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'The start of something special' - Floreo CEO Vijay Ravindran on the potential of VR in Healthcare

Vijay appeared on the Venari Podcast’s HealthTech CEO series

‘I’ve had what I think is a fairly unique path,’ says Vijay Ravindran. It’s hard to disagree. After a varied career that has taken in transformative roles at household names in e-commerce, politics, and media, he is now CEO of the VR therapy company Floreo – which he also founded, despite having a background in software engineering, rather than healthcare. The circumstances behind Vijay launching this business were deeply personal, and while his venturing into the healthtech space may have been ‘somewhere between’ a dream and an accident, it’s certainly a fascinating story.


Cristian Owen, our Digital Health Consultant, caught up with Vijay as part of the Venari Podcast’s HealthTech CEO series, where they discussed Vijay’s professional background, the possibilities for effective digital therapy that virtual reality offers, and his advice for budding entrepreneurs.

 


 
Varied career moves

In 1998, when Vijay was 24, he stumbled into working at a small online bookseller you may have heard of: Amazon. The company had just expanded into music, and Vijay worked his way up at a time when Amazon was based in a single building, hard as that may be to imagine now. ‘Everyone knew Jeff [Bezos], and Jeff knew most of the corporate staff’, he recalls. ‘My role in overseeing consumer ordering and consumer purchasing technologies put me in contact with Jeff along with many other senior executives.’ Vijay left in 2005 when he got involved in Democratic politics in the U.S., creating a data mining company that worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. This eventually led Vijay to a job with The Washington Post, where he ‘worked on a lot of innovation around news’.


Venturing into the healthcare space

Vijay was looking for ways to use his skills for the benefit of the neurodiverse community after he left the Post and had been inspired on seeing his son react positively to his first experience with VR. ‘It really seemed to help him. And that then led to this idea that virtual reality could be a next-generation medium for therapy.’


Floreo is breaking new ground in commercialising digital therapy, having been the first VR company to get U.S. reimbursement codes. Vijay attributes this to ‘the idea of starting from a personal space, which ‘helped focus on building a solution for this community’. His knowledge of the market as parent, all too aware how difficult it is for children to get access to services after being diagnosed with autism, has been central to his vision for the company. Furthermore, as a software engineer, Vijay also understood ‘the context of virtual reality, what was unique about the technology that could be beneficial to the types of skills that the children are challenged with.’


Potential benefits of VR therapy

While startup founders often receive suggestions from investors or customers ‘to pivot one direction or another’, Floreo has always been focused on harnessing VR’s potential for the benefit of neurodiverse people. Vijay believes that we will continue to see changes ‘in how healthcare services are delivered as we go from in-person interactions with healthcare providers and professionals to leveraging technologies like video conferencing. There’s a gap to be filled.’


For Vijay, VR can help to bridge the gap between in-person meetings and video calls, especially for what concerns mental and behavioural health. He’s already seen this in the U.S., as real-time patient monitoring and remote care opportunities continue to increase. AI and generative content are also important areas for him, ‘because AI can enable more rapid creation of new virtual reality experiences through creating 3D content’ – for example, by creating characters to interact with a therapy patient, or interpreting data to create efficient treatment plans. The advent of VR in healthcare marks ‘the start of something special’, Vijay notes, with wide possibilities in the field – it will certainly be intriguing to watch how this develops!


Planning for the future

Over the next few years, Vijay plans to focus on ensuring that healthcare providers and special education programmes in schools can adopt Floreo as easily as possible. Reimbursement codes and insurance will be central to these efforts in order for providers to buy into the company’s value proposition. As such, regulatory approvals and demonstrating Floreo’s benefits in research settings are key areas of interest for Vijay at present. ’We believe in the long-term that over telehealth using virtual reality, children can receive a superior service to in-person therapy,’ he says. ‘It’ll take time, but there’s already really exciting data showing that this is going to be possible.’ VR also provides excellent opportunities for scaling, allowing healthcare providers to deploy their personnel flexibly and offering wider, more affordable access to people who might otherwise have trouble finding the therapy they need.


Words of wisdom for tomorrow’s founders

Finally, what advice does Vijay have for future entrepreneurs? He forecasts ‘having a 7 to 10-year horizon’ for launching a startup, on top of already punishing hours in the working week. ‘You’re really committing to this because you want it to be successful. It’s a lot of focus and dedication to get there.’ Separately, Vijay reiterates his point about knowing your company’s primary area of interest (or ‘true north’, as he puts it), and not straying from the path you need to follow to ensure success. ‘As I said earlier, entrepreneurs are often faced with people trying to be helpful and suggesting ways to change your business in ways that they think makes it more investable for them, or fits the particular customers’ needs,’ he says. ‘And I think that for them it’s really important, and it’s been important for me to really be focused on our mission.’


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