Two Penn Seniors to Aid Parkinson’s Patients With Innovative Motion-tracking Device

This is the first of two features introducing the University of Pennsylvania’s 2016 President’s Innovation Prize winners.

A rough estimate of the amount of steps taken in a day might be enough for the average fitness tracker or smartwatch user, but, for people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, more fine-grained data could be life changing.

As two of the four winners of the inaugural President’s Innovation Prize, University of Pennsylvania seniors Alfredo Muniz and Sade Oba in the School of Engineering and Applied Science aim to make that vision a reality.   

Their start-up company, XEED, makes wearable sensors that track the movement of their user’s limbs throughout the day. Doctors, physical therapists and their patients can use this data as part of treatment regimes to monitor progress and set goals.  

As President’s Innovation Prize winners, Muniz and Oba received $100,000 to implement their project as well as a $50,000 living stipend each. They will also receive dedicated space at the Pennovation Center, as well as continued mentorship from the Penn Center for Innovation.

Growing up in Houston, Oba and Muniz met at a summer program for students interested in STEM before attending Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions. Their interest in going into medical fields took an abrupt turn, however, once they started shadowing professionals and getting an up-close-and-personal look at what being a dentist or a surgeon would entail.

Their experiences in tinkering with physical projects, such a mousetrap-powered model car, suggested other avenues for their interests.   

“We both like working with our hands and making things,” Muniz says. “We thought engineering might be a good fit.”

“I didn’t even know what I was doing was called, “Oba says. “I was literally asking people, ‘Who gets to do this?’” Oba says. “When I found it was mechanical engineering, I said, ‘That's where my heart’s at.’ It's work, but it's fun.”

Selecting Penn because of the Engineering School’s focus on both theory and practice, Muniz selected electrical and systems engineering as his major, while Oba chose mechanical engineering and applied mechanics. Despite different tracks, they collaborated on their capstone senior design project, a personal robot with app-based functionality known as APRo.   

The idea to incorporate in their original interests in health and medicine came from a conversation Muniz had with Jonathan M. Smith, the Olga and Alberico Pompa Professor of Computer and Information Science. Smith, who will serve as XEED’s faculty advisor, suggested that the sensors used in APRo would be well suited for precisely tracking bodily movements and that data could be useful in a medical context.

Learning more about treatments for Parkinson’s disease, Muniz found an area where that kind of data could fill an important need. As part of Parkinson’s patients’ physical therapy, they are often asked to do simple, everyday motions that their tremors and dyskinesia make difficult, such as swinging their arms when they walk rather than holding them to their sides.  

“People with Parkinson's have trouble controlling their movements because their brains don’t produce enough of the neurotransmitter dopamine, but a way to get around that is to really force your body to do more than it’s used to doing,” Muniz says. “That produces more dopamine, and it becomes easier. But there’s currently no objective way to measure those movements in physical therapy.”

Looking for a project to collaborate on, Muniz enlisted Oba’s expertise in fabrication and logistics to make a device that could provide such measurements.  

“When I get involved in a project, things get real,” Oba says. “It goes from tinkering around to. ‘Let’s figure out where we’re going to source these components,’ and, ‘Who can we work with to test our product.’”  

XEED bands’ suite of sensors allow for more detailed tracking of each limb’s movement. Rather than just having an accelerometer, the device that allows a simple pedometer to track the up-and-down motion of a step, the bands have inertial measurement units, the component that allows smartphones to figure out their angle and orientation on the fly. Though they are worn only on the wrists and ankles, this allows the bands to gather enough data for algorithms to work out the angles of the elbow and shoulder or of the knee and hip.   

As these algorithms are drawn from the ones that help medical robotic arms perform precise surgeries, it was only natural that Muniz and Oba sought guidance from Michelle J. Johnson, director of the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine

“She is using robots, while we’re using principles from robotics,” Oba says. “But we all are interested in creating a new therapy experience.”    

XEED also worked with the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Rehabilitation Center at Good Shepherd Penn Partners, speaking to physical therapists about what they and their patients could most benefit from. Going forward, those therapists will be a gateway to patients themselves, who ideally will help beta test the next iteration of XEED’s devices.   

Oba and Muniz plan to use the Innovation Prize money to build hundreds of those devices, which will contain better sensors and algorithms, capable of inferring the position of the user’s torso from data gathered from the limbs.

They also aim to work with major Parkinson’s charities and advocacy groups, such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation, to help connect with more patients and refine their product.

But, according to the duo, the process of taking XEED from an idea to a physical object to a fledgling business would not have been possible without the support they received along the way.

“At Penn,” Muniz says, “it doesn’t matter where you came from, what your socioeconomic status or your race is. At Penn, we’re all equal. So it’s really up to you to see what you want to do, because the resources are here. If you want to build a company like us, you’ll be able to.”  

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