It’s a long and winding path from conceiving a solution to a problem and turning that idea into a marketable product, but it is plenty doable with the right amounts of determination, expertise and support. Entrepreneurs and innovators who are uncertain how to navigate the process might consider taking cues from Carrie Shaw, CEO and Founder of Embodied Labs.
Embodied Labs has developed an immersive learning system that uses virtual reality (VR) to simulate challenges and scenarios faced by older adults and their caregivers. The company creates research-based VR experiences that give caregivers and others a first-person glimpse at specific conditions, and helps caregivers navigate interactions with those who have the conditions. Embodied Labs offers a growing catalogue of experiences, or labs, that address such conditions as Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration. The goal is to offer caregivers a holistic perspective on how certain conditions affect brain activity.
And, as is sometimes the case, the platform’s origins are rooted in the founder’s personal life experience. When Shaw was 19, her mother – only in her 40s – was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. “My relationship to my mom’s illness was to avoid it because I didn’t really know how to be helpful,” she said. But, as time progressed, Shaw became her mother’s caregiver. She also earned a degree in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and joined the Peace Corps, serving as a health education volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Around the same time, she learned about medical illustration as a potential career option and decided to pursue a master’s degree in Biomedical Visualization from the University of Illinois at Chicago. While Shaw doesn’t consider herself “a techie,” she met a fellow student, Thomas Leahy, who was focused on human-computer interaction, specifically through VR.
Shaw’s personal life and educational path were converging. She and her sister, Erin Washington, along with Leahy, founded Embodied Labs in 2016, the same year she graduated from UIC. The next step for the newly minted business owners was to secure funding – and, like most start-ups, Shaw said they took “...a lot of interesting, crafty paths to stay afloat.” The group leveraged personal networks and found willing investors in friends, advisors and others. They also found success with pitch competitions such as Creative Startups Winston-Salem and USC’s VR Hackathon Challenge, and they received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The group funneled all of the money into product development and took the platform to market in early 2018, with a narrow focus on home care and senior housing. Sales were solid, which helped the company close additional pre-seed investment funding. The group also kept traveling to events to speak, network and pitch their platform to industry experts who provided valuable feedback and a pipeline to additional capital.
One such event was The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s XR in Education Prize Challenge, which netted the company the $250,000 grand prize. Another was the AARP Innovation Labs Pitch Competition, held during last year’s Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, which is hosted annually by Mary Furlong & Associates. The group won the competition, and Mary Furlong also connected them with venture capital and investment firms that have since backed the company.
Embodied Labs has raised more than $1 million in seed funding to date and now has more than 100 subscribers and counting. The company has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), among other well-known national media outlets.
Shaw advises entrepreneurs starting where she did a few years ago to remember that the product itself is only part of the equation. Other crucial success factors are having the right business model and infrastructure, and connecting with the right people.
“Create an ecosystem that supports the topics your business is involved in,” she said. “Really, the world is small once you start building a web of people that can contribute to your business.”