Medical virtual reality company lands in Akron

Downtown Akron might soon be a virtual hot spot for advanced medical training.

It’s already a real hot spot: Akron Children’s Hospital conducts thousands of simulations and other training sessions, for its own staff and others, at its Austen Simulation Center for Safety and Reliability at the Austen BioInnovation Institute.

While mannequins, cadavers and a warren of simulated emergency rooms, surgical suites and equipment can provide some of the most realistic training available in the region, they aren’t perfect.

Some things are better done with virtual reality, or VR, and Los Angeles-based BioFlightVR hopes to use Akron’s medical expertise to develop virtual and augmented reality medical training tools.

BioFlightVR co-founder and chief operating officer Rik Shorten moved to the Rubber City this year from California for family reasons and is working to expand BioFlightVR into Akron. It won’t be huge in terms of personnel — probably about six or seven engineers, by the time he’s done staffing up, according to Shorten. But it would be a feather in the cap of Akron, which is trying to grow its reputation for innovation and high-tech industries.

BioFlightVR just might punch above its weight, too, said Bill Manby, managing director of Akron’s Acquire Investments who’s investing in BioFlightVR. Manby is well-known to many Akron startups and has been instrumental in getting funding for companies like WasteBits and Segmint. He thinks BioFlightVR represents an opportunity for him to invest in a local company on the cutting edge of new technology.

Manby said the company is beyond its early stages and has garnered support from Facebook, Samsung, Oculus, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and others.

“They’re already cash-flow positive, so they don’t need a lot in terms of capital,” he said.

Shorten described BioFlightVR as a software company that works with mostly off-the-shelf hardware to provide interactive solutions to medical training and practice.

“It’s gaming, but it’s serious gaming,” Shorten said, explaining that the technology has much in common with video games that use VR and augmented reality headsets.

Except instead of a doctor seeing other players or animated characters in a game, he or she sees and hears a patient with a very realistic medical situation. They also see other doctors and nurses — even the patient’s loved ones — all making the situation as realistic as possible.

For example: “You have a 1-year-old male who was having a prolonged seizure at home, his parents just brought him into the emergency room — now go!” Shorten said, mimicking the urgency that would be conveyed with even more force in an immersive experience like VR.

Or trainees could use VR to learn and practice complex surgical techniques so that when they work on a real patient, it’s not their second or third time with a procedure, but their 300th.

If Shorten sounds like he’s got some showman in him, he does. And if you’ve never heard of him, there’s still a good chance you’ve seen his work. Before helping to found BioFlightVR in 2014, he produced computer-generated special effects, often with a medical theme, for the TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

Shorten said he’s found a gold mine of resources at the Austen Simulation Center. Between the surgical suites that can simulate all sorts of procedures, to the emergency and hospital rooms designed to simulate patient-care scenarios, the center is one of the best he’s seen, he said. And it’s invaluable for someone trying to turn real-world medical situations into virtual scenarios.

“The majority of hospitals don’t have these sorts of facilities available — no way,” Shorten said.

That brings a grin to the face of Michael Deckard, Akron Children’s business development manager and the man primarily responsible for seeing that the center is fully used.

“There aren’t many other facilities like this within a three- or four-drive,” said Deckard, who’s thrilled to see BioFlightVR working at the center and hopes it will be a major player there.

Shorten said he’s working on creating VR modules to recreate emergency room scenarios and likes that there’s a training ER on site at Austen, complete with ambulance doors and everything else a patient and doctor would encounter.

Shorten said the facility should make it easier to make his product and test it.

“We could create (a center),” he said. “But if you’re talking about developing something we can validate, we need expertise. We’re not doctors. We’re programmers and artists and engineers, so we have to work in lockstep with a facility like this to develop a product that’s going to do what it’s supposed to do and be validated.”

The next steps are to test BioFlightVR products with Duke University and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Shorten said.He’ll continue to work on modules to simulate ER scenarios while building his company’s Akron staff and offices at Austen along the way.

He thinks he eventually can use the center to branch out into augmented reality, where headsets work in conjunction with mannequins to provide even more realistic training.

And, of course, there’s no reason that the products can’t go online, where they would function even more like a game, albeit one with an important purpose. Many scenarios require multiple participants to simulate a hospital environment, he said.

“VR training eliminates the need to get all members of the team together at once. That’s a tremendous thing in medicine,” Shorten said. “Our idea is multiplayer … but they don’t have to all be in the same place. They could even be around the globe.”

With an engineer in Akron putting it all together.

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