The experiment kicked off a year ago when Ayub Khattak, co-founder of the health-monitoring startup Cue, resolved to eat only quinoa, leafy greens, and the like. His business partner, Clint Sever, subsisted on fast food. Every day, four times a day, they measured themselves using their company’s namesake device, which can gauge testosterone, the luteinizing hormone linked to female fertility, vitamin D, and inflammation. Cue also produces an accurate diagnosis of influenza.
“It was fascinating to see what happened,” Khattak recalls of their one-month experiment, which coincided with an intense period of development for their startup. Their respective diets had an easily trackable effect, and Sever’s fast-food intake took a toll. “A few hours after eating junk food, your inflammation levels spike,” says Sever. After two weeks, he found his inflammation stopped dropping back down to its previous levels. “The baseline went up and stayed up.”
Increases in inflammation, the co-founders learned, corresponded with decreased testosterone levels. And even more bizarre, Khattak and Sever also discovered that their testosterone levels seemed to move in sync, much like women’s menstruation sometimes does. “We were spending all our time together, we practically lived together,” says Sever. “We were on the same cycle, so to speak.”
After four years and $1.5 million in investments, the San Diego-based startup began taking orders for the Cue device last month. It takes minutes—and a swab of bodily fluid—to come up with results, and sells at a pre-order price of $199. Perhaps predictably, most of Cue’s pre-orders have come from Silicon Valley, where the majority of customers—brogrammers, no doubt—are looking to monitor their testosterone levels. Customers most interested in monitoring inflammation come in a close second to the testosterone watchers. Orders from overseas—as far away as Kenya and Saudi Arabia—tend to gravitate toward the flu diagnostic function.
Khattak, 29, came up with the idea for Cue during the height of the swine flu outbreak in 2009. “Cruise ships were being kept at port, they were quarantining people,” he recalls. At the time he was a lab researcher at UCLA, and he resolved to build a simple, on-the-spot flu test modeled after the glucose meter used by diabetics.
For help, Khattak approached his then-neighbor, Sever, an experienced entrepreneur who wanted to measure more than the flu. The device they created is three inches tall and weighs less than a pound. Five cartridges test the five different health-marker molecules using a sample swab of the appropriate bodily fluid: blood for vitamin D, inflammation, and fertility; saliva for testosterone; and nasal fluid for influenza. The results are sent to the user’s smartphone via Bluetooth.
Cue’s readings can be forwarded to physicians who could, in theory, prescribe medication at their discretion. The startup’s next steps will involve larger third-party testing for accuracy and eventually U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance.
Several companies are building devices for on-the-spot diagnostics. Cambridge (Mass.)-based Nanobiosym has developed a portable rapid diagnostics device that will allow users to test for many diseases, including HIV, in under an hour. A company called Tyto Care has introduced a handheld device that lets people take their temperatures and perform basic self-examinations of the heart, lungs, throat, ears, eyes, and skin.
Wellness-tracking startups that aim to help athletes and health nuts optimize their blood performance are also on the rise. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Wieners got an up-close look at the self-monitoring phenomenon when he spent time with Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and other life-hacking tomes: “How long, a cynic might wonder, before we’re all boring dinner dates with our hormone levels, or ghoulishly tweaking our hemoglobin in ways Lance Armstrong never dreamed of?” he wondered afterward in a post titled “Dude, My Testosterone’s Pushing 1290. How About Yours?“
Cue’s creators envision a device that can ultimately help alleviate the overtaxed U.S. health-care system and give patients better insights into their bodies and medical histories. It remains an open question if medical professionals will accept readings from the device. Srinivasa Reddy, a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA and an adviser to Cue, thinks the flu diagnosis will be readily accepted “because that’s a plus-minus test,” he says.
But if the medical establishment proves wary to embrace Cue, the device still provides the sort of molecular-level navel gazing that appeals to people eager to track their molecular health, even if the findings reinforce common sense. Khattak’s nutritious diet during the month-long test against his co-founder’s fast-food regime resulted in a 40 percent drop in inflammation, and today his levels are now on the low end of the spectrum.
“Sure, you can read about how healthy eating is important,” Khattak says. “But it makes a really big difference if you can see the actual results for yourself on a daily basis.”