Crowdfunding suffered its latest growing pain over the Healbe GoBe, a prototype gadget that finished its funding campaign yesterday with over $1 million raised — 10 times its original goal. The GoBe’s campaign page on Indiegogo describes the device as “the first and only wearable device that automatically measures the calories you consume and burn, through your skin.”
Like many others, I first learned about the GoBe a few weeks ago, through James Robinson’s reporting-gone-viral on Pando Daily. Robinson argued that the GoBe campaign was a scam, citing the opinions of several experts. I agreed, and in the meantime, thousands of people were parting with hundreds of dollars each in the hopes of securing this miracle health device.
The whole thing made me mad. Scam crowdfunding campaigns had been attempted before, such as the Tech Sync Power System and Kobe Red beef jerky. But with those, back then, the crowd had always sniffed them out and no one got hurt. This time, I thought that the bad guys were getting away with it, and vulnerable people would suffer. I feared that this whole crowdfunding thing, which I’m such a believer in, might not work out as well as I had hoped.
Robinson continued following the story and posting updates, calling for Indiegogo to pull the campaign. He later found that the Healbe people have been working on the problem of noninvasive blood glucose measurement for 15 years. This revelation made the campaign seem less scammy to me — more like either wishful self-delusion (.97 probability) or a true breakthrough (.03). Measuring blood glucose levels through the skin would be amazing and commercially valuable enough already, and these people claim to derive separate fat and carb intakes to 20% accuracy from this data, based on metabolization curves, but without knowing when or how fast you’re eating anything. I’m no expert, and for what it’s worth I can kinda see the idea, but it still sounds like a stretch and I remain skeptical.
In the meantime, I learned of another campaign that launched on April 1 (perhaps for plausible deniability as an April Fool’s joke?) which looked even more bogus: The Body Dryer. As described and shown, it’s a device that resembles a bathroom scale. Step onto it after you get out of the bath, shower, or pool, and it creates a tornado-like vortex of air that dries your entire body in 30 seconds — no more germy towels! Two diagrams, titled Air Column and Drying Effect and Air Flow & Compression System, “explained” the technology with descriptions like this:
Such air column fairly retaining “upward swirly air move” (rather than dispersing around) will also entail further aero dynamic phenomenon of entrainment in addition to inducement affecting ambient air to follow the swirly upward moving. This Swirly Air Column will also preserve higher concentration of anion entrained by the air stream from the system, by minimizing dissipation of the anion away while air stream is passing over the user’s body.
Unlike the technical explanations for the GoBe, which at least show informed thought and understanding of the problem domain, the Body Dryer diagrams strike me as BS of very low quality. But I also admit that I don’t know much about moving air around, so maybe I’m wrong. If you think that The Body Dryer looks plausible, please let me know in the comments below — I always enjoy having my mind changed! Either way, as of this writing, the project has raised nearly $200K in advance orders, with two more weeks of fundraising to go.
Assuming that at least one of these projects will disappoint its backers, I think there’s a problem here, but I don’t agree with James Robinson that Indiegogo should have pulled the GoBe campaign — even in the face of vocal opposition. It’s not Indiegogo’s job or expertise as an open platform to assess product claims, or to adjudicate among various parties who affirm or dispute them. For that, I’m guessing that the FTC might step in. I support Indiegogo’s decision not suspend the GoBe campaign for the same reason that I support Net Neutrality and believe that the ACLU was right to defend the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie back in 1977.
I’m also impressed at Indiegogo’s adherence to principle, even when it might damage their reputation and their bottom line. As a contractor with Indiegogo (full disclosure), I’ve discussed this issue with them and believe that they’re well aware that Indiegogo could take a hit if the GoBe disappoints and angers its backers. But they’re idealists, and they’re willing to take that risk. They started Indiegogo to eliminate gatekeepers and make funding more fair, and they refuse to become gatekeepers themselves, even if it promises greater profits. I assume that Indiegogo’s investors support this.
The real solution to crowdfunding scams is to facilitate the crowd in making better assessments, to make the collective brain smarter. And this is where we come in, as makers, engineers, and good judges of what’s physically possible. If a technical diagram is bogus, we can often tell pretty quickly, and that information is of great value to anyone who’s making speculative consumer decisions. Now that crowd investing is becoming legal, we can expect that our assessments will have even greater value in the future. As I said in my proposal to the SEC for a crowd investing qualification exam, “Don’t invest in any offering that you do not fully understand yourself, or that someone you know with relevant expertise hasn’t reviewed and judged as trustworthy.”
So, what if there were a loose body of makers, with some recognizable name and “seal of non-disapproval,” who take it upon themselves to vet all of the new hardware offerings posted to crowdfunding sites, and publish a JSON database or similar that associates each one of them with Pass, Fail, Maybe, Notes, Reviewer, etc.? What if there were a few such entities, expert in different domains? In terms of pro bono work, this seems like low-hanging fruit. In a crowd-powered future, so many would benefit so much from something that’s so easy to do.
I recently discussed this scenario with Charles Sidman, president of the Crowdfunding Professional Association (CFPA), and a longtime technologist and tech investor. He liked the idea — just so long as the opinions of any such reviews or ratings groups never became official or required. They should be respected as third-party opinions by self-appointed entities, and nothing more. Disagreements will be huge, he warned, and anyone can be wrong, so everyone involved needs to maintain a sense of humility and diversity. “A group like that could be an enormous contributor,” he said, “so long as it stayed humble.”