Apr 07 2014

Crowdfunding Pseudoscience

Indiegogo is rapidly earning a reputation for not caring whether or not they fund pure pseudoscience. This, in my opinion, is a bad business model, not to mention morally dubious.

I wrote previously about an Indiegogo campaign to fund a free energy device – a “home quantum energy generator.”  Indiegogo claims to have a process to weed out fraud from their campaigns, but this one apparently slipped through their process. When I e-mailed Indiegogo to question them about this campaign, I received nothing but a generic response.

Now pandodaily has been covering a new Indiegogo campaign for a “miracle” device – the GoBe by Healbe. The company claims on their Indiegogo page:

GoBe is the only way to automatically measure calorie intake—through your skin. Simply wear it to see calories consumed and burned, activity, hydration, sleep, stress levels, and more, delivered effortlessly to your smartphone.

They have raised almost a million dollars. Pandodaily has done a great job of investigating the company. It looks as if they are a Russian company with a minimal footprint in the US. They have no patents, have not published any data, and have no history of producing real medical devices. No one outside the  company has seen or tested a working prototype. Read the article for all the sordid details. I want to delve a bit further into the alleged science behind their claims.

One huge red flag for any scientific claims – especially one involving a working device – is when there is no trail of scientific progress leading up to the alleged device. Scientific advances tend to proceed through necessary steps. You have to establish the basics before you get to the more advanced applications.

For anyone following a particular scientific field you can see the paper-trail of a scientific advance as each incremental step is published and debated by the community. It’s a dynamic process. When a company or researcher claims to have made a breakthrough that is many steps ahead of the public transparent science, this is a red flag. Companies coming out of nowhere with advances that are 10-20 years or more ahead of their time is the stuff of movies, not reality.

In this case, what exactly is Healbe claiming? They claim to use a small wearable impedance device to measure water and glucose levels inside cells. With this information they employ an algorithm (in other words – a black box) to somehow calculate total calories consumed and burned by the wearer. These claims involve multiple highly unlikely advances.

The basic claim is that the company has developed a non-invasive method for measuring blood glucose. If this were true, why wouldn’t they market it first just as a glucose monitor for diabetics? They could then use the millions they would make to develop the specific application they are now claiming, to calculate caloric intake and burning.

There are multiple companies working on non-invasive glucose monitoring. The most promising approach seems to be near infrared technology. An Israeli company, for example, claims to have such a device but it is not yet on the market. We do seem to be on the brink of such devices coming out, but it will likely take several years for them to be properly tested and receive approval.

Healbe claims to use a different technology, impedance. There is also research into impedance spectroscopy to measure blood glucose, but this is the less promising technology. Such devices are more cumbersome, less accurate, and require calibration to the specific patient.

If measuring blood glucose non-invasively were the extent of the claims, I would be highly suspicious – such claims are not implausible, just a bit ahead of schedule. My suspicions would be based on the lack of a paper trail. For the other devices we have published studies with actual data.

This is a common scam – take an emerging technology for which there is already some buzz and simply claim to have developed it fully. There will be a lot of basic science papers you can point to in order to lend credibility to your claims. The technology is obviously plausible otherwise scientists would not be talking about it. The scam is simply pretending to have leapfrogged 10-20 years ahead of all the competition. We are seeing this now with all the fraudulent stem cell clinics popping up.

We are not done with the GoBe, however. The real implausibility here is that the company claims to have developed an algorithm to extrapolate from water and glucose level measurements to total caloric intake and output. For this claim the basic science simply isn’t there.

Caloric intake comes from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Glucose management in the body is a bit complex, and blood glucose levels are just one factor. There are lots of other factors, including fat storage, liver storage of carbohydrates, insulin levels and resistance, and metabolic rate.

Being able to estimate total caloric intake and output from water and blood glucose levels, if this is even possible, would likely require decades of research to sort out all the variables. This would like require a collaboration among many researchers and institutions, and we would be seeing hundreds of published papers establishing the basic knowledge necessary for such technology.

Put simply, this is not the sort of thing that is going to come from a previously unknown company in Russia with no track record of producing such technology, let alone conducting the necessary biomedical research.

The only conclusion I can come to is that this device is a total scam. The chance of it doing what it claims to do is practically zero. It’s possible the company believes they have a working device and are just scientifically illiterate and deceiving themselves. It’s also possible they have realized that crowdfunding campaigns are the perfect scam.

This leads us to an important question – what is the responsibility of sites like Indiegogo to protect their users from fraud? We can argue the ethics of this endlessly. Should the buyer beware, or does Indiegogo have a responsibility not become accessories to fraud? But here’s the thing – Indiegogo claims to protect their users from fraud. They write:

Indiegogo has a comprehensive fraud-prevention system to protect our users. Campaigns and contributions that have been flagged by our fraud detection system go through a thorough review. If we find fraudulent contributions on your campaign, we may remove them from your campaign.

Whether or not you feel they should protect against fraud, they claim that they do. Clearly, however, they are not doing a great job. In addition to funding a fake free energy device, they are now on the brink of funding a fake health monitor. Pandodaily also points to another dubious medical device funded through Indiegogo,  a small device the manufacturer claims can detect the nutritional content of food. The device, however, cannot possibly work as described.

Crowdfunding is new regulatory territory. Medical devices need to be approved by the FDA, and marketing claims can be reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission. Do either of these agencies have any power to regular a crowdfunding campaign, even if it is for a medical device? Are crowdfunding campaigns commercial speech regulated by the FTC? I have inquiries out to both agencies to get their opinions.

Meanwhile Indiegogo is clearly failing to live up to their claims to protect their users from fraud, at least in the cases I discuss above. There is still time to do the right thing for the GoBe device as the funds have not been released. So far Indigogo says everything is on the up and up. I predict if they release the near million dollars to the company the funds will disappear into a Russian bank and we will never see them again.

7 responses so far