On foodscanners and tricorders (and why 2017 is significant)

Published 15.5.2017

Why not disrupt – this was the question that suddenly appeared in my head when we completed the first material scanner prototypes a few years ago. We were measuring multiple key parameters concerning fuel quality very successfully but I immediately saw much further: the device I had in my hands could be used to measure the composition of all kinds of things, like food, medicine, air quality to name a few. Whoa! I needed to do something with this stuff!

The world is full of old and new challenges as population grows, ages (and puts on weight). We need to produce 70% more food without additional area to spend, and tackle the increasing health problems of diabetes and ageing. Digitalization is changing business structures and it is seen that networks, distributed services and agile personalization of services and products will change the way we use healthcare services, how we buy our food, and how companies need to operate. Like the ICT Executive, innovator and visionary Risto Linturi has predicted, in the future people will simply perform analysis on themselves, on their food, their clothes etc. with a push of a button. With this, one gets food nutrition recommendations or maybe a drone will bring you medicine based on your condition.

The classical Star Trek Tricorder device has seen as an example of a know-it-all scanner. Wikipedia states that “a tricorder is a multifunction hand-held device used for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data”. In practise Mr. Spock and others just pointed this device to somebody or something and immediately got information about the content and condition of the subject. This has been an inspiration for many real-life endeavours and is accelerated by rapidly increasing infrastructure of mobile and cloud-based devices, but also by large, monetary ‘challenges’ to overcome the above-mentioned problems. Qualcomm launched a $10M Tricorder XPRIZE challenge in 2012 and the two winners, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group, have just been announced in April 2017, each winning $2.5M as prize money. The goal of the challenge was to develop a ‘Tricorder’ device that would accurately diagnose 13 health conditions, capture five real-time health vital signs, all in a way that provides a compelling consumer experience. Another big xprize-type challenge was set up by the European Union in 2015 within their Horizon2020 framework. This 1M€ challenge was concentrating more on the prevention of diseases rather than curing them. The idea was to develop a Food Scanner that would provide accurate information on the nutritional and allergenic content of food items in an easy and convenient way. The main prize of 800k€ was awarded in March 2017 – and I am very glad to say! – to Spectral Engines with SCiOScan and Tellspec as the runners-up. So, make a note: year 2017 will remain as a significant milestone towards real-life Tricorders!

What enabled us to win the Food Scanner award over competition when many of them have been in the field for years? The basis is of course our extremely powerful core technology that measures the unique infrared fingerprints of different material (yes, all substances have a unique way how they react to infrared light). We call this platform the NIRONE, being the first choice in Near InfraRed measurements. This results in fast, high-quality measurements in very small size and low cost. But this is not all of course. We have managed to build tools – both hardware and software – to match the future requirements of fast and efficient customization. This means that we can quickly realize products to new fields. We combine our core sensor technology, mobile connectivity, cloud-based data management and analysis, and for the analysis we combine well-established scientific analysis methods and modern machine learning algorithms. For us, when all these bits and pieces were in place, it took only 3 months to realize the winning Food Scanner solution!

So as year 2017 has finally given rise to real-life foodscanners and Tricorders, a question remains: why NOT disrupt? I have no excuses.

By Jarkko Antila, CEO, Spectral Engines