A prestigious award for best MedTech innovation, CE certification, an investment by Carduso Capital and Triade and ambitious plans for the future. After years of hard work, pilot studies and scientific validation, things are taking off for Groningen based company VRelax. Co-founders Stefan Vogelzang and Fabian Debats discuss entrepreneurship in the medical field, long term commitment, the impact of their work and creating their dream job.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Many people suffer from chronic stress, burn-out, anxiety, pain and depression, which not only results in personal suffering, but also high medical costs. VRelax was specifically designed as a tool to help people manage stress levels, learn to relax, but also as a distraction tool for pain management, physical discomfort and medical procedures.
Beyond the gimmick
The headset, along with an app and a GRIP tablet view app for practitioners, was developed together with medical professionals and patients. But the technical and creative side of things came from VIEMR, founded by Stefan Vogelzang and Fabian Debats, who’ve been developing AR and VR experiences since 2014, for big brands like Audi and Red Bull.
“We were contacted by Professor Wim Veling, who needed help developing a VR app”, Stefan says. “He’s a psychiatrist at the University Medical Center Groningen and one of the leading researchers in the field of VR and therapy in mental healthcare. For us, it was really cool to be able to use our own expertise in the service of medical research and what started as a side project, grew into a full fledged company.”
“With all of our projects, we’ve always tried to take things beyond the gimmick effect of VR”, Fabian adds. “For us, it's an empathy tool and the real power of VR is that it allows people to be in places they normally can’t be and really experience something new and different. And working together with Wim, seeing how something we made had such a positive and almost immediate effect on patients, made us decide that this was what we really wanted to focus on. Some of the patient feedback really brought tears to my eyes.”
Taking risks and scientific validation
For any company, let alone one working in the creative industry, it can take years to be successful in the medical sector. “It’s definitely a long term commitment”, Stefan says. “And of course, we couldn’t have done it without our partners. Their expertise, advice and professional network were really instrumental. As entrepreneurs, we’ve learned so much these past five years. You’re no longer a creative company selling VR experiences, you’re a medtech company selling a treatment or therapy. And you need to convince hospitals, insurance companies and investors that your product is more effective and cheaper than standard treatments or therapies.”
“And that’s exactly why scientific validation is so important”, Fabian adds. “We wanted to prove it was effective, but that takes time and a lot of different steps to figure out what does and doesn’t work. What sort of VR experience helps with a certain stress level, for example? If you’re really stressed, swimming with dolphins can already feel like too much, so you may benefit more from sitting on a beach in Greece, with less interaction and sensory input.”
“It started with a small research budget,” Fabian continues. “That became a larger research grant, with several pilot studies at hospitals and care centers throughout the country and also King’s College in London. Before Carduso Capital and Triade agreed to invest in us last year, we financed a lot ourselves, with our profits from VIEMR. So we took a risk, but we’ve always felt it was absolutely worth it.”
Reducing stress for ICU personnel
During the Covid-19 pandemic, VRelax was also used to help take off some of the pressure for the Intensive Care Unit staff at the UMCG and St. Jansdal hospital. “As you can imagine, with ICU’s filled to the brim, the pressure and stress is extremely high”, Fabian says. “And taking some time off work or going home early wasn’t exactly an option for the medical staff. We got really positive feedback from the staff and it’s so great to be able to help take the pressure off, even for a little while, for people working on the frontline of the pandemic.”
VRelax isn’t just used for stress or anxiety relief though. According to Stefan, the tool has many potential applications: “We’ve also done multiple pilots using VR as a tool for pain relief and pain distraction. For cancer patients for example, suffering from chronic pain. Or helping to distract patients undergoing medical procedures. And we also did a pilot study at a drug rehabilitation center. Currently, more than 80 hospitals and mental health institutions are working with VRelax.”
Prix Galien and creating your own dream job
In May this year, VRelax won the prestigious Prix Galien for best MedTech Innovation. The jury praised the ease of use, ongoing clinical research, diversity of application and the fact that it’s been developed together with patients and caregivers. “To us, it really felt like a crowning achievement, because you’re up against big medtech companies working with world renowned universities like MIT”, Stefan says. “The combination of IT and clinical research is what makes us unique, so it’s great to get that kind of confirmation from the jury too. It’s a sign that we’re on the right track and that the medical world takes VR therapy seriously.”
“One of the great things about our work is that we get all the creative freedom we want in creating these experiences”, Fabian says. “We get to go to some of the most beautiful places on earth, swim with dolphins, go on an arctic trek with huskies or walk with elephants. And the best part of that is the impact we have by doing this. I think we quite literally created our own dream job with this.”
Rolling out the masterplan
Armed with an award, an investment, CE certification and a multitude of successful national and international pilot studies, VRelax wants to take things to the next level. “Yeah, I think we now have enough momentum to roll out our masterplan!” Fabian laughs. “But we have some really cool things in store, like adding more interaction to the experiences. For example, when you’re riding a dog sled in the Arctic, you see the condensation of your own breath, which is something we can use for breathing exercises.”
“And another thing coming up this year that we’re really proud of, is the addition of a dashboard”, Stefan adds. “With that, we can measure things like biofeedback, such as your heart rate and provide insight into all kinds of usage data. This will give patients, medical specialists, therapists or caregivers exact data about the recovery process for example and will help us create even better experiences.”