PAOLI, Pa. — Basil Harris is an emergency-room physician who holds five degrees. Yes, five, including a doctorate in engineering.
Back in grade school, Harris and his older brothers fashioned a cotton-candy machine from a soup pot and the motor of the family’s lawn mower. Their invention produced a coarse, crunchy confection and second- degree burns on Harris’ hand and face.
So, no, he had not really invented anything.
Did this stop Harris, 47, from believing he could create a tricorder, a portable device that could tell whether you had pneumonia or diabetes or a dozen other conditions all by yourself? Or monitor your blood pressure, heart rate and other health vitals as required by an international innovation competition?
No, it did not.
Harris assembled a seven-member team — himself, three of his siblings and three friends — all of whom were managing full-time jobs. They worked nights and weekends in his home outside Philadelphia, crashed after 72-hour engineering marathons, churned out prototype after prototype on three 3-D printers in Harris’ jumble of an office, each plastic part taking up to 24 hours to fabricate and with his three children, ages 11 to 15, often overseeing sanding and wiring.
The XPrize field began with 312 teams from 38 countries.
Now, improbably, Harris’ group is one of two finalists for the $9 million prize. The winner is scheduled to be announced April 12.
Harris’ competition is Dynamical Biomarkers Group, as formidable as its name: a group of 50 physicians, scientists and programmers, many of them paid for their work, led by Harvard Medical School professor C.K. Peng, a physicist with a 29-page résumé, and backed by the Taiwanese cellphone leviathan HTC and the Taiwanese government.
So, this is basically a Basil and Goliath story.
• • •
You may recall the tricorder from “Star Trek.” The Harris siblings named their team Final Frontier Medical Devices and the three brothers happily posed in “Star Trek” uniforms. They’re big fans. Peng is, too.
The original tricorder did a lot of trippy things, but basically it served as a plot device to speed things along. In the original series, Dr. Bones McCoy would scan this — not to get too technical — doohickey that resembled a Polaroid SX-70 camera mated with one of those gizmos that spits out parking tickets and instantly diagnosed a patient’s ills. Nifty.
A real tricorder could do so much good. It could help determine whether you’re sick, help monitor vitals and share information with medical professionals.
And it would arrive 250 years ahead of the one imagined in the original “Star Trek.”
“We were thinking of something that could be easily used in the home and was not the size of a dishwasher,” says Grant Campany, who oversees this competition, which is funded by the Qualcomm Foundation, the charitable arm of the wireless telecommunications company. The competing tricorders are systems made up of multiple components, including an iPad for Harris’ team and, unsurprisingly, an HTC phone for Peng’s group.
Such systems could empower patients to detect not only up to 12 conditions (including anemia, atrial fibrillation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes) but also — and this is equally important — the absence of them. The tricorder could play an essential role in medically underserved countries and communities. Millions of patients could relay essential information quickly to health professionals many miles away.
So the challenge is to invent a device that will do all this — and weigh less than 5 pounds.
• • •
An eternal optimist, Harris looked at the competition guidelines and mused, “How hard could this be? We’ll bang this out in a weekend.”
One late night in February, Harris wrote his brothers:
“George and Gus,
“Would you guys be interested in trying to build a Tricorder with me?
“read this over and think on it for a bit … then you can laugh and call me a fool!
“Whether you call this a hobby or a start up venture it doesn’t matter. It’s primarily for fun and adventure. …
“The ultimate success would be defined as getting to the final round (of 10). Anything above that is extra.
“let me know if you would have any interest in this kind of project!
Mind you, this was February 2013.
But George and Gus did not laugh or call their younger brother a fool.
Says Harris, “We’re all big science-fiction geeks.”
George, a network engineer, manages technology systems for seven school districts in northern New Jersey. Gus is a urologist in Reading, Penn. Sister Julia, the only Harris sibling who didn’t study engineering at Drexel University — where their father, Harry, long taught the subject — also signed on. Her day job is in health care policy in Nashville. (A fifth sibling, Maria, decided not to participate.)
Now, four years later, after many all-nighters — or, to be honest, all-weekenders — the team has moved far beyond the round of 10. Its device, DxtER, is named not after the television serial killer but is a mash-up of DX (the medical abbreviation for diagnosis), “tricorder” and ER.
