Developing innovation takes vision, technical know-how, in-depth knowledge of content, combined with effective financing and supportive networks. And Sentireal’s story of developing VR experiences for the healthcare sector effectively demonstrates how getting this right can be game changing.
“Virtual reality is such a powerful media – and we’re only just scratching the surface”
David Trainor, Founder and CEO, Sentireal
Established in 2013, Belfast-based Sentireal develops immersive training experiences, combining it with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). The training content that it develops is based on the learner’s current activities and real-world situations, which allows for personalised delivery of content.
“Sentireal creates highly personalised experiences, based on an individual’s specific training needs” explains founder and CEO, David Trainor. “We do this by drawing on a library of assets, allowing us to compose scenarios that are unique to address the training needs of each person.”
Working largely in the medical and healthcare, David notes that Sentireal’s software innovation, ‘immersonal’ is perfectly matched to address the needs of the sector in several ways. This includes its application for training healthcare professionals, such as surgeons, nurses and therapists, as well as developing self-guides to help individuals self-manage a range of physical and mental health conditions, as well as conditions such as autism.
The benefits of accessing public funding
Accessing public funding can be crucial for SMEs, providing financial support to develop technological innovation that have the power to transform lives, as well as bringing economic and commercial benefits. Moreover, winning competitions from public sources, such as Innovate UK and the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), can also give SMEs the chance to broaden networks and benefit from developing working relationships with other organisations. And this was just the case when Sentireal successfully won an SBRI Healthcare competition.
“In 2018, we secured an SBRI Healthcare contract with the NHS, to develop innovations to support good mental health” explains David. “Our proposal was to develop a programme with the capability to automatically create and deliver personalised VR content to address mental health issues that lead to depression, self-harm and suicide. Moreover, participants will be monitored throughout the experience – and their actions and attitudes are also automatically analysed, with the potential to be referred back to clinicians for diagnostic and treatment adjustment.”
In early 2019, the project had completed its phase one feasibility stage. “Developing the platform is a multi-stage process, and during this stage we’ve gone further than usual for a feasibility stage, as we’ve been gaining insight and feedback into the software from some users” says David.
Accessing public funding provided more than just financial support; it also strengthened working relationships between Sentireal and the NHS. For many working in the fast-moving world of technology-based innovation, the speed of innovation can potentially be at odds with working with a large, process-driven organisation such as the NHS. But for Sentireal, this wasn’t the case.
“By applying to SBRI Healthcare, which is an NHS England initiative, led by the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) we were responding to a specific challenge identified and set by the NHS. This had a significant benefit as it meant that the drive to embrace technology was coming directly from the NHS, so it really helped to keep momentum going throughout the project” explains David. “Moreover, it also allowed us to work closely with clinicians, to ensure the content is medically accurate for the purpose of each individual’s VR experience.”
Building collaborations across the UK
For SMEs working in the immersive tech space, making connections, getting inspired by others and potentially collaborating with people with broad range of expertise can be crucial to develop innovative projects and grow.
David notes that working on the SBRI-funded project has also given Sentireal the chance to widen its networks beyond its Belfast base. “The immersive tech sector is quite fragmented geographically,” notes David. “It’s great being based in Belfast, as Northern Ireland has a diverse group of companies working in immersive tech and we’ve worked at a local level on health projects as one of the region’s leading enterprise training businesses. The SBRI Healthcare funding has helped to broaden our horizons and networks; as it is NHS England sponsored, it has meant that we have been able to link into, and draw on, expertise from across the UK.”
Additionally, David believes that Immerse UK has also played a key role in Sentireal making new connections.
“Immerse UK events have been fantastic for our business, as they help us to build our networks in the immersive tech sector;” he comments. “We’ve attended a few of the speed networking sessions, where we had the chance to have one-to-ones with bigger businesses to pitch our ideas. What we found was that it didn’t just introduce us to the bigger businesses we were there to officially meet, but also to other companies who were there to pitch too. The events were, in effect, great at facilitating us to make new connections, increase our networks and increase business opportunities. And not only that, but they are exceptionally well organised!”