2014-06-09

Co.Labs

Think You're Sick? This Little Box Can Swab Your Nose And Tell You For Sure

Apple's announcement of HealthKit is overshadowing the real innovation in biotech: personal devices like the Cue.



Last week Apple announced the long-awaited HealthKit framework, a smartphone dashboard for tracking health information, at its WWDC conference. But the founders of Cue—a hardware device that puts lab-quality medical testing in the hands of consumers—are already one step ahead.

"They're just kind of tipping their toes into it, aggregating information from different devices. This goes one level deeper," says cofounder and CEO Ayub Khattak, as he demonstrates how Cue works.

HealthKit is a data interface, but Cue gets under the skin: The device processes biofluid samples in real time, enabling a form of self-diagnosis that leaves resources like WebMD in the dust. Worried that you might have the flu? Take a sample from your nose using the Cue wand, load the wand into a pale green cartridge roughly the size of a thumb drive, and within minutes the results appear in the Cue app, via Bluetooth.

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"You have this result. Now you can do something with it," Khattak says, envisioning a world in which you contact your physician, alert your network, and manage your prescription pickup more efficiently than ever before. As for Apple, Samsung, and the rest of the tech giants developing software for the consumer health market: "We haven't made specific plans for integrating, but are looking into it."

Taking Hardware From Hobby To Health Care

In recent years consumers have been experimenting with an avalanche of new products promising to improve health and wellness, from wearables that track steps per day to smartphone alarms that adjust to REM rhythms. Some, like Scanadu, have started to erode the barriers between hospital and home by allowing consumers to track vital signs like temperature and blood pressure. Cue takes the Scanadu model one step further by capturing and analyzing biofluids—blood, saliva, nasal discharge—in real time.

"It doesn't make sense to us that all that information is locked up with gatekeepers," says Clint Sever, Cue cofounder and chief product officer. "You have to go through a doctor, you have to go through a lab. There's a wait time associated with that, there's a high cost associated with that."

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The cofounders launched Cue in May after years of collaborating on prototypes that married Khattak’s biosciences background with Sever’s mechanical engineering skills. Along the way they quietly raised over $1 million from a network of scientists, doctors, and investors near their home base in San Diego. The initial product package, set to ship in spring 2015 for $199, will be able to test for fertility, influenza, inflammation, testosterone, and vitamin D.

"It's the hub of health in the home," Sever says. "The whole family can use it."

That aspiration aside, so far the product’s early adopters are predominantly fitness enthusiasts looking to quantify their molecular selves. (Among pre-order customers, testosterone cartridges have been the most popular, followed by inflammation and vitamin D.)

A Different Way To Eat Your Own Dog Food

To prove the product’s value to athletes, Khattak and Sever turned themselves into a mini-experiment. Though their thoughts are in sync, in appearance the two could not be more different: Khattak with second-day scruff, glasses, and the blinking gaze of a creature just emerged from underground, his whole figure crying out for an iron; Sever with clear eyes, slicked hair, and a pressed button-down that echoes the root meaning of his name. Seeing an opportunity in that yawning gap, they switched daily routines in order to gauge the impact of those choices on inflammation, testosterone, and vitamin D levels.

"I ate well and he ate poorly," Khattak says.

"Because I started low and he started high," Sever explains.

"We saw which foods helped to lower inflammation, and which foods increased inflammation," Khattak says. "You see the impact in real time."

Passing the snuff test with regulators and insurers will be a higher order. Federal Drug Administration approval is still pending, and insurance reimbursement for the device is still a distant possibility. "Against common tests found in labs, we're very pleased with the performance of the product," Khattak says.

For now, that will be good enough for some consumers. And it’s not hard to imagine that someday, it will be good enough for doctors, too.




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