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Combining Virtual Reality and Physical Therapy: Immergo Labs Born from UCSC Roots

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Q&A with Michael Powell of telemedicine startup Immergo

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to our daily lives. But for his Aviv Elor, Ash Robbins, and Michael Powell, UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering graduates, the opportunity presented telemedicine with physical therapy.

Their company, Immergo Labs, is a virtual reality telemedicine platform that allows physical therapy patients to continue treatment from anywhere with an internet connection. Scheduled to be piloted in January, the technology will allow patients who have achieved a level of recovery directly from the comfort of their living room to dial in to a session with a physical therapist. says the creator.

It’s a novel idea at the nexus of two emerging industries, telemedicine due to the pandemic-related boom. Could soon be worth over $250 billion only in the US. and virtual reality, the tech industry proverb “What’s next?” We plan to release it and are currently conducting small trials with selected groups of physical therapists across the United States. We have raised approximately $411,000 through a combination of grants and ongoing projects. Crowdfunding campaign funded by StartEngine.

Their concept first came to mind when Powell and his two business partners were researching a “medical desert” at UCSC. Finding medical professionals in non-urban areas can be difficult, especially physical therapists.

“There are a lot of areas in this country where it’s really hard to get to physical therapy clinics,” Powell said. “Mostly because of distance, but also because of obstacles, right?”

Immergo VR allows physiotherapists to dial into a live exercise session with a patient, using sensors and gyroscope remotes to enable both patient and therapist to see how each other moves in a 3D environment. You can see almost exactly what is there. The platform records data points such as the range of motion of the patient’s limbs. This helps track patient recovery over time.

Immergo VR team.

Immergo VR team.

(via Immergo VR)

Elor, Robbins, and Powell met while working in engineering. Labs at UCSC. Elor specializes in virtual reality and user experience, Robbins in artificial intelligence and biology-inspired robots, and Powell in biomechanics.

And given the problems their company is trying to solve, it’s no coincidence that all three are athletes and all have had some form of physical therapy at some point in their lives. gym trainer.

The team is currently deploying an early version of Immergo with eight physiotherapists across the country and will soon begin a user study of 100 physiotherapists at the Houston Department of Veterans Affairs. The team aims to release the platform to a large waiting list by January, followed by a full release by the end of 2023.

Sean Wells, one of the physical therapists participating in a small user trial of Immergo, said the platform has already helped him track his patients’ progress.

“To my patients, all I can do is say, ‘Hey, go exercise in VR. “[Immergo] It gives us all sorts of information: is he getting stronger? is his torque and range of motion improving? ”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: What problem are you trying to solve?

Michael Powell: We are a virtual reality telemedicine platform for physical therapists and the important part is actually telemedicine. A big problem in physical therapy clinics is no-shows. I’ve heard that 20-30% of patients per day don’t show up, which is a loss of revenue for the clinic. Just by using telemedicine, they increase their revenue as people come to telemedicine appointments. they are much more convenient.

Also, many patients struggle to get to the clinic two or three times a week. There are many reasons: work, family, immobility, distance. However, having a telemedicine component that complements some care increases accessibility.

It’s meant to complement rather than replace physical therapists and in-person care.

Lookout: Is that 20-30% number new? — like it’s pandemic related? Or is it a consistent pattern?

Powell: The way we heard about this phenomenon is that we received an NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. Through this process, I had to go through I-Corps and Beat-the-Odds bootcamps. This is a customer discovery bootcamp. That meant over 100 interviews for one program and over 70 interviews for another. And basically, we spent time interviewing everyone we could think of in this field, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, health workers, policy makers, and we found out that the big problem with shark bites is We really got what it was. We weren’t trying to sell virtual reality. We weren’t trying to sell telemedicine. It’s like, “What’s wrong? What do you guys need?”

And it always came back to telemedicine. That’s when we started learning about no-shows, and those were the numbers we heard the most: 20-30%, and as high as 50% at larger clinics.

The first interview we did was in the summer of 2020 — right when everything was shut down — clearly telemedicine was a big concern. When I did the Beat-the-Odds bootcamp, it was like eight or nine months ago, when it all came back. So I captured the landscape — the big change, the ‘back to normal’.

But what the pandemic has done for telemedicine is accelerating everything by five to ten years. That’s what we’ve been hearing all along from physiotherapists.Before COVID, nobody, physiotherapists or patients, wanted telemedicine. PT really wants it now that he realizes there is still not enough.

Lookout: How comfortable is Immergo?what are you doing conduct Initialization?

Powell: So, at home, the patient puts on the virtual reality headset and the therapist puts on the virtual reality headset, and the patient and therapist meet in the same 3D virtual room. They can walk around each other and see indicators of range of motion, joint torque and balance assessment.

The idea is to move around each other, watch the movements of the whole body, [your PT] You can modify your exercises. I will guide them.And what these exercises actually look like depends a lot on if you’ve had surgery or if it’s just pain or if it’s an old injury or something. [of PT] Very hands-on in operation, but should become more independent as it goes through stages of recovery.

Lookout: So you guys made a game together?

Powell: Yeah that’s how we started this. We all have had physical therapy ourselves, so we know firsthand that compliance is a big issue. It’s going to work. And as soon as the in-person sessions stop, most people stop exercising. I thought.

So when I created I-Core, I thought the problem I was trying to address was adherence, but it wasn’t. The problem was telemedicine and connectivity. So it was a shift from a gaming experience that provided valuable metrics to a live session that provided those metrics.

Lookout: It looks like parts of the game are coming back in the form of the asynchronous features you’re adding.

Powell: absolutely. The idea is that it’s very cool and you can record yourself in a virtual reality environment where the PT is doing the exercises and record the audio while you’re doing it. “Hey, here’s your exercise program. I want you to repeat this 10 times and that 5 times.” and you can record yourself doing it all and send it back to the patient. Being able to exercise.

And we are making plans for future continual care. Recovery doesn’t mean “8 sessions and finally magically he’s 100% better.” It’s a continuum. Likewise, you should keep exercising.

So if the therapist feels the patient is ready to become independent, but feels the need to continue exercising, have a continuing care subscription that includes these exercise games that keep the data recorded. Still keep in touch with your physical therapist.

Lookout: What do you think of UCSC as a place for startups like Immergo to take off? Great to see you guys there.

Powell: yeah that’s really cool. UCSC has had a few spin-outs, but it’s still relatively new compared to Stanford and Berkeley, which have started a lot of companies and have a lot of experience. I think UCSC is still trying to find ways to encourage students to have the same environment. That means doing research and taking it out of the lab and into the real world to make an impact. I really appreciate UCSC’s support in that regard. I also have a lot of friends in the lab who are working on really cool things.