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Doubts and delays fail to drown interest in controversial GoBe calorie counter

can controversial calorie counter healbe gobe work were about to find out top
Jeffrey Van Camp | Digital Trends

As his company prepares its first shipment to long-suffering backers, Healbe Managing Director George Mikaberydze finally offered a frank assessment of the criticism that he has received over the past year.

“Half at least, it was absolutely bullshit,” Mikaberydze said, referring to reports that his company was running a scam through its campaign on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.

Since doubtful media outlets first caught wind of Healbe’s Indiegogo campaign, Mikaberydze and his partner, CEO Artem Shipitsin, have been called everything from fraudsters and hustlers. These accusations have persisted as they repeatedly pushed back the release of the controversial GoBe activity tracker, a wristwatch-like device that purports to track your caloric intake automatically, without manually entering what you’ve eaten.

When the GoBe ships, Healbe will be the first company of its kind to release such a commercial product.

If it works, the device would be real scientific accomplishment. Digital Trends has exclusively obtained the very first review unit, and will post an extensive review of the device shortly.

Mikaberydze’s colorful statement adorned a rare, unguarded moment. A soft-spoken man whose English is as limited as his technical knowledge of his company’s product, he mostly dodged and weaved around contentious questions during the hours that he has spent talking to Digital Trends over the weeks and months, breaking down into nervous laughter whenever he would not or could not answer a query.

Last May, he and Shipitsin sat down with us in our New York office to explain the intricacies of what they deemed a breakthrough. Mikaberydze explained the business side while his partner handled the technical questions. We brought their claims to experts, all of whom expressed doubts that they were for real. Almost six months later, they’re singing the same tune, only this time, Shipitsin was reduced to a disembodied voice coming from a laptop. He was in Hong Kong, where he tended to his company’s manufacturing process before the GoBe shipped to Indiegogo contributors.

As Mikaberydze submitted the GoBe tracker to our extensive tests, he took on the role of the enthusiastic salesman, at every turn swearing that the GoBe is the real deal. For a lot of people, that claim is hard to believe. Healbe may be the most scrutinized crowdfunded project ever, something that makes its $1 million haul (its initial funding goal was $100,000) even more impressive.

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Healbe’s George Mikaberydze (right front) and Artem Shipitsin (right back) met with Digital Trends in May, but their primitive prototype wasn’t yet ready for review.

The company says that it has found a way to automatically count calorie intake by tracking blood glucose levels through sensors incorporated into a wearable device. It’s a claim that straddles the thin border between improbable and plausible. It sounds like science fiction even — yet also lies within the realm of possibility. We won’t explain the technology in depth, since we’ve already expounded on that in our previous report, where we described the inner workings of the GoBe, complete with images of an older prototype.

Healbe is not the first to chase the dream of non-invasive health monitoring. Apple was rumored to be developing needle-less blood analysis for the Apple Watch. Last September, Apple announced a partnership with Stanford University Hospital for using the HealthKit app to monitor the blood-sugar levels of diabetic children using an iPod Touch.

Related: Exclusive hands-on, how Healbe GoBe works, and more

While many may find Healbe’s claims dubious, it is not the most ambitious project of its kind. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can produce a portable wireless device that monitors vital signs and diagnoses health conditions. The competition is named after the “tricorder,” the fictional scanner from Star Trek. The competition, which recently named 10 finalists, attracted entries from institutions such as NASA and Johns Hopkins University.

Deadlines, deadlines

Healbe’s crowdfunding campaign received negative publicity early on, and the company failed to quell doubts among backers as it pushed back the delivery date for the GoBe. Mikaberydze claims that the device was ready during the initial launch date, but the company held off from shipping the product to make improvements. Last September, it blamed delays on mass production issues. The initial units were said to have warped due to heat, causing the cover to fall off more easily. The company then missed its mid-November deadline after announcing that it shipped 70 GoBes for testing and FCC and CE certification. To be fair, while Healbe’s delays failed to inspire confidence, it was not entirely unique. In fact, this happens often enough that we have a guide for dealing with the agonizing wait for a $10 thank-you-note.

It’s a claim that straddles the thin border between improbable and plausible.

“In July-August, in terms of algorithms, in terms of data that we show, it was ready to be launched,” he said. “We promise to be on time but sometimes it happens. Anyway, If we deliver the device but it doesn’t commit in terms of services and the functionality we’ll make the refunds anyway.”

Healbe said that the company divided its time between improving existing features and adding new ones, just because its creators discovered that they can. It’s a puzzling move for a company in Healbe’s position. However, Shipitsin insists that the new features did not push back the release date.

“Previous delays (were due to) usual manufacturing issues. It’s the usual story when you manufacture something from metal,” he said.

