Incorporating the values of technology for social good, inclusiveness and accessibility, three UC Santa Cruz alumni founded Immergo Labs to develop the world’s first virtual and interactive telehealth platform for physical therapy.
Co-founders and alumni of UCSC’s Baskin School of Engineering, Aviv Elor, Michael Powell and Ash Robbins, sought to combine their expertise in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and bioinformatics to make a difference in the field of telehealth and virtual physiotherapy.
“The questions we asked ourselves when we started developing this platform were: how can we use emerging technologies and virtual reality to help people in physical rehabilitation and how can we make it more accessible, affordable and accurate ?” said Elor, who earned a bachelor’s degree in robotics engineering and a doctorate. degree in computer media from Baskin Engineering.
Immergo uses artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR) to integrate telehealth capabilities and improve the accessibility, experience and accuracy of remote physiotherapy care. With just a VR headset, the platform connects patients and therapists in the same room, as if they were interacting live in person. Therapists can track visual movements and range of motion and provide real-time feedback on exercises. The platform also provides a technical solution to accurately assess and guide patient recovery by recording key metrics and progress, setting a benchmark for remote physiotherapy care.
Bridging the gap between academia and industry
Elor, Powell and Robbins met while working on research projects at Baskin Engineering. Robbins’ research focused on artificial intelligence and machine learning, Elor’s on virtual reality and user experience, and Powell’s on biomechanics. What brought them all together was a research project to help rehabilitate stroke patients with a virtual reality game.
Around the time they developed the game, Elor suffered a ruptured right triceps during a national judo match while competing on the UCSC judo team. Through the combination of Elor’s personal experience in physiotherapy and the knowledge and expertise they acquired while developing their virtual reality game, they decided to pursue a new concept with the aim of reinventing and transforming telehealth with virtual reality-based physiotherapy.
While working toward their graduate degrees, the team enrolled in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, an immersive entrepreneurial training program that facilitates transition from academic research to industry to foster positive social relations. change. Through I-Corps, Elor, Robbins and Powell gained the knowledge needed to translate their concept of highly focused academic research into the real world.
Every I-Corps offering requires the cohort of engineers and scientists to talk to their potential customers. Alumni spoke with over 130 physical therapists to understand their pain points and gather ideas for an ideal platform. As the interviews progressed, they quickly realized there was a lot of room for telehealth platforms, especially as the pandemic has prioritized remote care.
“We originally thought we would develop an exercise virtual reality game that would allow for better adherence to physiotherapy exercises etc., but we quickly learned from these interviews that physiotherapists were looking for help in developing a platform. form of robust telehealth physical therapy,” said Powell, a Baskin Engineering graduate with a Ph.D. in computer engineering. “So we were able to identify where we needed to pivot to have the most impact in this space, and that’s ultimately when Immergo Labs’ core mission really started to come to fruition.”
After I-Corps, Elor, Powell, and Robbins took their idea from Immergo and began applying to other accelerator programs guided by recommendations from Baskin Engineering faculty and Center for Innovation and Development staff. business engagement from UC Santa Cruz, and news alerts from Baskin Engineering.
“Baskin was our gateway to becoming aware of the different opportunities and to entering this entrepreneurial field,” explained Elor.
Through their UCSC network, the team eventually joined the CITRIS Foundry and Santa Cruz Works accelerator programs, establishing a base of local community support and positioning them to seek additional opportunities to further develop their virtual reality telehealth platform.
The Immergo platform was further inspired by the team’s more than 15 peer-reviewed scientific publications, produced during their graduate studies, which use a provisional patent with UCSC. The patent assesses range of motion via virtual reality devices and was co-invented with Baskin’s engineering faculty and Immergo technical advisors Sri Kurniawan and Mircea Teodorescu.
Where they are now and where they’re going
Earlier this year, the team presented their prototype at the Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA CSM), the nation’s largest physical therapy conference. Showing their prototype at an event with thousands of therapists was an exciting step in their product development cycle.
“There was a really impactful interaction that I had at APTA CSM,” explained Robbins, a graduate of Baskin Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in robotics engineering and working on his doctorate. in computer science and engineering. “The man I spoke to said, ‘Everyone here who does VR is creating a specific game that’s not accessible or profitable, and usually focuses on something specific. What you do is basically create a platform that can be the foundation for a whole other wave of physical rehab. He got more and more excited the more he learned about the platform and got a chance to explore it himself. It was so nice to know that we are going in the right direction with our product.
Since the creation of Immergo in 2020, the team’s approach has always been human and collaborative. Their advisors include a team of physical therapists who often jump into the platform to try out new features and provide feedback.
“We really try to help the therapists. We’re not trying to automate the physical therapy rehabilitation process or replace therapists,” Powell said. “There is a lot of value in telehealth and increasing remote care. The human element is and will remain very important.
Immergo entered into several partnerships this year. They partnered with the University of Montana’s Biomechanics Laboratory to help them develop innovative balance assessment testing technology that allows therapists to assess patients’ balance while reducing the risk of falls. when interacting within the platform. They have also collaborated with online metaverse 3D avatar creation company Ready Player Me so that users can choose from a variety of avatar options. Additionally, Immergo received a Letter of Intent from Houston Veterans Affairs and the Stanford Health Care Outpatient Physical Therapy Department to assist with user testing and added two local student interns to their team this summer to assist with product development and research on user experience.
The team recently received an NSF Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The $256,000 funding will allow Immergo Labs to further develop and test its prototype. Next, the team will apply for the NSF SBIR Phase 2 grant to refine the product, validate the research, and then deploy. The Phase 2 grant provides up to $1 million in funding, intended to complement the venture capital investment.
Immergo Labs will launch its beta platform in January 2023 to the 70 users currently on their waiting list. They hope to officially launch their product publicly by the end of 2023. And, starting September 22, 2022, the team officially launched a startengine fundraising campaign for their mission to provide accessible and accurate telehealth through the metaverse. . To learn more about this campaign, visit immergolabs.com/campaign.
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