prediction was “Bones” McCoy’s Tricorder, a handheld device that diagnoses illnesses and collects data on a patient’s body.

Turns out, my colleagues were also thinking of mobile health care. A few weeks later, Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, the founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, pitched me on the same concept: “We’ve got this great idea. We want to do an XPRIZE around the Tricorder.”

What did this specific XPRIZE award entail?

Between 2012 and 2016, we managed to whittle 312 teams from 38 countries down to seven teams from five countries, with each team engineering their own prototypes.

And we had three basic rules:

  1. Each team can take its own approach to its Tricorder’s design, but the finished product must weigh five pounds or less.
  2. The systems are required to diagnose 10 core health conditions, including anemia, diabetes, and pneumonia; a choice of three elective health conditions in a list that includes hypertension, melanoma, and shingles; and all five of the required vital signs.
  3. Each Tricorder system must include a way for consumers to input basic health information, be accessible remotely via the internet, and be compatible with any smartphone or tablet.

In the final round, the two finalist teams had to create 45 kits for testing, ensuring that each kit could be used by a non-medical professional. The kits underwent diagnostic experience evaluations and consumer testing. Teams were scored on three categories — disease diagnostics, vital signs, and consumer experience.

Tell us about the finalists.

After three more years of competition, it came down to two finalists that were very different — one team brought a traditional academic approach while the other is a family of inventors: Dynamical Biomarkers Group and Final Frontier Medical Devices, both with different takes on the Tricorder.

Dynamical Biomarkers Group from Taiwan is a research group from the Center for Dynamical Biomarkers and Translational Medicine at National Central University. The team is led by Dr. Chung-Kang Peng and they created a three-module system that’s composed of a Smart Vital-Sense Monitor, Smart Blood-Urine Test Kit, and a Smart Scope Module. Each module is wirelessly connected to one main smartphone, which is equipped with a user-friendly app that guides the user through the specific tests needed for an accurate diagnosis. Their goal is to reduce the cost of health care and to provide basic medical care with basic technology.

Final Frontier Medical Devices is led by an emergency room doctor, Dr. Basil Harris. His team is made up of three siblings and three friends. They invented an autonomous kit called DxtER that’s based on an artificially intelligent engine that diagnoses using data analysis from actual patients with a variety of medical conditions. The kit’s sensors are non-invasive and are custom-designed to collect data about a patient’s vitals, body chemistry, and biological functions. It then cross-examines the data for a quick and accurate assessment.

Both teams' combined efforts actually exceeded the competition’s benchmarks for disease diagnosis, and both surpassed the requirements for user experience. We’re thrilled the judges selected Final Frontier Medical Devices for the top prize, and to award the team $2.6 million. As the runner-up, the Dynamical Biomarkers will receive $1 million for their technical achievements.

And more good news is that the Qualcomm Foundation has committed $3.8 million to further promote the digital health ecosystem.

How would you sum up the competition?

I’m very excited to see that the teams actually built the Tricorder. We thought it was possible, but it seemed like a bit of a stretch. But now, we’ve come to a point where we know that this worked. It’s really impressive.

What does the Tricorder competition mean for mankind?

When everybody can get access to a Tricorder, that means everybody has access to some form of health care. Unfortunately, that’s not the case today.

The competition is an opportunity to spread the availability of health care to anyone anywhere, even those in developing countries with few skilled health care professionals. With a working Tricorder, the vision is consumers will not only know if they’re sick, but also if they’re about to get sick. Parents all over the world will be able to diagnose their children without having to bring them to the emergency room in the middle of the night.

Through the Tricorder XPRIZE, we’ve proven to people that this is doable, and in turn, inventors will work on improving the device, sparking a cycle of innovation and making all this possible.

Why should people care about mobile health care solutions?

The biggest upsides about mobile health care is that it’s ubiquitous, personal and in real time — mobile health care will allow us to be measured all the time, so we’ll immediately see if we’re better, if the treatment is working, and if the medication needs to be changed. It will no longer be “Take this pill and call me in the morning.”

We expect that the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE will spark more inventors to create devices that offer medical detection, prevention, and management. It’s a big frontier with lots to explore.


Editor’s Note: Following the close of the competition, XPRIZE and Qualcomm will continue working with the teams on several initiatives and additional award funding to support the two finalist teams, as well as the other four semifinalists, to scale the impact of their innovations through a first‐ever post‐competition series of investments, dedicated to continued product development and consumer testing, trial implementation in developing countries, and industry adoption of the devices. For more information, visit: Family-led team takes top prize in Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition.

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Rick Valencia

President, Qualcomm Life