Kickstarter wants you to crowdfund more things — but still not medical devices

By: Jonah Comstock | Jun 4, 2014        

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JONAH_COMSTOCK_HEADSHOTKickstarter has made a big change to its submission rules, opening the gates for a lot more projects in previously prohibited categories like cosmetics, pet supplies, and automotive products. Yet in the area of health, Kickstarter remains resolute, with a new, even more specific prohibition then it had before. Kickstarter now prohibits any project that is “heavily regulated” and “any item claiming to cure, treat, or prevent an illness or condition (whether via a device, app, book, nutritional supplement, or other means)” — in the same list that bans weapons, pornography, and hate speech.

That’s not to say that no wellness or fitness-focused projects have been featured on Kickstarter. The crowdfunding platform has a long, albeit inconsistent, history of rejecting medical and even fitness projects. It rejected Duet Health’s EndoGoddess diabetes management app in 2012. It rejected the activity tracker from Misfit Shine, which ended up being a record-breaking $846,000 success for Indiegogo. It even rejected EEG-sensing headband Melon, at the time known as Axio, before turning around and accepting its campaign later.

When Kickstarter’s prohibition against health and fitness first came to light, some product makers chose to crowdfund independently. Others started niche crowdfunding sites just for medical and fitness projects, like MedStartr and Health Tech Hatch. MedStartr is still up and running, and not devoid of projects, but it doesn’t have the reach Indiegogo and Kickstarter can boast. The site has yet to have a runaway hit, and tends to raise money in the thousands more often than the tens or hundreds of thousands. Health Tech Hatch, meanwhile, which set out to add a dimension of crowd testing to crowdfunding for medical projects, has since pivoted to a partnership strategy with Indiegogo, which now handles the crowdfunding aspect.

After the turnaround on the Melon campaign, however, we concluded that Kickstarter may have begun greenlighting wellness products. When we reached out to the company a few months ago, they pointed us to FlyFit and Geeked Out Fitness, two fitness products that recently had successful Kickstarter campaigns. One of the hottest products on Kickstarter right now is SCiO, a smartphone-connected molecular food scanner. And as MobiHealthNews pointed out in 2012, it’s a fine line. One of the defining products that put Kickstarter and crowdfunding itself on the map was the Pebble smartwatch, which has come to be increasingly associated with its fitness use case.

It will be interesting to see how the new language is applied to fitness projects, as a strict reading could be used to prohibit them: Obesity and diabetes fit the definition of “illness or condition,” after all, and fitness trackers and apps wouldn’t be too far afield to make a claim toward prevention. But it seems more likely Kickstarter will continue to draw a line between health and fitness, never mind how blurred those lines might become in an era increasingly characterized by population-based health and preventive medicine.

But that invites the question of why Kickstarter continues to prohibit health projects at all. Indiegogo has no such prohibition, and it has demonstrably benefitted from that policy. Rock Health has actually been tracking digital health crowdfunding revenues and found that health and fitness projects brought in a combined $9.2 million in 2013 — mostly (89 percent) from Indiegogo and mostly from the one-two punch of the aforementioned Shine campaign and Scanadu’s $1.6 million record-breaking campaign.

Kickstarter has yet to respond to a request for comment. But the explanation that seems likely is that Kickstarter is worried about snake oil salesmen, as it were — catching secondhand bad press from campaigns that turn out to be selling customers a bill of goods. And although fraud is possible in any category, in the medical category it’s both more dangerous and harder for laypeople to detect.

We don’t have to look any further for an example than Airo and Healbe, two crowdfunded bracelets that have recently made the dubious claim of mastering passive calorie tracking. Airo, which crowdfunded on its own site has since refunded its early backers and retreated out of the spotlight while it completes further testing. Healbe, though, which ran its campaign on Indiegogo, raised a million dollars and continues to promise wristbands despite widespread skepticism from the science community. Just recently it delayed shipping of the device from July to August.

It may be too early to definitively call the too-good-to-be true campaign a scam — tech blog Digital Trends reports having seen a working device in action, albeit under fairly controlled conditions. With no third party validation of any kind and no devices, though, the wind is certainly blowing that way, and Kickstarter is doubtless watching. Indiegogo, for its part, stood by the campaign and even quietly deleted the anti-fraud guarantee in its user agreement, according to a report from Pando Daily. Pando has also raised similar questions about TellSpec, another calorie-scanning technology that raised several hundred thousand dollars on Indiegogo.

What’s the solution to this problem? For every Healbe or TellSpec, there’s a Scanadu, but crowdfunding platforms have neither the means nor the inclination to do the FDA’s job in regulating medical devices. From that perspective, Kickstarter’s hard line against medical devices, which at least keeps its nose clean, doesn’t look so bad. But crowdfunding campaigns hold great promise for enabling grassroots innovation in medicine. The crowdfunding platform that finds a way to walk the line — opening the door to medical projects, but safeguarding consumers against quacks — will be well-positioned in a future of increasingly profitable mobile and digital health startups.