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A Jewel of PSU Innovation
A Jewel of PSU Innovation


“As an engineer, I saw this as an opportunity,” said Dr. James McNames, Professor and Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Portland State University.

Dr. McNames, slightly silhouetted by the gray light coming in through the window from the overcast morning outside, is sitting at a small round table in his office in the Fourth Avenue Building at PSU, discussing the events that led to the creation of APDM, a Portland-based biotech company and PSU Business Accelerator company-in-residence. Dr. McNames cofounded APDM in November 2007 with Dr. Mateo Aboy and Andrew Greenberg to pursue the development and production of the world’s most advanced movement monitors.

Leaning forward, Dr. McNames went on: “Since I arrived at Portland State University, my focus has been on biomedical applications of engineering. This focus led to collaborations with researchers at OHSU. One of those collaborations was with a neurologist who was studying heart rate variability. When he mentioned that he was going to assess tremor by having patients hold their hands out in front of them and visually score the severity  on a scale of zero to four, I thought, ‘Surely I can do better than that.’”

Soon after, Dr. McNames encountered a gap in medical technology: a compact, precise, and powerful device that could be employed to quantify impairment in how people with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s diseases moved simply did not exist. This gap drove Dr. McNames to look into the literature on movement disorders where he discovered some studies in which people had worn inertial movement sensors continuously throughout the day over the course of several weeks.

“With the data from the movement monitors,” Dr. McNames continued, “researchers were beginning to see things no one had ever seen before in the studies of Parkinson’s disease, but the original investigators who had pioneered the use of wearable sensors had moved on to other things and were no longer working with them. I thought that with modern instrumentation we could overcome a lot of the limitations they faced using the sensors available to them at the time.”

But when Dr. McNames searched for inertial monitoring sensors that were small enough to be worn by people with Parkinson’s disease without being cumbersome and that had a battery capable of powering the sensors over long periods of time, he couldn’t find anything that met his criteria. With a sense of there being a need for a wearable, compact, long-lasting, and precise sensor that could quantify movement impairments, Dr. McNames decided to fill that need himself. 

“I got together with two of my former students who had graduated from PSU with master’s degrees and who had the right kind of knowledge and expertise to do something like this and I pitched the idea of creating a company to produce these devices that I and other researchers needed to do the kind of research we were interested in,” Dr. McNames said.

“Since he knew my experience with embedded systems and inertial sensors,” Andrew Greenberg, one of Dr. McNames’ former graduate students, and cofounder as well as Chief Technology Officer at APDM, wrote in an email, “James roped me into APDM in order to build hardware that just wasn’t available.”

APDM, named after the need in medical technology the company would fill: Ambulatory Parkinson’s Disease Monitoring, would eventually bring that hardware to the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) here at Portland State.

“APDM is a different kind of story,” Joe Janda, Director of IIP, said. “Dr. McNames had formed the company with his collaborators well before we got involved. IIP helped sort out the intellectual property after much of it had been developed—some of the technology here at PSU, and some at APDM—some of the intellectual property was jointly owned, and in some cases there were three joint owners with other academic institutions.

“Our job,” Janda went on, “was to shepherd the intellectual property portfolio of roughly 20 patent applications through an evaluation and waiver process, making sure that Dr. McNames’ external applications belonged to him and bundling the rest in a license to APDM as they were uniquely suited to commercialize the technology. A joint patent management agreement followed, as did a license with the multiple parties involved. Now they are selling products.”

The products Janda refers to are the jewels developed by the team at APDM, the most advanced wireless inertial measurement units (IMUs) available on the market: the Sapphire, Emerald, and Opal. These wearable movement monitors are roughly the size of a wristwatch and employ cutting edge solid state MEMS technology to record movement for up to 16 continuous hours.

“In order to objectively study Parkinson’s disease,” Mr. Greenberg wrote, “we needed an extremely small, extremely sensitive human movement monitor with very long battery life. These were huge innovations that presented massive challenges, but that was part of the fun of developing the monitors.”

What challenges the development of the movement monitors presented, APDM met with exceeding success. Their motion monitors are better across the board than any similar product on the market: they are the most sensitive and have the highest sample rate for the longest life and are smaller than other monitors. They have three modes of operation: logging data to on-board memory, streaming data wirelessly to a computer, and logging mode with a synchronized mesh network that allows for synchronized logging (without a computer present) of calculation of human movements taken from multiple sensors at joints on the human body.

Along with their innovative IMUs, APDM also offers Mobility Lab, the only portable gait and balance laboratory for clinical researchers and physical therapists. Designed by APDM, Mobility Lab costs roughly a tenth of a video motion capture system, which increases the efficiency of studies and allows universities, especially those in developing nations, to afford gait and balance laboratories. Furthermore, the innovative design of Mobility Lab produced a lightweight and easy to use tool that makes research possible almost anywhere.

“Our eventual goal is for Mobility Lab to be a staple in clinics around the world,” Matthew Johnson, Director of Sales & Marketing at APDM, said, “especially since insurance companies and patients are now demanding more objective proof of their therapies and treatments.”

Together, the movement monitors and Mobility Lab developed by Dr. McNames and the team at APDM have helped the company make manifest their vision “to provide complete solutions for assessment and monitoring of people with movement disorders that will optimize therapy, accelerate clinical trials, and improve quality of life” for people with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. With their vision becoming a reality, APDM, with the help and support of Oregon institutions like Portland State University, is developing the next generation of technology that will help therapists and researchers improve people’s lives throughout the world.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted September 26, 2012