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Philly City Paper: A Paoli company's quest to create a real-life tricorder ... and win $10 million

Basil Harris


By Andrew Zaleski 
Published: 03/23/2015

A Paoli-based company is hoping to be crowned champion in a global competition with $10 million at stake.

Final Frontier Medical Devices is one of the 10 finalists in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition. Launched in 2012, the XPRIZE competition asked entrants to devise and develop a real-life tricorder, the portable medical device popularized in the Star Trek television series. These real-world tricorders have to accurately diagnose at least 15 different health conditions and diseases—diabetes, stroke, hepatitis A, and the absence of any health problems, to name a few—while being able to monitor five vital signs: oxygen saturation, heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. Teams from Canada, Taiwan, Slovenia, India, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, remain in the competition. Three winners, chosen in January 2016, take home $10 million.

The local team is led by Basil Harris, founder of Basil Leaf Technologies. He's also a practicing ER doctor at Lankenau Medical Center of the nonprofit Main Line Health system, work that spurred his early interest in the XPRIZE competition. "As an ER doc, I face a constant influx of patients, some with minor injuries or illnesses and some with major trauma or on the brink of death," he says. "To be effective, all ER doctors have to keep it simple to get the diagnosis quickly and accurately." What could be better than a tricorder? 

The tricorders being developed in this competition aren't quite as sophisticated as the ones used by the crew of Captain Picard. (Jean-Luc Picard over James Tiberius Kirk any day. Come at me.) Still, the devices, if they work, will be novel ways for doctors and patients to rapidly screen for health conditions—from the comfort of home, even—while making health services cheaper and more accessible around the world.

Most of Final Frontier's team members live and work in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, while a couple are located in other states. "Even so, they've lived here at some point and are still Eagles fans," says Harris. The XPRIZE competition has been a part-time project, as all seven of them work day jobs.

"We are working nights and weekends since this thing started," says team member Julia Harris, whose background is in health policy—she spent a stint as a senior policy analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C., and she currently works for the state of Tennessee's Medicaid program. She's also Basil's sister. (Four Harrises in total are on the team: Julia and brothers Basil, George, and Gus.) 

"For me, this is really about giving people more control in the future of their health and maintaining their health over time," she says. "We're also thinking about it as a device that leads to the more appropriate use of healthcare services."

Final Frontier's tricorder is actually a system that contains three parts:

  • The main element is a smartphone app, which asks users questions in a dynamic fashion to arrive at a diagnosis. "Based on your answers around the very first question, the system starts to build future questions," says Julia.
  • To verify diagnoses, an arm band for measuring vital signs and a urinalysis kit are also provided.
  • Lastly, a handheld stethoscope that syncs to the smartphone app via Bluetooth. Chest sounds recorded by the stethoscope are visualized and analyzed in real-time on the app to help identify an infection like pneumonia, one of the health conditions all the teams' tricorders must be able to diagnose.

By the beginning of May, Final Frontier Medical Devices will have to deliver one of its tricorder units to the XPRIZE Foundation, the competition's governing and judging body. By June, Final Frontier will have to deliver 29 more. What follows is six months of trials by everyday people who have volunteered to test out teams' tricorders.

"It's pretty incredible that we actually made it to the top 10," Julia says. "It's really kind of awesome that this is happening."