Start-up in de kijker: withVR
WITHVR - A SAFE SPACE TO SPEAK
Read here the interview with Gareth Walkom, founder of withVR
When did you start with withVR?
withVR was born on International Stuttering Awareness Day (22nd October) in 2020, and has been listening, learning, and developing ever since. I have had a stutter ever since I was about six years old, and International Stuttering Awareness Day has always been close to my heart. Therefore, as withVR is linked with stuttering and the paperwork was being processed around this day, it seemed fitting to make it official on International Stuttering Awareness Day.
"I HAVE HAD A STUTTER EVER SINCE I WAS ABOUT SIX YEARS OLD."
What motivated you to start your own business?
The more people I met in the speech disorder community, the more I realized how much virtual reality (VR) is needed. The realism kicks in when you hear others talk about self-harm and suicide. At this point, I knew that I needed to take action, so I turned my full focus to creating withVR. I never imagined starting my own business, but I knew that I had the expertise to create something that could benefit so many. I knew that I couldn’t just park this research on a shelf, it needed to be used.
What is the elevator pitch of your start-up?
For most of my life, I’ve found it difficult to use my voice, come out of my comfort zone, and say exactly what I want to say. And I’m not alone. There are over 234 million people just like me. Through my research, we’ve discovered that virtual reality presents a safe space to speak. And that’s exactly what we’re doing at withVR. At withVR, we better prepare people with speech disorders for real-life speaking situations by utilizing the power of virtual reality, where we strive to ensure that anyone can use their voice whenever they like, no matter their difference.
"FOR MOST OF MY LIFE, I’VE FOUND IT DIFFICULT TO USE MY VOICE. AND I’M NOT ALONE. THERE ARE OVER 234 MILLION PEOPLE JUST LIKE ME WITH A SPEECH DISORDER. I HAVE DISCOVERED THAT VIRTUAL REALITY PRESENTS A SAFE SPACE TO SPEAK."
How did the idea for your solution grow?
In 2015, I was studying a bachelor’s degree at Nottingham Trent University in the UK in Digital Media Technology, with a focus on games for teaching, learning, and training purposes, virtual reality, mobile apps, and websites. There, I wanted to use my expertise to benefit people like me. So, I created virtual reality exposure therapy, which showed great results. I then took the research to a master’s degree in Medical Product Design, where I used an eye-tracking VR headset to objectively quantify what people who stutter do with their eye-gaze behaviors in virtual reality. This showed that people who stutter could improve their eye-gaze behaviors, become less anxious, and that it could be a great tool for speech therapists and researchers. My master’s research was in media such as the BBC News and Independent.
" I HAVE USED AN EYE-TRACKING VR HEADSET TO OBJECTIVELY QUANTIFY WHAT PEOPLE WHO STUTTER DO WITH THEIR EYE-GAZE BEHAVIORS IN VIRTUAL REALITY. THIS SHOWED THAT PEOPLE WHO STUTTER COULD IMPROVE THEIR EYE-GAZE BEHAVIORS."
What are your biggest challenges as an entrepreneur when starting your business?
My biggest challenge of being an entrepreneur was not being an entrepreneur. I had no idea how to run a company, how to create a business model, and so many more things. I knew this was going to be difficult to learn, so I sought support from accelerators nationally and internationally. Through these, I have gained incredible knowledge that has helped shape me and withVR for what it is today.
"MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR WAS NOT BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR. I STILL HAD TO LEARN EVERYTHING ABOUT ENTREPRENEURSHIP."
What stage is your start-up at now and what is on the agenda in the near future and in the long term?
Now, we’re collaborating with leading experts from 70+ clinics, labs, and hospitals from 20+ different countries worldwide. We’ve gotten to the finals of several pitching competitions, and we're now testing one of our solutions! I try to do everything for a reason, and I believe that doing so, it creates a better image for withVR that others can appreciate. We aim to spend a couple of months testing, then launch towards the end of the year. We’ve also been busy planning a clinical trial that will start next year.
What advice would you like to give to entrepreneurs-to-be?
Find something that gives you passion and empathy, find a problem in that thing, and discover a solution that provides something special for many. For me, stuttering has shaped how I think about withVR. Using this knowledge I can better understand who I’m building for, and create a better trust.
" SINCE I STUTTER MYSELF, I CAN BETTER UNDERSTAND WHO I'M BUILDING FOR AND CREATE A BETTER TRUST."
How does BHIC provide you with concrete added value in realizing your ambitions?
We’re a member of the BHIC Health RampUp Cohort IX. It’s been an incredible experience so far, and we’re learning something new every day. BHIC provides us knowledge in areas we didn’t think about, and if we have already thought about them, BHIC guides us in better understanding that area. And it doesn’t stop there.
WithVr is one of the nine start-ups of cohort IX of Health RampUp - our coaching track.
Gareth is in the front row, second from the left.