29 Oct 2017 | 02.28 pm
Virtual Reality Takes Root In Crystal Valley
Interview with David Whelan, founder of Immersive VR Education
29 Oct 2017 | 02.28 pm
Virtual reality is finally coming into its own after years of unfulfilled promise from the technology. Husband and wife team David Whelan and Sandra Whelan have been eagerly applying the latest generation of advanced VR to education, through their startup, Immersive VR Education.
Launched in late 2014, the business has already worked with Google, Oculus/Facebook, Oxford University and other notable clients. Immersive VR raised €1m from Kernel Capital and Suir Valley Ventures earlier this year, with Enterprise Ireland also among the company investors. It’s a strong show of support for the business during its costly startup phase – accumulated losses since inception stood at €265,000 in 2016.
The venture utilises research from WIT’s Telecoms Software and Systems Group. David Whelan (pictured), who completed a New Frontiers entrepreneur development programme in WIT, says he has always been interested in technology, and he founded and managed a web development firm in Waterford for several years.
Whelan was also an early backer of VR headset Oculus Rift when it launched a Kickstarter fundraiser. He says that once he tried the device himself, he was hooked on VR technology.
Whelan went on to create a content review website for VR, which put him in contact with other players in the VR space. He spotted a gap in the market for using VR to spruce up educational content, then used his contacts in WIT and elsewhere to help set up and prototype some educational VR programmes. Out of this, Immersive VR Education was born.
How would you describe your business in a nutshell?
Very ambitious. We are building a virtual reality education platform that allows educators and corporate trainers from around the world teach students from any location in the world in a virtual classroom.
Why even teach class in a classroom? If you are teaching kids about Mars why not bring them to Mars and let them explore the surface. The possibilities are endless.
What companies have you worked with?
We have worked with Google, Oxford University, New Haven University, Royal College of Surgeons, Oculus/Facebook and HTC. Our market is the distance learning sector for both education and corporate training. We are also receiving interesting requests from big name institutes and always have something in the pipeline.
You raised more than €36,000 from a 2015 Kickstarter campaign. What are your thoughts on crowdfunding?
Our Kickstarter campaign was for our Apollo 11 VR experience and we had a second successful Kickstarter for Titanic VR earlier this year [raising €57,000].
Kickstarter can be very stressful, especially after the first few days, as your pledges can completely stop some days during the mid-campaign slump. It’s a lot of hard work, but if you have a great idea the public will get behind it and it’s an amazing feeling when you get past your pledge goal.
We use Kickstarter as a way of promoting our showcase products. Kickstarter raises a little bit of money, which is great, but developing VR content is expensive and the funds raised will only get the project so far, unless you set your minimum goal as the total amount you require.
We see Kickstarter as a promotional tool more than a way of funding development. When you are successful, many leading tech websites will cover the story and the coverage you get will normally be more valuable than the actual pledged amounts in most cases.
What technology underpins your VR creations?
We do some super-secret stuff here day to day but people who know game development and process would be very familiar what most of the inner workings of what we do. We use game programming engines such as Unity and Unreal, and have many 3D artists working with us to create assets to interact with inside virtual reality.
How do you plan to scale the business?
Our core platform can service both corporate and general education; however, we see areas such as medical training and corporate safety training as the early movers and first revenue generators. We are scaling our business through a mixture of revenue and private investment.
What insights can you give regarding raising investment?
I’ve been told I’ve had an easy journey to get investment. I’ve not had to raise investment before so I can’t judge this myself, but all I can say is that I am very happy with how things have worked out.
The investors we brought in — Kernel Capital, Suir Valley Ventures and Enterprise Ireland — have been so supportive and very helpful in many other ways besides money. I feel tech investors just want to talk to real people that don’t fill them with BS. Be yourself and don’t fluff your answers.
If you don’t know something just say straight out that you don’t have the answer. I’ve seen many pitches where somebody tried to bluff an answer and investors see straight though this.
What’s it like to bring outside investors onto the team?
We have had a good experience with our investors. They do help the business and the advice they provide is very valuable, as they see the business from an outside view.
When you bring investors into the business it goes from being your business to our business. You are still in control but be open to suggestions even if they aren’t always what you want to hear.
Always remember that investors are with you to make money. If you are trying to change the world that’s great but investors will also do what is best to make their investment more valuable.
How do you stay positive when startup losses grow?
I’ve always been 100% confident that the core idea of what we are trying to do will work and will be profitable, as long as we implement it correctly. Starting a business is expensive not just in monetary terms but also in terms of time needed to get it off the ground.
I wouldn’t be pouring my heart and soul into this venture if I didn’t believe that I would be rewarded at the end. If you doubt, others will doubt and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Also, if you doubt the core idea then it’s time to get out. But if you doubt your team’s ability to deliver then this is normal. Doubt gets me up early in the morning and working hard into the night. The best thing about doubt for me is that the harder I work the less doubt I get.
How many staff do you employ?
We currently have a team of 21, which we grew from a team of four just over two years ago. It can be difficult to find staff, as we work in such a specialised area.
The vast majority of people who work for us are from the UK. The Brexit vote really helped us. We find that every time we release a big title we do attract attention and this helps us staff our needs.
What is the biggest misconception among Irish entrepreneurs looking to start a new business?
That Ireland equals Dublin! There are so many areas within Ireland, Waterford being a very strong one, where there are many opportunities available for entrepreneurs.
We have a fantastic tech hub here, called Crystal Valley Tech, which was established recently. It’s a non-profit members’ organisation to support Waterford and the south-east of the country.
Crystal Valley Tech’s main aim is to educate and open everyone’s eyes about what we have going for us in this region. We are working hard to build a thriving vibrant community, with like-minded companies pulling together.