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Canadians help make Star Trek tricorder a reality

Sonny Kohli’s team, Cloud DX, is in the race to develop a portable medical device that can check vital signs and diagnose diseases.


A Canadian team has made the shortlist in a multimillion-dollar contest to turn a fictional technology from Star Trek into a real, marketable product.

The XPrize Foundation plans to announce the 10 finalists in its "Tricorder" contest on Wednesday. The contest challenges teams to build a real-world replica of the Tricorder from Star Trek – a wand-like device that, when waved at a patient, can instantly diagnose a variety of maladies. Within the next 14 months, the finalists will be given the task of developing functional prototypes and testing them on patients. The three winning teams will ultimately share a $10-million (U.S.) purse, of which the grand prize winner will take $7-million.

"Really, what this contest is about is turning science fiction to science reality," said Grant Campany, senior director of the Tricorder XPrize.

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Since its founding almost 20 years ago, the XPrize has become world-famous for conceiving audacious contests that challenge participants to develop groundbreaking technology. Currently, the foundation, in partnership with Google, is also holding a $30-million contest for any team that can land a robot on the moon, move the robot 500 metres in any direction and send HD video back to Earth.

The Tricorder XPrize, sponsored in part by Qualcomm, challenges participants to build a device, no heavier than five pounds, that can diagnose 16 conditions – including diseases such as anemia, diabetes and hepatitis A. The device must be easy to use without the assistance of a medical worker, and must be able to upload the data it collects to the cloud.

Teams must produce working prototypes by April 1 of next year. Those prototypes will, in turn, be given to a group of patients to use in real-world conditions as part of a testing cycle conducted in partnership with the University of California, San Diego. The results of that testing will help determine the final winners.

Among the 10 finalists is a tiny, Mississauga-based team called ClouDX. Composed of just four people – including a critical-care physician, two biomedical engineers and a chief technology officer – the team is building a portable Tricorder-like device that measures blood pressure, heart rate and a host of other metrics and uses those to deduce a list of conditions. The team is a spinoff of Biosign Technologies, a Mississauga medical technology company.

The ClouDX device traces its roots to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. At the time, A Toronto physician named Sonny Kohli travelled to the country to provide medical assistance. He quickly found that some of the hospitals in the country lacked basic diagnostic equipment, forcing him and other medical workers to build their own makeshift alternatives.

"If you can build something portable, something inexpensive, something mobile … that would instantly empower a physician and help them manage a condition," said Dr. Kohli, the team lead for ClouDX.

"Nobody's put it all together yet."

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Much like the foundation's space-travel challenges, the Tricorder prize is specifically designed to greatly reduce the time it will likely take for such devices to hit the marketplace. The foundation has already partnered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure that whatever devices the winning teams produce will not face long regulatory waiting times.

"Knowing what we know now, I would say it'd probably take years" to develop a commercial version of the Star Trek Tricorder, Dr. Kohli said. "By the time XPrize is complete, I'm very confident that it would be months."

The Xprize Foundation is expected to name a winner around January, 2016 – a date chosen to coincide with Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

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