The Healbe GoBe Indiegogo Crowdfund:  Fraud or Just Naiveté?

Healbe prototype plus claims from Indiegogo campaign page

By Patricia Salber and Dov Michaeli

Was the Healbe GoBe Indiegogo Crowdfund Intentionally Misleading?  Here’s Our Take

Healbe prototype from Indiegogo campaign page
Healbe prototype plus claims from Indiegogo campaign page

So, there’s a great big brouhaha over the wildly successful crowdfund for Healbe’s GoBe – the self-proclaimed “Original 100% Automatic Body Manager.”  The company raised over $1,084,311 in just 32 days.  They did it by offering contributors the chance to be the first on their block to have one of their cool looking (and sounding devices) and to get it at a substantial discount – $189 for a $299 device with postage included.)

Other companies have successfully crowdfunded large sums on Indiegogo without this big of a fuss – remember the Pebble Watch, Misfit’s Shine, Lumoback, and Scanadu?  What was different this time?  Well, allegations of fraud, that’s what.


The PandoDaily’s Anti-Healbe Campaign

James Robinson who writes for PandoDaily has made it his mission to discredit not only the GoBe device, but also Indiegogo (“Indiegogo’s grotesque negligence over the Healbe campaign — which actually borders on active conspiracy to defraud…”)

Here are links to some of Robinson’s stories:

Robinson’s campaign to discredit Healbe seems to be working.  The campaign comment page is filled with notes from people asking for a refund because they have lost trust in the campaign. Love the idea many of them say, but please give me my money back. I will buy the GoBe after it comes on the market. 

Money back?

I have no idea if people are actually getting their money back.  Nor do I know who is going to cover the legitimate costs of the campaign – the PayPal and credit card processing fees.  Is Indiegogo going to hold Healbe accountable for paying them their share of the take – 4% of the total funds raised?  Or is there going to be some split of the losses.  We are pretty sure our James Robinson over at PandoDaily will let us know.

Meanwhile, what about the claims of fraud?  Was this a deliberate attempt to bilk the public or was this just bad science and naïve scientists?  We do know that Healbe managed to convince some rather big companies that they were for real.  They are listed as sharing the Levin Consulting booth at the 2014 Consumer Electronic Show and Brian Blanchette, President of MicroArts Creative Agency, Healbe’s PR company, gave a testimonial stating that “we are proud to be a part of the Healbe team…” (a statement he may come to regret if the charges of fraud prove true).


But we digress, the controversy is about the science

Here is our analysis:

The inventors of this device claim to have a wearable device that contains 3 sensors:

  • Piezo pressure sensor
  • Impedance sensor
  • Accelerometer

Of the three, we have no problem with the accelerometer –it is a well-documented application, embedded in every smartphone. The other two are more problematical.


Can the GoBe really measure blood flow and heart rate?

The piezoelectric sensor purports to measure blood flow and heart rate.  To explain: the piezoelectric phenomenon refers to the generation of electric charge that accumulates in certain solids, such as crystals, in response to applied mechanical stress. By placing the device over the radial artery they can measure the electricity generated by the deformation of the crystal, which in turn is a function of the waveform of the radial pulse.

But from that to inferring cardiac output (which we assume that’s what they mean by “blood flow”) is a huge leap of faith.  To explain: cardiac output is a function of heart rate and stroke volume. But stroke volume itself is not an independent variable; it depends on the venous return to the heart (also referred to as preload), the peripheral resistance (afterload), and cardiac contractility (the force with which the heart contracts). So to calculate the stroke volume, you need to know those three variables.

You don’t have to be a rocket engineer to know basic high school algebra: to solve for 2 variables you need 2 equations; to solve for three variables images-1you need 3 equations. The problem is much more complicated then solving for a few variables. To enormously complicate matters, those variables interact with each other. For instance, the elastic vessels of a child are quite different from the rigid vessels of an elderly, and that in turn affects the force with which the heart needs to pump to deliver a given blood volume. How does this affect the waveform, and can it be distinguished from the waveform of a middle-aged athlete whose heart and blood vessels are in excellent shape?  Or from a person with heart failure who takes medication to increase cardiac contractility or to reduce the afterload?

In the days before the invention of the sphygmomanometer (aka blood pressure cuff), physicians inferred (rather, guessed) about blood pressure and cardiac output by describing the pulse as “bounding”, or “thread-like.” Measuring the same thing by using a more sophisticated sensor than our finger still gives us the same (limited) quality of information.


What about calories?

imgresThe claim that measurement of impedance can yield information on caloric intake, caloric output (with the help of the accelerometer) and the composition of the diet is utterly ludicrous.  To explain: water impedes the conductivity of electricity. The lie-detector test is based on this phenomenon (also called the galvanic response). The assumption is that when a person lies, his sympathetic nervous system is activated, causing increased sweating, and voila – lie exposed! Except that a huge volume of research debunked this cozy conclusion.

So what about skin impedance as a metabolic measure? This is even less plausible than the lie-detector test. The inventors make the assumption that water displacement from cells is linear with glucose influx. They neglect to take into account individual variations. Individuals differ in their insulin sensitivity, even if they are all within the normal range, let alone type 2 diabetics.

They also did not measure the insulin/water relationship in different tissues. Are the dry epidermal skin cells the same as a muscle cell or a liver cell? The answer is most likely not. Is the shape of the blood glucose curve after a meal the same if the person drank sucrose-sweetened tea as if he ate a slice of whole grain bread (complex carbohydrate) or a peach (fructose)? The answer again is “no.”

As an aside, how could the scientists claim that they can infer from the data the composition of the meal if they haven’t, as they disclose, even worked out the caloric contribution of proteins? By the way, every basic Biochemistry text tells us that 1 gram of glucose yields (upon complete digestion to CO2 and water) 4 Kcal, 1 gram of protein yields the same 4 Kcal, and every gram of fat yields 9 Kcal. The claims about calorie intake and expenditure betray, in my opinion, profound ignorance of basic biochemistry and physiology.

So is it fraud, or just naiveté?

We tend to think that the rocket and software engineers behind the science of Healbe are well-meaning people. They just wandered into a field of enormous complexity, much more so than the most complex rocket (or for that mater any machine) ever designed. We are not as charitable with the medical “scientists” that offered advice and endorsements. They should have known better.

What really puzzles us is why Healbe didn’t instead perfect their original concept, a non-invasive glucose monitor based on the same principles? That is a product with a huge market.  If successful, they could have raked in jillions.  Could it be because the concept simply did not work?

Disclosure:  The authors are owners of Health Tech Hatch, a resource for healthcare innovators, that offers crowdfunding on its Indiegogo HealthTechHatch partner page.

Patricia Salber, MD, MBA is the founder and host of The Doctor Weighs In. She is also the CEO of Health Tech Hatch, the sister site of TDWI that helps innovators tell their stories to the world. She is also a physician executive who has worked in all aspects of healthcare including practicing emergency physician, health plan executive, consultant to employers, CMS, and other organizations. She is a Board Certified Internist and Emergency Physician who loves to write about just about anything that has to do with healthcare.