Kim Jong-un has a reputation for being a little paranoid.
The North Korean leader can stay out of public view for months at a time. He travels only at dawn, and then only in the cars of his subordinates.
And when he leaves to his country to meet foreign leaders, he likes to take one very specific security measure…
His security staff bring a portable toilet with them wherever he goes.
The official line is that “the leaders’ excretions contain information about his health status that can’t be left behind”.
But that’s not the full story.
US security agencies think that there is very sensitive information that Kim may be trying to conceal.
He may have cancer, for example.
They also know that Kim likes to send doppelgangers to meet foreign dignitaries.
A recovered stool sample would ruin this ruse.
Other theories…he is popping opiates…he is taking insulin or Prozac…or all of the above.
The toilet as an early warning system
In fact, Kim is by no means alone in this interest.
In the last few years, scientists have started developing “smart toilets” that reveal very useful information about our health.
The toilets are already hugely popular in Japan and China.
And now they are being built in hotels and luxury apartments across Europe.
It may not be long before you have one in your home…relaying information to you about your daily ablutions.
New intelligent toilets developed by the University of Cambridge for example, come equipped with nano-sensors that detect bio-markers in urine, which can help to measure blood-sugar levels and monitor risk factors for disease.
This information can be relayed to an app on your phone…giving you daily diagnostics and read outs on the state of your health.
You can choose to keep this information private.
Or you can share it with your GP – serving as an early warning system for disease.
1. Getting to know your microbiome
I think there is a serious investment opportunity here.
Just consider how we might use this technology….
For one thing, smart toilets will allow us to test and study the bacteria in our gut.
These microbes make up a significant part of our biology – about 3% of our body mass.
In terms of cell count, we are one part human and nine parts microbiome: whole colonies of these microbes live in our mouths, on our skin and in our gut.
Most of our microbiota (bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites) is concentrated in the colon.
By getting reads out on these materials, we can learn an awful lot about our health.
It’s already becoming clear that the gut microbiome is a highly significant and useful biomarker of conditions such as obesity, allergies, autoimmune diseases and depression.
2. Spotting Viruses
In time, the software from smart toilets will analyse your stool and advise when you may have a bacterial infection…
Or even a specific virus…
And what treatment is necessary.
We will casually review the charts on your app and keep track of sudden spikes in blood sugar, cholesterol and a host of other indicators.
3. Early Pregnancy Detection
The sensors could also pick up hormone changes early and advise if you are pregnant.
This could be an improvement on traditional pregnancy kits.
Although it sounds like a tough way to find out.
What if Elvis had a smart toilet in his home?
A toilet that gave him a read out on his intake of burgers, pills and beer.
Might he have learned to manage his intake?
But you might.
Sensors will be able to detect the alcohol level and recommend an appropriate cure: some combination of water, electrolytes, coca cola, orange juice and lucozade.
Toto will be the global leader
The whole idea of smart toilets belong in the field of the “medical internet of things” – devices and fixtures in our homes that become increasingly intelligent each time we interact with them.
In fact, according to a recent study by Research Nester, the global smart toilet market is already about $1.2bn in size and growing 12% a year.
Asia is the big market: accounting for 53.9% of the global market in 2016 and is slated to account for a leading share of 50.1% by 2024.
China and India will contribute combined market share of 38.7% in the total revenue by 2024.
But there are also huge potential markets in the US, Europe and the UK.
So this could be a great look at the global leader, Toto (Tokyo: 5332).
Right now, the main features of their smart toilets include seat warming, jets of water for washing and drying your behind.
These are popular with elderly patients who struggle with dexterity.
These are not cheap…
Toto’s latest Washlet model, the Neorest 750H, lists for $10,200.
But you can purchase a basic Washlet add-on seat starting at $500.
And the use of toilets as medical devices has huge potential.
Urine and excrement are excellent substances for measuring your metabolites, infections, sugar levels, intestinal microbiome and even some cancer precursors.
Toto has already developed a series that carries out primitive urine analysis – specifically the flow rate, which can be useful in tracking for prostate cancer or bladder problems.
And coming advances in sensor and chips promise to broaden the molecular analysis that you’ll be able to do at home.
Yes this kind of technology will have to go through a lengthy regulatory approval process in many countries.
The key difficulty for technology will be in designing individual sensors, cheaply for home toilets.
So it’s very early days for intelligent toilets.
But with chip and sensor manufactures competing to get in on this market, we could see advances rolled out over the next two years to huge addressable markets.
Definitely one company to watch.