Who knew counting calories could give the Web high blood pressure?
Russian company Healbe boldly claims that sensors on its activity tracking wristband can discern how many calories you’re consuming each day, simply by resting on your skin and monitoring the sugar level of your cells. The company has raised $1,054,127 on Indiegogo based on that pitch, and for anyone with diabetes who constantly draws blood to monitor their sugar level, the very idea is a game changer.
Yet the company’s claims and the crowd-funded cash have led to widespread blowback, notably from James Robinson of Pando Daily, who has written 14 separate reports on the GoBe wristband since March 20, labelling it a scam and calling the team at Healbe “fraudsters.” Other media organizations including us have also criticized the device.
The GoBe appears to be a real device with real people behind it, and a real history.
To get answers, Digital Trends met with senior leadership of Healbe in our New York office. During exclusive interviews running from April 24 to 25, Deputy Managing Editor Jeff Van Camp and myself saw the GoBe watch in action and interviewed top company leadership about the controversial gadget. It was the first public demonstration.
We were not permitted to wear it ourselves, nor were we left with a review unit. But we did watch as Healbe Managing Director George Mikaberydze ingested a can of Mountain Dew, and then observed as the bracelet detected that he had ingested a lot of sugar. When he took it off on our request, we saw his glucose levels fall to zero on a companion iPhone app. He put the bracelet back on. They soared again.
It was not rehearsed.
The GoBe appears to be a real device with real people behind it, and a real history.
The calorie counting controversy
The Healbe GoBe activity tracker has been the subject of intense criticism since it approached (and then exceeded) $1 million in fundraising on Indiegogo this spring. Healbe claims that, if you wear it all the time, the GoBe wristband can accurately measure how many calories you ingest on a daily basis, while also tracking how many calories you are spending using accelerometers and heart-rate sensors. It monitors calories with a special “impedance” sensor, a pressure sensor, and a lot of complex math algorithms that we’ll delve into shortly.
Media sites like Pando Daily have contacted nutritionists, doctors, and other medical folks who all say it sounds too crazy and magical to be true. The science isn’t there, and neither is the paper trail of research, they argue. Digital Trends has also contacted scientists, who have also been sceptical of the company’s claims.
If this is a purposeful fraud or con, Healbe is terrible at conning. The company came to the U.S. to secure independent testing of its device and meet with Indiegogo, but it also spent two days talking to us, trying to explain how its device works. We had two separate meetings filled with broken English, thick Russian accents, lots of hand-drawn diagrams, and three guys each correcting and talking over each other to try to best explain this thing.
It was like a recent episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, in which an engineer running a startup company cannot for the life of him explain to ordinary people how his file-compression algorithm works. Healbe has been thrust into the spotlight thanks to a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign and now it’s dealing with the repercussions of that success. (A great article at TechCrunch looks into the startup crowdfunding process through the lens of Healbe.)
Healbe CEO Artem Shipistsin, Mikaberydze, and Brian Blanchette from New Hampshire PR firm MicroArts Creative Agency spent more than two hours drawing pictures of cell membranes and sensors to bridge the language barrier and explain the complex science purportedly behind this device. Both Shipitsin and Mikaberydze struggled with English and had really thick Russian accents. It required a “translation train” of sorts to get accurate explanations: Shipitsin made his statements in English but would naturally revert to Russian, at which point Mikaberydze (also Russian) would interject with the rough English translation; after that, Blanchette would intervene in American English to make things clearer.
It took hours and two separate sessions to get an explanation of how the device works. If HealBe is going to make it anywhere with GoBe, it’s going to need a lot of professional marketing and branding help.
Still, Healbe’s difficulty explaining its gadget does not make the gizmo a fake. We don’t know how accurate the GoBe is, but after seeing it, we’re prepared to give Healbe the benefit of the doubt — for now.
On the next page, we’ll begin explaining how Healbe’s GoBe watch actually tracks calories.