According to Mikaberydze, the device has been altered significantly over the past six months. While questions persist over its existing features, the company saw it fit to add new ones. Mikaberydze mentioned the GoBe’s newfound ability to measure protein intake. The previous version of the activity tracker supposedly only tracked carbohydrates and fat. Mikaberydze also pointed to improvements to the GoBe’s features, which he claims resulted in new applications for the device. “(With) sleep, initially we were supposed to show only the REMs and the best time when you can wake up. Then we found out that we can also track some heart problems during the night, whether it’s like low heart beat or high heart beat or some breaks in the heart beat. Since we have continuous heart rate monitoring, we can do this,” he said.

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Jeffrey Van Camp | Digital Trends

The device has supposedly been endowed with the ability to track alcohol intake as well, although Mikaberydze said that the feature requires more testing. He claims that the activity tracker was also improved to produce more accurate readings. The GoBe can now be “notified” when the wearer is on a protein or low-carb diet, and it will take that information into account when it sends back results. An earlier version of the device required a two-week period to calibrate for a new user, the new one just two days.

Hard evidence

Healbe continues to assert that it is the victim of its own success, and that its engineers merely beat more established competitors to a breakthrough. To support its claim, the company disseminated a glowing review from Dr. Armin Shahrokni of the Geriatrics and Oncology Department of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center in New York City.

Shahrokni, who tested the device on just five patients, wrote that the GoBe has “huge potential/impact” and that “testing results show the accuracy of the readings of GoBe device for the Energy Input after Food Ingestion parameter within the range of 72 percent to 95 percent.” That’s a wide accuracy range, however, it still touches on the 15-to-20 percent margin of error that Healbe claims.

“I never asked for a refund and honestly, I never really considered it.”

But Dr. Sharokni’s comes with strings attached. A representative from Sloan-Kettering told Digital Trends that the tests were not conducted in their facilities and with their patients. The tests that Dr. Shahrokni conducted were described as “excess research,” since it did not go through the hospital’s Internal Review Board or Clinical Trials Office. It is also unclear what methodologies were used to evaluate the GoBe. There was no mention of important details such as the type of food that the subjects ate, or the specific tests that were performed. Digital Trends placed several calls to Dr. Shahrokni’s office to get a more detailed explanation of his testing, but received no reply.

Sloan-Kettering has since requested the removal of its masthead from the letter to make it clear that the institution is not endorsing the device. The hospital has a non-endorsement policy that prohibits recommendations for commercial products like the GoBe. A link to Dr. Shahrokni’s letter in Healbe’s blog now leads to an error page.

This casts doubt on Mikaberydze’s claims of further tests with Sloan-Kettering’s involvement. Mikaberydze said that his company was involved in a research project with Sloan-Kettering, with funding coming from both sides. “… They’re looking towards the device to help them with their patients,” he said.

Patient backers

While Healbe has not been entirely forthcoming in providing evidence to support its claims, few backers seem to mind. Among the funders we spoke with, most exhibited patience for 1.0 technology and a strong faith in crowdfunding.

Ashley Bell, one of Healbe’s Indiegogo backers, said she is aware that a lot of people think Healbe is putting on a scam, but she is clinging to the hope that the company “will not take advantage” of its backers.

“I bought one because I’m tired of calculating my calories by hand. At first, I was a little sketchy about the product but I decided to give it a shot,” Bell said. “I am willing to wait for it to go through. Just like with any new product, there will be a lot of defective ones. I’d rather wait a little more time as long as I get a proper, functional one.”

“I never asked for a refund and honestly, I never really considered it,” said Jesper Bech Myhre, another Healbe contributor. “Personally, I hope they ‘oversold’ the device and technology for the funding, and after getting the money they put in the effort to make a really good and solid device.”

Bell and Myhre’s sentiment may be the prevailing attitude among Healbe funders. The company raised a total of $1,080,871 during its Indiegogo campaign. According to Mikaberydze, only about 200 orders have been refunded, to the tune of $32,000 to $35,000.

If Mikaberydze’s claims are true, only a small fraction of Healbe’s backers have committed to refunds. The company’s funders purchased 5,131 units through its Indiegogo page alone. Mikaberydze said that the company is on the hook to deliver 6,500 devices to 4,000 customers. Some of the units may be headed for retail outlets, since Healbe has announced a deal with consumer electronics distributor New Age Electronics.

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Jeffrey Van Camp | Digital Trends

When the GoBe ships, Healbe will be the first company of its kind to release such a commercial product. One of its predecessors, Airo Health, which promised a similar wearable device that counts calories, refunded customers after admitting that it could not produce a working product by fall of 2014. We consider it a show of good faith that Healbe is willing to submit the GoBe for evaluation and we’re holding off on making a final verdict until we’ve fully tested the device.

The most important question is, does the GoBe work or not? We’re currently working on a definitive answer to that query, and a conclusion is coming soon. We’re putting the device through its paces and we guarantee it won’t be a long wait. Check back with us soon for a thorough review.