Have You Contributed to a Health Scam?

When it comes to health products on crowdfunding sites, it's easy to sell fiction.
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If it works, the GoBe will be life-changing. But it’s a big if.

The GoBe is a bracelet that looks like a small microplane has been affixed to a black watchband—the top of the microplane is a display, and its underside is a sensor. Through its “patented flow technology,” the GoBe promises to measure the wearer’s heart rate, calories burned, sleep, and stress levels. That’s all conceivable, given what the FitBit and other body trackers already measure. But the GoBe also promises something a little more sensational: Automatically tracking the calories of everything the wearer eats, through his or her skin.

“We live in an age where people struggle with their diets and need simple ways to take control of their health,” Artem Shipitsyn, the CEO of GoBe’s parent company, HealBe, says in a video on the device’s Indiegogo campaign page. He says the technology would help “people like me live a healthy life with less effort.”

The automatic calorie-tracking, which GoBe claims to do by reading glucose levels in cells, would revolutionize dieting—even the best calorie-counting apps today rely on manual food logging.

“Tell it nothing. Know everything,” the soothing video narrator’s voice says over b-roll of people skiing and clicking on their smartphones.

The premise was so lofty, in fact, that it didn’t take long for tech reporters, led by PandoDaily’s James Robinson, to attack.

Let’s say GoBe does measure glucose levels without piercing the skin, as it claims to do. That would be a godsend to diabetics, who, as it stands, must regularly prick their fingers to test blood sugar. The less-invasive technology is probably coming soon, Michelle MacDonald, a clinical dietician at the National Jewish Health hospital in Denver, told PandoDaily, “but when it does it will be the size of a shoebox ... It will come from a big lab, will be huge news and make a lot of money.”

But on top of that, blood glucose is only a rough measure of total energy intake. Eat a tablespoon of olive oil, and you’ve consumed 119 calories, but your blood sugar would barely rise. A very thin slice of white bread, meanwhile, would send blood sugar soaring and only yields 40 calories.

From its launch in March, the GoBe campaign steadily raked in Indiegogo donations—it’s now at 1,081 percent of its original $100,000 goal. Robinson stayed on the warpath, citing more and more experts who denounced the GoBe technology and publishing several more articles about what he considers to be a complete scam.

HealBe began commenting negatively on Robinson’s articles, then deleting the comments. GoBe backers started demanding refunds. Delivery of the finished device was pushed back to August.

“I’ve been seeing some disturbing articles regarding this project,” one commenter wrote on the HealBe Indiegogo campaign page. “Various articles stating that the things that the GoBe promises cannot be done ... Can anyone offer a rebuttal? Worried about all of the delays and negative statements. Thanks!”

***

Kickstarter doesn’t have a special section for medical projects, but a quick perusal of Indiegogo’s “Health” tab reveals several medically questionable endeavors, like an exercise regimen that promises to improve your sex life and an herbal oral spray that claims to “eliminate stress and anxiety.” One of the most eyebrow-raising is Prime, a substance that says it prevents hangovers because it contains “amino acids and biochemicals your liver needs to naturally break down acetaldehyde and prevent it from harming your body.”

Indiegogo

The only problem? There’s no scientific proof that acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol metabolism, causes hangovers. According to Damaris J. Rohsenow from Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, acetaldehyde likely does not affect hangovers because most hangovers don’t begin until long after acetaldehyde’s byproduct, acetate, leaves the blood.

“Actually, it is largely unknown what causes hangovers, but altered immune functioning as a result of excessive alcohol consumption is more likely,” Joris Verster, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Utrecht, told me. “There is no published scientific evidence that this hangover treatment is effective.”

By Friday morning, Prime had raised $2,402 on Indiegogo.

Of course, many of these campaigns aren’t real products yet. Until they finish fundraising and testing prototypes, many only exist as a twinkle in their creators’ eyes and as slick videos on the Indiegogo campaign pages. It could be that after they’re released, they’ll work flawlessly.

But the dual booms in crowdfunding and medical technology have given rise to a generation of health-ish devices that are, at best, based on shaky scientific evidence, and at worst, dramatically over-promise what they're capable of. Many of these gadgets get fully funded by their crowdfunding patrons, sometimes to several times their original goal.

Health start-ups can be particularly difficult for donors to scrutinize because medical science itself is obscure and confusing. Studies come and go; things that once seemed “good” are now “bad” (e.g. agave nectar). And yet, we all want to be healthy—especially if it requires little more effort than strapping on a wristband.

Jason Haensly and Michael Ciuffo, two engineers and former product consultants, started the site Drop Kicker in 2013 in order to confront dubious crowdfunding claims. They say the health space is a particularly egregious offender.

“Everyone loves a good underdog story and there are a bunch of stories about companies that were funded in a garage by some guy,” Ciuffo said. “But if someone’s advertising a project that seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

The heartwarming story of the lonely tinkerer who brings his product to market with little more than ingenuity and pluck is much rarer than that of the marketing guru whose primary skill is the ability to make a sleek campaign video.

Drop Kicker recently reviewed Angel, a bracelet that aims to measure heart rate, among other things. The site points out that past similar devices struggled to make their bracelets snug-fitting enough to accurately measure heart rate through layers of skin and muscle. Meanwhile, Angel’s campaign video is papered with “sciencey” stock images from around the web and flashy animated graphics. Though funded three times over, Angel, too, has pushed back its delivery to mid-August.

The economics of life-changing medical technology aren’t well-suited for crowdfunding, Haensly and Ciuffo say. Pharmaceutical companies pay big bucks for actual breakthroughs, and the government approval process for medical devices is far more strict and complicated than for other gadgets.

“If it was really that good of a project, they wouldn’t be selling it on Indiegogo, they’d be selling it to Eli Lilly,” Ciuffo said.

The variability of human biology also means any one treatment or device is unlikely to be perfected without the aid of a large, expensive longitudinal study —one a company that is rummaging for change on Indiegogo probably doesn’t have the cash to conduct before it launches.

Still, that’s not to say that even the projects that get delayed or turn out to be duds amount to blatant hucksterism. Kickstarter and Indiegogo both have fraud protections in place, but an Indiegogo representative told me the company doesn’t independently vet the medical claims of projects on the site.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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