“This could have imploded at any time,” says Harris, a genial, calm fellow, precisely the sort of doc you want reading your vitals in the ER. “We had no delusions that we would get this far.”
The XPrize required finalists to ship more than 65 kits to California for testing. A million dollars of the $10 million prize has been dispersed to help teams continue — a good thing for Harris’ team, whose members have personally invested $500,000 and have been awarded $425,000, while Peng’s manufacturing was done by HTC.
The winning team stands to collect $6 million and the runner-up $2 million. An additional $1 million will be awarded for the tricorder that most accurately charts vitals. (To make matters more complicated, if one tricorder far outperforms the other in testing, the judges might award the entire $9 million to one group.)
But the reality is both teams are already winners, having passed multiple rounds of trials. The last set is being conducted at the University of California at San Diego.
The two finalists have developed medical devices that may transform personal health care, the XPrize’s Campany says, audacity being among the competition’s goals.The global market is large enough to support both tricorders, both team leaders say, and the companies that ultimately manufacture the products stand to make millions.
Rather than behaving like cutthroat competitors, the finalists are friendly and supportive of the other’s success.
“I like Basil very much,” Peng says from his office at Harvard. “The team’s story is so inspiring. They work out of their home.” Potentially, the two groups might share ideas and collaborate on advancing technology, though not in an arrangement as formal as a partnership.
“We want to incorporate all the technology we can,” Peng says. “People can join forces together on this important challenge.”
The Paoli team founded a company, Basil Leaf Technologies, and applied for seven patents. One of them is for a potentially revolutionary device for testing blood, glucose, hemoglobin and white-blood cell count by using a finger cuff instead of the odious lancet that can be the bane of a diabetic’s existence. (Harris is trying to miniaturize the cuff to the size of a wristband.)
“The prize money would be very nice. It would make a difference,” Harris says, sitting in his pristine kitchen, nursing tea. “But we plan to move forward and make the device no matter what happens.”
The big question will be how. All that prize money would help with research and development, but the team might ultimately partner with an established company.
• • •
The gang of seven gathers on a chilly, gray Saturday in Harris’ family room. They’re in jeans and socks, each with a laptop at the ready, the way they’ve worked for the past four years.
The members live in four states. This is the first time they’ve reunited since learning they’re finalists. While XPrize organizers complete testing, the team is moving forward, updating a business plan and running a clinical trial at Main Line Health, Harris’ hospital system.
During the intense design period, when the team would assemble once a month on weekends, Harris’ wife of 23 years, Angela, tested prototypes, edited documents, even served as a hand model. She provided moral support and sustenance, though the truth is that Basil and his colleagues didn’t eat much. The team downed pots of coffee during their marathon design sessions.
“Of course, Basil’s brilliant,” Angela says. “He’s always interested in doing something else.” She recalls him once musing, “Maybe I’ll apply to the space program.” He was perfectly serious.
Along with the Harris siblings — and Julia’s 3-month-old baby, Zara — were Phil Charron, who describes himself as “the user-experience guy,” who has known Harris since middle school and is a senior vice president at a Philadelphia firm that designs and develops software user experience; Andy Singer, “the finance and health policy guy,” Harris’ buddy since kindergarten and an executive at Boston Children’s Hospital; and Ed Hepler, “the hardware guy,” an electrical engineer and the last to join the team, which was seriously in need of a hardware guy.
“Basil’s the eternal optimist,” Singer says. To keep the team going, his mantra was “We’ve never been closer.” When the number of competitors was first winnowed, Harris emailed the group: “30 teams left. only one is awesome.”
“The great thing about this device is it’s in the patient’s hands,” Harris says. “You can manage your own health, get your own vital signs. It will empower you to find out if you have strep throat.” His device already has the capability of diagnosing 34 conditions, far more than the XPrize guidelines.
Peng also plans to keep going. In Taiwan, he says he won’t have to wait as many years as American companies do for government approval. He can construct a heavier, more- advanced device.
“Our plan is to have some pilot study in developing countries in three to five years,” Peng says. “Without the weight limit, we could perhaps test for 50 diseases.”
Harris recalls when they first started, back in 2013. “It was intimidating because there were all these groups being backed by large corporations,” he says. “But we were always thinking beyond the XPrize. We’ve met our objectives. We’ve made something worthwhile.”
And then the group went to a local brewpub to celebrate. There would be beer. Lots of it.