Kickstarter, the crowdfunding phenomenon that started nearly five years ago, has funded more than 56,000 projects and raised almost $1 billion to make those dreams come true. About 43.6% of launched projects were successfully funded, and 56 of the top projects raised more than $1 million each. Its rival site, Indiegogo, has funded more than 47,000 projects and raised nearly $800 million with a 44% success rate.
Tech, video games, toys, and 3-D printers have dominated the top spots at Kickstarter and Indiegogo over the past year, but health care products have started generating tremendous interest, thanks to the increased use of smartphones, tablets, and wearable tech over the past year.
While the Kickstarter rules notably prohibit launching "medical, health, safety, and personal care products," those rules generally apply to pharmaceutical products or devices requiring FDA approval. Indiegogo has a similar rule, though it adds a bit of flexibility by only restricting medical devices that present "a risk to consumer safety."
Medical apps, 3-D-printed prosthetics, and various breath and heart rate monitors have all been successfully funded on both sites in the past. Let's take a closer look at three amazing medical products developed on these two sites and how they could improve the lives of patients more than products from major companies.
Scanadu Scout, a "medical tricorder" inspired by Star Trek, is one of the crowning medical achievements of crowdfunding. The project raised $1.66 million on Indiegogo between May 22 and July 20, 2013.
The sleek device, which uses the same operating system as NASA's Mars Rover, scans a wide variety of health parameters, including pulse transit time, heart rate and variability, electrical heart activity, and blood oxygenation. The Scout simply needs to be held up to a patient's temple for 10 seconds for a complete reading.
While the device cannot diagnose diseases on its own, a doctor can use the data from a single scan to diagnose a wide variety of diseases ranging from shingles to abdominal cramps. The data can also be logged in a companion smartphone app, which records the patient data in the cloud.
Scanadu launched the Scout as a contender for the Qualcomm (QCOM -1.38%) Tricorder XPRIZE, a competition funded by the XPRIZE Foundation and Qualcomm Foundation, which will award $10 million to the team that brings a real medical tricorder to the market. If approved by the FDA, the Scanadu Scout could hit the market by the end of this year and claim the prize.
Treating Alzheimer's with an iPad
Although doctors have known about Alzheimer's disease for more than a century, a true cure remains as elusive as ever.
The main Alzheimer's treatments today, Aricept and Namenda, slow down the deterioration of brain cells but do little to reverse the course of the disease. Efforts to clear out beta amyloid brain plaques, which were believed to be the cause of the disease, failed after high-profile drugs like bapineuzumab (Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Elan) and solanezumab (Eli Lilly) fell short of their goals during clinical trials.
Clevermind, an Apple (AAPL -0.09%) iPad app designed by Glenn Palumbo, helps slow the progression of Alzheimer's with a carefully designed app for elderly people with cognitive disabilities. Palumbo originally designed the app for his father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2009, when he saw that he became frustrated and lost while trying to use the iPad. The app achieved its funding goal of $10,000 on Kickstarter last May.
The app uses a Siri-like speech recognition and interaction module called MYIRA (MY Intelligent Robotic Assistant) to assist the user in everyday tasks. The app features cognitive exercises and records the data over time. It also simplifies social networks like Facebook and event scheduling, and uses large buttons and fonts designed for elderly patients. Patients can also use the app to quickly call someone for help.
Clevermind isn't a cure for Alzheimer's disease, but it's an innovative step forward that can substantially improve the quality of care for patients in the future.
Meanwhile, the advances that have been made in the field of prosthetic limbs over the past few years have been breathtaking.
Hanger's (NYSE: HGR) C-Leg, for example, uses multiple sensors that send signals back to a processor 50 times a second to make tiny real-time adjustments in the position of the prosthetic leg. As a result, amputees can use the C-leg to jog and ride bicycles. Hanger's i-LIMB prosthetic hand can capture electrical signals from an amputee's remaining limb to control finger-by-finger movement using a cutting-edge process known as myoelectric technology, allowing them to type or dial the phone.
These incredible technologies, however, are very costly. Hanger's C-Leg costs $95,000, and the i-LIMB costs $50,000 to $70,000.
That's where Indiegogo comes in. Joel Gibbard raised £43,593 (about $73,000) last October for The Open Hand Project, which aims to make affordable 3-D-printed prosthetic hands that cost under $1,000. What's remarkable about Gibbard's project, known as the Dextrus hand, is that it will be completely open source -- which means that anyone with a 3-D printer can download the plans to make and sell Dextrus hands.
While the Dextrus only has one major grip pattern, compared to the individual finger movements of Hanger's i-Limb, its $1,000 price tag and open source designs could help it reach amputees in lower-income households and developing nations.
The Foolish takeaway
Since Kickstarter's and Indiegogo's rules about medical devices can be quite restrictive, MedStartr, a crowdfunding site for medical projects, was launched in July 2012.
Although MedStartr is nowhere as prolific as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, it has attracted a variety of projects, including mobile health apps, electronic health records, and funding for better treatments of autoimmune disorders.
The Scanadu Scout, Clevermind, and Dextrus Hand are only three amazing crowdfunded medical projects out of many, and hopefully labors of love like these can inspire larger companies to launch more innovative products in the future.