A New Approach to Parkinson’s Disease: How Robotics Can Help

There are many insidious diseases that debilitate people, but one of the worst is Parkinson’s. Its level of importance has been highlighted by celebrities including Michael J. Fox and Mohammed Ali, who recently died from complications from the disease. About 60,000 people a year are afflicted with Parkinson’s, and an estimated 7 million to 10 million people around the globe are living with it. Alfredo Muniz and Sade Oba are seniors at the University of Pennsylvania who hope their research in robotics will help improve the quality of life for those living with the disease. They are looking at the effectiveness of using motion sensors to gather data and have founded a company called Xeed. They recently spoke with the Knowledge@Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 about their work and how it can be applied.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Where did the idea come from to gather data on Parkinson’s disease?

Alfredo Muniz: It actually came from a robot. We’re both also roboticists master’s students here at Penn, and it actually started from a robot that could do anything. As amazing as that sounds, no one wanted to buy it. You could think of it as a mobile Amazon Echo. After a good half a year or so of trying to commercialize it, we realized that it wasn’t going to happen. No one wanted this amazing robot because the Amazon Echo was already out.

So we took some sensors in the robot and used them for a different purpose. After talking to a couple of people, we realized that [the sensors] could really track fine motor movement very well. After just a very quick conversation with a physical therapist, we focused in on movement disorders and then focused in even more on Parkinson’s disease. This community is really, really hungry for a new way of tracking the disease, and that’s where we hope that our company comes into play.

Knowledge@Wharton: You had this idea of using a trackable, wearing device. What’s the next step in the process?

Muniz: During our studies with robotics, we realized that if you have a robotic arm, you can make it do anything. The idea is nothing new. People have tried to make human robotic arms. We’re just using the same principles, but without the hardware. So this is actually the tracking part. Now we have prototypes, so we have an order coming in from China that’s about 100 different sensors and we’re going to beta test them with our communities here in Philadelphia.

Knowledge@Wharton: How quick of a process has this been?

Sade Oba: It was fairly quick. We’ve been working on this for a little over a year, but the transition from a robot to an actual wearable was about a two-month process. It was a realization of, “OK, we need to use only a few sensors, we need to make a wearable, let’s go.” Fortunately, we had had enough experience in our past internships doing product design or bio-wearables to be able to come up with a really quick prototype and iteration to start presenting to people.

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