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Allen School’s Robert Minneker imagines a new way to detect and treat Parkinson’s disease with computer vision

Robert Minnekar

Our latest student spotlight features Vancouver, Washington native Robert Minneker, who graduated in June with degrees in biomedical engineering and computer science and is continuing his studies in the Allen School’s fifth-year Master’s program. Using the skills they gained as undergraduates, Minneker and two friends created Tremor Vision, a web-based tool to help diagnose and treat Parkinson’s disease. The creators — Minneker, Allen School alumna Janae Chan (B.S. ‘19) and informatics graduate Drew Gallardo — were runners up in the 2020 Microsoft Imagine Cup

Allen School: Congratulations on your success in the Imagine Cup! What was the experience like, particularly as it was virtual this year?

Robert Minneker: Thank you so much! I still can’t believe how far we made it. The Imagine Cup was an unforgettable experience. I learned so much about what it takes to pitch your idea in a concise and convincing way and what it takes to get a product to market and in the hands of those it’s intended for. I definitely think it would’ve been more fun to be in the same room as Drew and Janae pitching our idea to the judges, but being virtual was the right call given the circumstances. I really appreciate that Microsoft was flexible with the competition and continued it despite COVID-19. None of us had been to the Imagine Cup before and had no idea what to expect. It is one of the most memorable and influential experiences of my undergraduate career and something I will never forget.

Allen School: What is Tremor Vision, and how did the three of you come to be a team and bring it to fruition for the Imagine Cup?

RM: Tremor Vision began during DubHacks 2019, the University of Washington’s annual hackathon. I skateboarded with Drew pretty often — we actually met at a skatepark a few years ago — and quickly realized he shared a love for programming. We have been good friends ever since. Janae and I both studied BioE and CS, so we shared classes and were interns at Sage Bionetworks at the same time. We got pretty close. I knew both of them, but they didn’t know each other, and I knew they were both going, so we kind of just formed a team from there. 

When we got to the hackathon, we had no idea what we were going to work on. Janae and I, both being BioE majors, wanted to do something related to health care. Drew is quite passionate about telehealth, so we started looking for open problems in that area that we thought we could tackle, particularly using machine learning. After some digging, we came across the challenges associated with detection and tracking of Parkinson’s and thought we would be able to propose a solution. We played around with many ideas and many approaches that night, and by the morning we had a working computer vision model that could detect Parkinson’s from a patient’s hand-drawn spiral, with a nice user interface to display the results to their physician. This was our first time at a hackathon, so we definitely didn’t know what to expect and especially didn’t expect to make something that worked and that was so well received by the judges and our fellow participants. 

One of the prizes we won at DubHacks was the Azure Champ Prize for our use of Azure services, and part of that included fast-track entry to the Imagine Cup competition. None of us had heard of the competition before DubHacks but decided to apply since they showed interest in our project and believed in us. We definitely thought we would be quickly screened out of the competition and did not think we would go as far as we did!

Allen School: How has a top performance in the Imagine Cup impacted the future of Tremor Vision?

RM: We are still working on Tremor Vision. We have a minimum viable product developed and are currently participating in the NSF I-CORPS program via UW CoMotion focused on customer discovery. We plan to complete user testing and have a version ready for market by the end of the year.

Allen School: In addition to your success with Tremor Vision, you are continuing your studies for a fifth year in the B.S./M.S. program. What piqued your interest in computer science initially?

RM: I decided to study in the Allen School after completing most of the bioengineering major and taking CSE 142/143 as my engineering electives and participating in computational research — specifically, biomedical informatics. I quickly realized the potential that computing would have on health and medicine in the coming years and decided that I would really enjoy being a part of it. After seeing firsthand in my research how artificial intelligence and machine learning could transform health care, I knew I needed to become more knowledgeable in the area. Computer science seemed like the logical choice given the school’s strengths and faculty research interests.

Allen School: What do you enjoy most about being in the Allen School?

RM: The quality of the courses and the resources available to students were invaluable. Everything from the TA program to computer labs, career fairs, and the opportunities posted via the undergraduate blog. I felt as if I was part of a school that was doing its best to help me succeed. 

Read more about Tremor Vision on Microsoft’s blog

Congratulations on the success of Tremor Vision, Robert! The Allen School is excited to see how it — and you — progress over the next year.