Next Page: How GoBe works
How the Healbe GoBe sensor works
We have yet to fully test the device, merely having the privilege of witnessing a demonstration. Our inspection of the device may be cursory, but we can attest that it seemed to work to some degree. How accurate the readings are, we can only speculate — more on that when we get a demo device. But for now, if you’ve put down money for a GoBe body manager on Indiegogo, you’ll get back more than a hollow piece of plastic.
It takes at least a week to truly test the GoBe tracker.
Another reason we can’t swear by the accuracy of the device is that it takes at least a week to truly test the GoBe tracker. According to Healbe co-founder and Managing Director George Mikaberydze, it would take that much time to get optimal accuracy from the device, since it needs to learn patterns such as your sleep cycle and the changes in your glucose level throughout the day. The company told us that a full-fledged review unit will be available to Digital Trends in May because they are still making changes before shipping out the GoBe tracker.
They also explained the science behind the device to us, in an effort to shed light on the many questions surrounding it.
The GoBe tracker uses an impedance sensor to calculate calorie intake. The sensors take readings four times per minutes to measure the body’s “glucose curve” (the changes in the body’s glucose levels) throughout the day.
Mikaberydze demonstrated GoBe’s glucose curve readings by drinking a can of Mountain Dew, which produced a spike in his glucose levels within minutes. Healbe CEO Artem Shipitsin explained the mechanics behind the upswing: “It’s really fast because it’s sugar, it’s simple starch.”
The GoBe reads the glucose curve through a roundabout process. Shipitsin said that his approach is unique because the device first measures the amount of liquid in tissues then uses the information to produce other readings.
“We measure not glucose, we measure fluid in general,” Shipitsin said. “When we eat something, glucose appears in our blood and cells need to absorb this glucose. When glucose come to the cell, there’s not enough room. Cell needs to release liquid … Sugar is very fast. Glucose in our blood has the highest frequency parameter change in our blood. We need insulin. It’s like the key to the cell. When we use impedance, it’s like signal from two different frequencies, high and low. The electric signal can go through cells on the low frequency. On the high frequency, the signal goes through the tissue. if we understand the differences between high and low frequency, we understand the level of fluid inside cells and outside cells.”
By detecting the amount of liquid that the cells release, the GoBe is able to get a reading on a person’s glucose levels. The sensors detect changes in the amount of liquid that cells release by sending high and low frequency signals through the tissue. According to Shipitsin, liquid detection is what sets GoBe apart from other devices that measure glucose.
“Existing impedance method is too simple. Our body doesn’t work in this way … Many, many companies try to use this. But their main mistake is direct correlation between sugar and measuring parameter … Impedance can’t measure the sugar, impedance can measure the water. But water depends on sugar. It’s a link that’s not direct. It’s what we use,” he said.
Impedance-based analysis of cells is not new. It has been around for about three decades and has applications in cell biology research. What’s new is how GoBe is trying to use impedance.
We asked experts to weigh in on the method’s effectiveness for measuring liquid and sending back readings for glucose and calorie intake. The makers of the Basis smart watch, who claim to produce “the world’s most advanced health tracker,” declined to comment on Healbe’s claims. A spokesman for Samsung, which makes a health tracker called the Gear Fit, laughed when asked if it were possible.
Calorie counting using glucose
The changes in the glucose curve are used to detect how much fat and carbohydrates a person consumes. The proportion of carbohydrates and fat in a person’s meal affects the shape of the glucose curve. If a person eats food with a lot of fat, the absorption of glucose would be slower. If the meal is heavy on carbohydrates, the absorption would be faster. The company claims that the GoBe activity tracker has a 15-20 percent margin of error for calorie intake measurement compared to calorie counts on food labels. Shipitsin said that the next step for the device would be the ability to provide automatic nutrition recommendations. Given the device’s ability to detect a person’s glucose index, Shipitsin claims the company can generate food recommendations when people are at the supermarket. This feature is not yet a part of the service.
We asked a nutritionist to comment on HealBe’s calorie counting claims. Similar to previous analysis, the device and claims inspired doubt.
