The term “smartphone” first appeared in 1997 – the same year that 16-year-old Jack Andraka was born. Since then, smartphones have spread to cover the globe, with more than 1 billion in use worldwide. As for Andraka, it has taken him only 16 years to become a well-respected researcher and innovator who has most recently turned his attention – and his impressive brainpower – to the field of mobile health.
“mHealth is amazing because it’s kind of like having a doctor in your hand every day and you have this incredible ability to use an everyday object to monitor health,” he told me last week, having just returned from a trip to the UK to attend Zeitgeist, Google’s annual think-fest that brings together some of the most powerful and influential people in the world.
Andraka first made his mark on medical technology when, at age 14, he developed a five-cent paper strip that may prove to be the best and cheapest way to effectively test for pancreatic cancer. He won more than $100,000 in prize money for this work. Not one to rest on his laurels, Andraka quickly set his sights on Qualcomm’s $10 million Tricorder X-Prize, which challenges teams to create a mobile device capable of capturing health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases. The prize will go to the team whose technology most accurately diagnoses diseases independent of a healthcare professional or facility, and provides the best user experience.
Andraka has joined forces with three other high school students (they are the only X-Prize team that includes even one high school student, let alone four), and he and his teammates are using the smartphone as the platform for their device. Andraka says this makes sense, given that smartphones combine amazing computing power with high-grade sensors.
“We really try and keep it as simple and self-explanatory as possible,” he said, bearing in mind that the fewer things the average user has to do, the better. This summer he and his teammates will split their time between MIT and Johns Hopkins, where they will likely spend upwards of 45 hours per week (per team member) on the project. He says they have to make up time during the summer, since they can only spend 20-25 hours per week on the project during the school year.
“We are at a disadvantage when it comes to time,” said Andraka because other teams are comprised of adults who can spend 40-50 hours per week on the project throughout the year. “But we are at an advantage when it comes to innovation. Youth is an advantage, too, because we can come up with these really crazy ideas, but then we can also make them come to life.”
Thus far, Andraka says the most challenging part of the project has been coordinating the schedules of four busy high schoolers, as well as finding high-level programmers to assist their work – programming is not on the long list of Andraka’s competencies. The team will submit their device for the first round of judging in spring 2014, and the final prize will be awarded the following year.
If Andraka and his team are successful, he sees tremendous potential for this type of technology beyond the U.S. and developed countries into disadvantaged areas of the world. Andraka recognizes that the mobile phone has blurred the distinction between developed and developing countries because it gives the opportunity for everyone to connect in the same way, regardless of location. “That’s really the whole thing with cell phones,” he said. “They transcend the world’s current boundaries.”
When asked about his dream scenario for mHealth, Andraka described a personal medical device that could diagnose disease and send the information to a 3D printer, which would then print the medicine immediately for the patient. On a slightly less ambitious scale, he envisions universal telemedicine, where medical attachments are integrated into mobile phones and as ubiquitous as cell phone cameras are today. He particularly imagines the impact this would have in areas such as diagnosing non-communicable diseases, which are sometimes overlooked in low-resource settings due to the prevalence of infectious diseases.
When asked if he thinks he’ll stay focused on mHealth past the X-prize, Andraka laughed and reiterated that he thinks mHealth is “really, really cool.”
“But I don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up, so I can’t say I’m going to end up having a career in mHealth,” he said.
Whatever field Andraka spends his time and energy on over the next 16 years, it’s safe to assume that he’ll be doing incredible work.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackandraka