An interview with Veena Somareddy about her Journey to bring Neuro Rehab VR’s technology to clinics around the US.
In the US, it is estimated that the wait time for a physical therapy appointment is close to 30 days. When you finally arrive at the appointment, you will often see patients queued up to visit with a handful of physical therapists. At rehabilitation centers, physical therapy assistants often work closely with physical therapists to alleviate the burden of care.
For patients who have been through traumatic injury such as brain injury, the road to recovery can last months or years. This recovery process includes different types of therapies such as speech therapy, physical therapy, cognitive therapy, occupational therapy, etc.. Often, the long wait and long commute to different healthcare facilities can be just as difficult as the therapy itself.
After the long wait, when patients finally come face to face with a physical therapist, it takes a while to engage with the therapy that often push the patients to their physical limits. Physical therapists can spend a good portion of the time coaching patients to engage with the therapy so that progress can be made.
In the age of innovation, with a combination of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and big data, Neuro Rehab VR is bringing new tools to hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers around the US. These tools will transform the way patients engage in physical therapy, and how physical therapists manage the therapy sessions.
In the last two years, Neuro Rehab VR has grown from a small startup working with one clinic in Fort-Worth, Texas to an expanding startup that is FDA registered, providing a suite of virtual reality applications to physical therapists for clinics in seven states in the US.
This month, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Veena Somareddy, cofounder of Neuro Rehab VR to find out more about her journey from being a researcher and a technologist to becoming one of the leading entrepreneurs who is bringing cutting-edge technology such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) and VR (Virtual Reality) into the healthcare industry.
What inspired you to start Neuro Rehab VR?
In 2017, I was a Ph.D. student, developing Virtual Reality simulation and training systems. My partner Bruce Conti, founder of the Neurological Recovery Center, found me through my research and contacted me. His son was recovering from a brain injury at the time. He wanted to see if there was a way that we could work together to develop tools for the Neurological Recovery Center. I was inspired by his son’s story and decided to work with him on the project. Eventually, we started Neuro Rehab VR to develop a suite of products that will allow patients to engage in physical therapy inside the virtual reality environment.
Initially, it must’ve been a difficult decision to drop out of your Ph.D. program to work on Neuro Rehab VR full-time. What were your deciding factors?
Initially, the clinic that we worked with in Fort-Worth, Texas had an amazing team of therapists, assistants, nurses, and patients. They were all very excited to try the therapy tools that we developed. They gave us very useful and quick feedback on everything that we asked them to try.
By combining cognitive therapy and physical therapy together in our VR therapy applications, immediately, I saw an increased level of motivation and engagement in the patient’s therapy sessions. The progress these patients made using our applications was inspiring. With big data, I also saw how much the progress reports in our applications helped physical therapists manage their patient relationships.
I realized that we were creating useful tools for both patients and therapists. The motivation from being able to develop tools that had a huge impact made it easier for me to drop out of my PhD program to focus on Neuro Rehab VR full-time.
How does virtual reality physical therapy differ from traditional physical therapy?
Virtual reality physical therapy is used to supplement traditional physical therapy. Often, patients who are recovering from traumatic injuries have a mental barrier due to the internalization of their diagnosis. They often think that due to their diagnosis, they may not be able to perform certain functions. Physical therapists often spend a lot of time during therapy sessions to coach patients through such mental barriers.
Immersed in the virtual reality world, patients often lose their inhibitions quickly. Our virtual reality worlds are engaging and modeled after practical daily tasks such as going shopping in a supermarket, cooking, making the bed, etc.. Patients who think that they can’t perform these actions in real life will often end up performing these actions in the virtual reality world.
At the same time, the immersion in the VR world allows the patients to focus on their therapy more than they would in real life. Without distractions, even patients with ADHD can concentrate during their entire therapy session.
By pushing through their own mental barriers and being more focused in their therapy sessions, patients often make more progress during their VR therapy sessions.
Why do you think physical therapists were quick to embrace Neuro Rehab VR’s Virtual Reality therapy?
Physical therapists are amazingly creative people. They use many other tools, and equipment to do their job besides the tools that we provide them with. Our tools, such as data and reporting, help physical therapists to better manage their training sessions. They provide evidence of progress for evaluation and payment.
At the same time, our VR therapy applications provide therapists with additional ways to engage with their patients. Often, the physical therapists that we work with teach our engineers to think about physical therapy differently. In turn, our engineers can help to build tools to realize the physical therapists’ vision. From the beginning, because physical therapists were such an integral part of helping us develop our VR therapy applications, they had a natural motivation to use these VR therapy applications in their day-to-day work.
What challenges did you face in developing Neuro Rehab VR’s suite of VR therapy applications?
The biggest challenge that we overcame was the User Interface. Tweaking the initial version of our applications and making the User Interface easy to use took a lot of iterations. Now, our applications take zero setup time. You simply turn on our application and you are good to go. We went through many iterations with physical therapists and watched them as they used our VR therapy applications. It took us almost a year to develop and refine our initial product.
Another challenge we had was to keep pace with the technology. VR technology is constantly changing. In a way, it’s good because it gives us new possibilities of improving our product. But, it is a big effort to keep up. For instance, recently, the new version of Oculus allowed us to create a completely portable system with just the headset and controller, without dependency on any other devices. This opened up new possibilities for us to market our product.
What’s the one lesson that you learned early that helped you grow Neuro Rehab VR?
From the beginning, we tried to instill communication into our company’s culture. We asked our engineers to talk to physical therapists directly so that the design of the product is a team effort. Even now, many enhancements come directly from the conversations between the physical therapists and our engineers. We started with one therapy application. Now, we have eight therapy applications. As we expand to more clinics this year, we are mindful of keeping close relationships with the therapists who use our products.
What is your vision for the future of Neuro Rehab VR?
We hope to expand to cover more therapy areas such as occupational therapy, orthopedics, etc.. We also hope that more clinics will use our line of therapy products. We are going to have a focused period of development soon to rollout more enhancements for some of our products. But, after that, we want more people to gain access to our therapy products. We want to democratize the access to our products. People who want to use our products, who may not have insurance to pay for it, can still be able to gain access to our products.
If you had to identify one critical step that set you on the path to success, what would that be?
In the beginning, when we just started Neuro Rehab VR while I was still in my PhD program, I won this competition called the Big Idea Competition from UT Dallas. This opportunity allowed me to gain access to many mentors.
At that time, I was just a technologist. I did not have any business experience. But, I learned how to pitch, how to have a business sense around technology, and how to grow a business. Most importantly, I learned how the healthcare industry works. Having this background knowledge of the healthcare industry has been crucial for our company’s success.
As a female entrepreneur, what is your one piece of advice you’d like to give to upcoming female entrepreneurs in the innovation startup space?
Not to be disappointed by setbacks. There are always setbacks. Learn from every experience. Every time you are doing something that’s out of your comfort zone, you are leveling up. It’s such a good time to be a female entrepreneur and a technologist. There are so many opportunities out there because of the rapid growth of innovation.
Even though VC funding is still low for companies started by female founders, it is growing every year. There are many supportive organizations such as WXR, Backstage Capital, etc.. focused on supporting female entrepreneurs in the innovation startup space. For me, along the way, many mentors helped me connect to the right resources and set me on the right path to success. Some of these mentors are on our company’s board today.
For a lot of first time founders, the steep learning curve can be a difficult challenge to overcome, how would you advise these first time founders?
Try to learn new skills. If you are on the business side, try to learn about technology. If you are a technologist, then learn about the business. For example, I had to read books about neuroscience, entrepreneurship, startups, etc.. There are a lot of resources out there to help you. You just have to reach for it.
In the beginning, you can make a lot of mistakes. These resources are out there to help you avoid some of these mistakes. Once you have this mindset, you will be more motivated to learn. For example, one of the biggest lessons I learned early was to give my MVP to our customers and have them try it out. This led to almost a year of refining our product before we put it on the market. By the time we rolled out our product, we knew the value we were creating for our customers.