“The issue is that there are many foods that have no impact on serum glucose levels that still contain calories. So for example, a tablespoon of olive oil would contain 135 calories but because it has zero grams of carbohydrates your glucose levels would not elevate at all,” said Tanya Zuckerbrot, a dietitian and the creator of the popular F-Factor Diet.
The impedance sensor cannot directly calculate carbs and fat, but the company uses an algorithm it calls “Flow Technology” to determine them.
“If you use a few tablespoons of olive oil per day that could be an extra 500 calories that would not be monitored. Same with protein — whether it’s beef, pork, lamb, veal, fish, seafoods, egg, or cheese. None of these foods contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose and glucose concentration is what they’re measuring to monitor caloric absorption. So it’s not explaining how it’s going to regulate calories from foods that do not increase glucose levels.”
According to Healbe’s website and what we were told, the impedance sensor cannot directly calculate carbs and fat, but the company uses an algorithm it calls “Flow Technology” to determine them. There are also options in its app to let GoBe know if you are on a low-carb diet. As you use it over a period of days and weeks, Healbe argues that it will get more and more accurate, thanks to Flow’s ability to learn your patterns.
“The relative proportions of fat and carbohydrates in your meal affect the shape of the glucose curve,” reads the FAQ on the Healbe site. “Generally speaking, carbohydrate-heavy meals cause rapid uptake of glucose by your cells. Meals containing more fat lead to a slower absorption of glucose. Flow uses a sophisticated mathematical model to analyze the dynamics of your glucose curve and determine the percentage of calories you consume from carbohydrates vs. fats.”
Shipitsin told us about another process, which helps Healbe specifically calculate fat content in your diet, but asked us not to share the details of it because a patent has not yet been granted.
With the amount of time needed to get an accurate calorie counting reading, we can neither address nor affirm Zuckerbrot’s doubts about the device. For now, we can only say that we’ve seen the device work. Until we get to fully test it, we won’t know for sure.
How accurate is it at calculating glucose?
The original technology for the tracker, from which the device derives the ability to take non-invasive glucose measurements, was developed by consulting firm Gen3 Partners. The Boston-based company has since acquired a stake in Healbe. Its involvement in the venture resulted in a collaboration between Healbe and its subsidiary Algorithm. The HealBe-Algorithm connection, in turn, set off the development of the GoBe’s automatic calorie-counting capability.
The technology for the GoBe body manager came from somewhere else. HealBe merely steered its application from medical use to health and lifestyle, the company says. When Gen3 first consulted Shipitsin about a device for diabetics, they were attempting to persuade doctors to use the technology. In an attempt to avoid the process of obtaining FDA approval, Shipitsin convinced Algorithm to develop the device for a different purpose. “It’s big money,” he said.
In spite of repeated declarations that the GoBe is not a medical device, Shipitsin said that their body manager works just as well as glucometers, which diabetics use to determine the glucose concentration in their blood.
“This is not official, but if you go look at the documents of usual glucometer, which diabetics use right now, the accuracy is the same,” Shipitsin said. “If you look at the documents, you’ll be surprised.”
Handheld glucose meters, which are regulated by the FDA, are required to have an accuracy rate of 95 percent. That is, 95 percent of the results must be within +/- 20 percent of the true value. Several studies have also shown that many blood glucose meters in the U.S. and Germany fall short of the standard. We were told that the GoBe tracker has an accuracy rate of 80 percent for detecting glucose levels. That figure is off the official books, however. In the FAQ on its website, the company said that the body manager is “not designed to measure glucose in the treatment of diabetes, and it is not a substitute for regular glucose monitoring.”
HealBe wants to steer away from the medical industry to corner the “body manager” market, which in actuality it has invented. “It’s a question of market, it’s a question of pharmacy, we don’t want to discuss it all. We don’t want to compete with medical,” Shipitsin said. Getting approved by the FDA for medical use is a difficult process. Still, if the device is as accurate as Shipitsin claims, it may be useful to those keeping track of their glucose. Few doctors will recommend it, of course.
