APDM: Operationalizing Mobility

A PSBA company's wearable sensors enable clinical researchers to take objective measures of mobility

According to the University of Michigan, over 42 million Americans suffer from mobility disorders.

For many, movement is a routine, almost unspectacular part of life. We walk. We jog. We stretch and sometimes even dance. With every motion, the muscles in the human body extend and contract in a coordinated feat of physiology that effortlessly propels it into kinetic activity. But what happens when the easy fluidity of our movements stop feeling so easy and fluid? As age or disease threaten to rob our bodies of its ability to move freely, can anything be done to diagnose, treat, or perhaps even reverse its course?

When Portland State Business Accelerator company-in-residence APDM first emerged on the scene in 2007, it began with a desire to equip and enable the scientific community to tackle these vital questions. In a lot of ways, APDM was a startup born out of necessity. Just one year prior in 2006, APDM founder and professor of electrical and computer engineering at PSU, James McNames, had begun studying the effects of certain diseases on patient mobility and had come across a startling discovery. In his search for a suitable device to track, monitor, and record the types of measurements he would need to conduct his research - none seemed to exist.

“I reached out to everyone I knew and kept coming up empty. There just wasn’t anything suitable out there,” said McNames. “As I kept searching, people started asking me to keep them in the loop. It seemed so many others had been stuck looking for one too.”    

Bringing together a team of former students, McNames decided to step into the gap himself, developing wearable sensor technology able to accurately monitor and report objective measures of motion. Worn as a band like the Apple Watch or the Fitbit, APDM’s patented Opal Sensor uses a combination of accelerometers, inertial sensors, magnetometers, and pressure sensors to sense and record movement in real-time. Still, while adjacent technologies use similar sensors to receive their data, APDM's devices differ from other wearables in significant ways.

Unlike the Opal, most wearable sensors are designed primarily only to track behavior through the monitoring of physical activity. “They might be able to quantify some aspects of your daily activity like the number of steps but they aren’t really able to tell you things like your stride length or the variance of your strides as you walk around a room,” said McNames. The Opal’s ability to synchronize inputs from up to 24 sensors worn across different parts of the body allows it to track a host of measures absent from other movement and activity trackers. Beyond stride length, APDM’s sensors are cued to record and quantify cadence, speed, stance, swing, step duration, gait, balance, and range of motion. Taken together, these measures represent crucial markers, revealing even subtle changes in a wearer’s mobility.  

“We have been able to create something unobtrusive, portable, and precise that has a high sample rate and is able to capture a high volume of motion in very rigorous and specific ways,” said McNames.

Beyond the world of research, APDM’s ability to operationalize movement has made them a natural fit in the world of clinical trials. As certified medical devices, their technology is vertically integrated not only to record data but to provide the algorithms, interfaces, and data management necessary to holistically support clinical research. By measuring the aspects of movement most pertinent to patient experience, their sensors also capture the data most relevant to pharmaceutical companies as they test the effectiveness of their treatments and therapies on disorders like Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis.

“By doing what we're doing, we’re helping companies see on a quantifiable and evidentiary level whether the numbers suggest that their interventions actually work,” said McNames.

In June of 2020, APDM was purchased by global medical data and technology giant, ERT, allowing the PSU startup to radically expand its scope of impact. APDM’s sensors have now been integrated into a greater collection of services offered by its parent company to companies engaged in clinical trials around the world. Following the acquisition, ERT technologies will not only enable clients to track movement but to procure digital imaging and cardiac and respiratory monitoring for subjects as well.

Excitement for APDM’s future has inspired McNames to reflect back on the company’s earlier days and to remember fondly the ways the university and the Portland State Business Accelerator have supported it throughout its journey towards acquisition. At the same time, the memory too has reminded him of the necessity for startups and entrepreneurs to continue fighting for greater diversity and inclusion in an ever-globalizing world.

“As I've looked back on things, I’ve realized there is a natural tendency in the startup business to gravitate almost unconsciously towards people with similar backgrounds and experiences, whether in terms of gender, race, or nationality. It’s a tendency that really entrenches and limits us,” said McNames. “The need for representation is a conversation we’re finally starting to have more now in society. It’s definitely something we need to consider more as we pursue ideas and build companies.”


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