Qualcomm and the X Prize Foundation Move to Energize Diagnostics with $10M ‘Tricorder Prize’

5/10/11Follow @bvbigelow

Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs revealed today that the San Diego-based wireless technology giant has been working with the X Prize Foundation to develop criteria for a new $10 million X Prize grand challenge that is straight out of Star Trek—a “Tricorder X Prize.”

The idea—which is still being distilled—is to offer a $10 million incentive prize to the team that can develop the first diagnostic device that actually works like the ubiquitous medical tricorder of Star Trek fame. Generally speaking, the technology would have to be portable, use wireless sensors, be minimally invasive, and capable of providing rapid, low-cost diagnoses of medical ailments and injuries. Oh, and organizers also want the gadget to be able to diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board-certified physicians.

Jacobs announced the proposal during a keynote speech this morning at a wireless health conference in downtown San Diego. The X Prize Foundation officially announced the collaboration in a statement issued at about the same time from its headquarters near Los Angeles.

The X Prize Foundation gained worldwide renown as the organizer of the $10 million prize for the first reusable civilian spacecraft. X Prize founder Peter Diamandis issued the challenge in 1996, and a team led by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan—with financial support from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—won the $10 million prize in 2004.

“Part of prize development is to bring something to reality, but part of it also is to change the mindset,” said Jessica Ching, the foundation staffer who is responsible for developing the rules governing the competition. In the case of the X Prize for spaceflight, Ching says the Rutan-designed SpaceShipOne shattered the prevalent notion that only government-backed spacecraft could reach for the stars.

Spock with Tricorder

In a similar way, the Tricorder X Prize is intended to break the grip of conventional thinking in healthcare by extending the reach of health information and services to more people. “Health is important to everybody,” Ching said. Creating the prize, she added, “came from a real need and a desire to push for change.”

For now, however, the more immediate challenge lies in establishing the ground rules for a fair competition.

“It’s got to be really difficult, but not impossible,” said Ching. She estimated that developing guidelines for the Tricorder X Prize would take about six months—a process that Qualcomm is funding—and the foundation would likely formally announce the challenge sometime next year.

“What we have to do is take general characteristics and turn them into an objective set of criteria,” said Don Jones, Qualcomm’s Vice President of Business Development for Health and Life Sciences.

Ching, who also was attending the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance Convergence Summit in San Diego, said that developing a portable medical diagnostic tool would require innovations across many technologies, including medical imaging, microfluidics, and wireless sensors. It also would likely require radical advances in such fields as artificial intelligence and decision systems.

In its statement today, the X Prize Foundation says, “This prize will bring understandable, easily accessible health information and metrics to consumers on their mobile devices, pointing them to earlier actions for care.” Or, as Qualcomm’s Paul Jacobs put it during his talk, “Imagine a future where the tricorder is just another app on your phone.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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