Next page: How the Healbe app works, and when it’s coming
GoBe also tracks blood pressure, heart rate, and sleep
Part of the puzzle to Healbe’s tech is how it uses the Piezo pressure sensor — also located inside the GoBe wristband. This lets it rudimentarily keep track of your stress level and monitor REM cycles while you sleep. The Basis smartwatch, available on shelves today, has these kinds of features. Shipitsin told us that these sleeping features were created in an effort to persuade users to wear the GoBe 24/7. Monitoring calorie intake is a 24-hour-a-day job because it takes many hours for meals to be digested and affect your cells.
We asked what happens when you have to take off the band to charge it (it gets about 3 days of battery life, currently). This will mean a gap in your data, but as the technology tracks you over a period of time, Healbe believes it can fill in empty gaps of time in your glucose pattern fairly accurately by piecing together your patterns and what data it has before and after you take the band off.
Like other fitness bands, data is stored on the Healbe and is then synced to your Android device or iPhone via a low-energy Bluetooth connection. The iPhone app we saw was responsive and looked as advertised on Healbe’s website and Indiegogo campaign. The full-fledged website was still in a beta phase, and had a few issues, but it also appeared that it will work as advertised. The GoBe will ask users for basic body information like age, sex, and weight to help better fine-tune its algorithm.
There have been many prototypes
HealBe has scrapped several versions of the device. Over the past two months, the company has gone through four prototypes, mostly in an effort to improve power consumption and reduce its size.
“You see it’s not a small device,” said Shipitsin. “We try to decrease size. It needs some different configuration of sensor and solution in the top and bottom housing. It’s very important, the connection between the band and the wrist, because the band for us is like a sensor. We need a good connection.”
The company has been somewhat successful in making the body manager smaller. The first prototype of the device had two straps and looked like a smartband and a digital watch on top of each other. The pictures of it, and other prototypes, can be found below:
Blanchette, the spokesman, claims that the device has been fine-tuned and scrapped several times — evidence, he said, that the technology works. “I thought it was important to talk about how long they’ve been doing it and the different prototypes that came out,” he told us. “There was, through the articles, ‘These guys came out of nowhere. The device came out of nowhere.’ Any of these companies that are working on technology that we haven’t heard about, they’re not looking to tell us about them either.”
The problems and struggles the Healbe team described with its earlier prototypes did sound like tales we’ve heard from other gadget makers. The demo device we saw in action, for example, had issues displaying data on its blue light-up display and syncing with iPhone. More than once, Mikaberydze had to take off its metal top, press on the machinery to see it was working, and replace the lid. The final model, we’re told, won’t require fiddling to get it to behave properly.
Testing will happen soon
Detractors and supporters can keep arguing about whether the GoBe is a scam or not. But the timeframe for that is rapidly closing.
“At this point, the product’s going to speak for itself,” said Blanchette. “We’ve had a successful Indiegogo campaign. There’s obviously a lot of interest in this technology and this product. And now, it’s time for the product to speak for itself. That’s going to happen in the very near future once the product is manufactured, and the first few hundred go out for testing and product reviews.”
Healbe promised Digital Trends an early device for review and we will do many rounds of rigorous testing when we receive it in May/June. Blanchette also claims that it came to New York to meet with a reputable independent testing company and is hopeful that the company can secure a deal and test the device early this summer. Backers will receive their first units in
July/August June/July and we’ll certainly find out if they receive empty boxes. Healbe hopes to start taking online orders later this month and start delivering those units in the July/August timeframe.
(Update note by Jeffrey Van Camp: A Healbe representative has clarified to us that “Indiegogo backers will receive their units in June/July. The units delivered in July/August will be to fulfill online orders as Healbe hopes to launch online sales this month.”)
If the GoBe works anywhere close to advertised, it will be an incredible leap forward for health tracking. We’re excited to get our hands on it — if only to get a handle on how many Mountain Dews we really drink each day.
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