Thursday 17 October 2019

Tech firm couple look to future with virtual reality education platform

Local heroes: Patience pays off for Immersive VR Education's husband and wife team, writes John Cradden

David Whelan, CEO and Sandra Whelan, COO, Immersive VR Education. Photo: Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic
David Whelan, CEO and Sandra Whelan, COO, Immersive VR Education. Photo: Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic

Virtual reality (VR) technology is slowly but surely revolutionising gaming and other digital entertainments by making them more like real experiences. But a big indication of its potential to do the same with distance education is the success of Waterford-based Immersive VR Education.

It has built a platform for VR content that can be used in schools, colleges, universities, research centres and corporate training to teach any subject in a virtual environment.

The firm has won several awards for content, grown to 34 employees and become a publicly listed company on the London and Irish stock exchanges - all in just under four years.

Set up in 2014 by a husband and wife team, David and Sandra Whelan, they started out focusing on what looks to be a significant gap for educational content in the burgeoning VR content industry.

David, a software engineer by profession, had bought one of the first virtual reality handsets through a Kickstarter campaign. "When he tried and got to know it and he could see that VR was going take off down the line," said Sandra.

With a background in web design, David set up a website reviewing virtual reality content. "We used to get indie game developers to send us their games, and Dave would review them. We would do write-ups and when we were doing that, David started going 'it all seems to be games, shooters and things like that. There's not much there in terms of education'."

David thought he could do better and came up with the idea of creating a 'feelgood' historical VR experience, starting with the Apollo 11 spacecraft that took the first men to the moon. "Apollo 11 was the obvious one. I mean it wasn't a tragedy, it wasn't a war, it wasn't anything like that," said Sandra. "It's really, really positive and it will get kids so excited and interested in learning more through virtual reality. It appeals to the adults as well as kids."

Although he quickly realised his limitations in pure VR content development, they scraped together enough money to commission a developer to work with them on building it.

This started them on the funding journey, which began with the local enterprise office, who then put them in contact with the Waterford Institute of Technology's TSSG (Telecom Software Systems Group) incubator.

This led to David getting a place on the Enterprise Ireland-backed entrepreneur programme New Frontiers, which paid a wage of €15,000 over six months while Sandra stayed in her job as a logistics manager at a local company until she joined him full-time.

"It meant he was able to dedicate about six months of his life to creating business plans proving basically the business model for the company," said Sandra.

In mid-2016, before they pitched successfully for the Competitive Start Fund with Enterprise Ireland (and later won High Potential Start Up status), they had come to a fork in the road regarding their business model.

By this stage they had successfully launched Apollo 11 (which has now since sold more than 130,000 units and generated€1.4m in sales, mostly from the US), and were developing its second in the series about the Titanic.

"We learnt very quickly that investors won't back you on what could essentially be a one-hit wonder. At the time when we went to get investment, we couldn't pitch Apollo 11."

So they looked more closely at how people could use VR for their benefit in an educational setting, and they realised that a large percentage of people who participated in online distance education didn't finish their courses.

"I think they get bored trying to engage with the content because it's words on a screen or they're looking to videos or something like that, so we thought there must be a way where people can start getting more engaged in all of this kind of content."

But instead of creating and selling more VR content in-house like Apollo 11 and Titanic, they opted to build and eventually license a platform not unlike Mooc (Massive Open Online Course), giving developers the tools to make their own VR content, something that would make the business more scalable.

The result, named Engage, is designed to work with leading VR headsets like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Windows Mixed Reality. Educators can use it to create interactive virtual classrooms that can instruct up to 40 people simultaneously, offering avatar interaction that enables instructors to observe and provide feedback on a student's work in real time.

Researchers at Oxford University were among the earliest adopters of the platform, which is currently available free, but only for a limited period.

While they were successful in winning €1.3m in funding from Enterprise Ireland, Kernel Capital Venture Funds and Suir Valley Ventures towards the end of 2016, they later decided to publicly list the company. The listing on both Dublin's Enterprise Securities Market and the AIM in London last March brought the company significant attention.

"The reason we decided to go with the IPO in the first place was that we could see how fast the industry was moving," said Sandra. They could have opted to just "plod along and try and do our best with this platform" or develop something that they felt had the potential to "actually change the way education is being taught".

"VR headsets are becoming more plentiful as there's so many new companies popping up all over the place. If we wanted to stay at the forefront, we had to be in a position to be able to scale quickly." The alternative, she said, was to devote far more time that they wanted to in fundraising.

Having said that, it ended up taking some 10 months to prepare for the IPO, and involved a team of some 30 different people and hundreds of documents. "David will tell you that the one thing we've learnt in business is that everything takes longer than you think."

Now, almost six months on, Immersive VR Education has achieved a market value of nearly €30m. It's a far cry from early 2016, when David and Sandra were flying by the seat of their pants financially and were even close to closing down - only to be saved by the sales success of Apollo 11 that was launched a few weeks later.

"You know, looking back on it now we realise how fortunate and how lucky we are to be in the position that we're in now, because there is a lot of luck involved. Lots of people have worked just as hard as we did but they just don't have the break or the time was not right."

Sandra and David have three girls aged 10, 13 and 16, and say they have never had any childcare, but they split the school runs between them and their kids often hang around the office. "Even though we were working really, really long hours we were still getting to see the children." And in the last year or so, Sandra says they've made a point of bringing them along, where possible, to overseas business trips, doubling them up as short holidays.

While they can't give too much away regarding future plans being a publicly listed firm, Sandra speaks of their aim to make Engage as ubiquitous as Skype. "We want it to become that popular, that mainstream."


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